Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock” Comes Into Its Own with Opera Saratoga

CradleRock_OperaSaratoga_GaryDavidGold7:30 pm • Thursday, July 13th 2017
2:00 pm • Sunday, July 16th 2017
Spa Little Theatre, SPAC • Saratoga Springs, NY

Native Philadelphian Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964) “was an influential American composer, lyricist, and translator who brought vernacular to musical theater. Works include the ground-breaking The Cradle Will Rock and an adaptation of The Threepenny Opera. He studied at Curtis Institute of Music and mentored Leonard Bernstein.” So reads the new historical marker installed just recently in June at the site of Marc Blitzstein’s birthplace at 419 Pine Street.

Blitzstein began composing lieder and short piano pieces in his teens. Following his studies at Curtis, he ventured (1927) to Europe and studied briefly with Nadia Boulanger and Arnold Schoenberg. In the 1920s and 30s, he was involved with the Composers Collective of New York and the New York Composers Forum-Laboratory along with Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Hanns Eisler, and Charles Seeger. He later became close friends with Leonard Bernstein, who became one of the most vocal proponents of his work.

During World War II, Blitzstein served in the US 8th Air Force in England where he wrote a work for orchestra and a chorus of enlisted black men entitled Freedom Morning and his best known orchestral work, Airborne Symphony, which Leonard Bernstein conducted the premiere in New York in 1946. Blitzstein had also written some chamber music (including string quartets), for the ballet and film scores. He was a composer of opera including Regina, an adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes and had accepted a commission from the Ford Foundation for an American opera that was intended for the Metropolitan Opera. Blitzstein had chosen the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti as this opera’s subject. As Blitzstein was killed while on vacation in Martinque–after what apparently was a political argument—he left Sacco and Vanzetti unfinished along with two other works based on two short storied by Bernard Malamud whom he had met while serving as playwright-in-residence at Bennington College.

It was, however, through the more theatrical context where Blitzstein found he could most successfully express his passions and provide social and political commentary. Which, brings us to Opera Saratoga’s notable production of The Cradle Will Rock (music and libretto by Marc Bltzstein) that you can, and should, catch this Thursday evening or Sunday afternoon.

The Cradle Will Rock’s incredible premiere on June 16th,1937 is well-documented. Suffice it to say the pro-union political satire portraying the middle-class as a commodity to be bought and sold was shut down by the government as it was a Federal Theatre Project commission and deemed to have an anti-government message. I’ll point you to Joseph Dalton’s review in the Times Union (click here) and The New York Times article (click here) for more details. And, if you go grab your favorite beverage you might be interested in taking a listen to Marc Blitzstein talk about the work and difficulties of getting it launched in the video above. And yes, Cradle’s opening is the stuff that Hollywood pictures are made of….Tim Robbins wrote and directed a movie with a gangbuster cast. Perhaps you’ve seen it. If not here’s the trailer.

OK… hopefully by now you get how sensationalized a story Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock has become. And the fact that the world basically knows this work through a bare-bones, semi-staged (if that) work with piano accompaniment. A piano reduction is not the work that the composer intended to go out into the world. It’s a work that was meant to be presented with full production values… with costumes, make-up, scenery, theatrical lighting, song, choreography, and orchestra. This was the composer’s intention. While a nod should be given to Leonard Bernstein for leading a concert performance with the New York City Symphony in 1947, which led to a brief Broadway run shortly after. Up until now with the Opera Saratoga production, a New York City Opera presentation in 1960 is really the only other time the work has been done with orchestration rather than with piano reduction. Again…not what the composer intended.

When you hear [The Cradle Will Rock] with the full musical score rather than the original simple piano, you have a chance to realize just how important a composer for the theater is Mr. Bltizstein.” –music critic on 1947 Broadway production

The orchestration is quite delicious. The instrumentation lends itself to the not so surprising influential strains of Kurt Weill and even Gershwin in some spots. Blitzstein blends and stirs the sounds of flute, clarinets, saxophone with that of trumpets and trombone as well as piano, accordion, and a variety of strummed instruments such as the guitar, banjo, and Hawaiian guitar. When folded into the vocal lines, the concoction has full, yet delicate flavors that can never be achieved by the piano alone.

With masterful care of conductor John Mauceri and director and choreographer, Lawrence Edelson it can be said that Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock as a full lyric theatre piece has been given its due … unfortunately however, at a time when the work is quite meaningful. While I suspect that versions with the piano reduction will still be done due to the work’s legendary history, it is my hope that Opera Saratoga’s production encourages others to recognize Blitzstein’s intentions are worthy of presentation with full production values. I hope your schedule allows you to go see and hear it for yourself!

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