THE CRADLE WILL ROCK theatre review

North Florida theatre audiences are probably not familiar with the stage musical The Cradle Will Rock which debuted in 1937 and, to our knowledge, has never been done on the local stages. If the title seems familiar, you may have seen the 1999 movie of the same name by Tim Robbins, who used the original musical by Marc Blitzstein as a springboard to give his interpretation of Depression-era issues surrounding this controversial work. Robbins’ movie had an All-Star cast, with Joan and John Cusack, Cherry Jones, Emily Watson, Bill Murray, and Vanessa Redgrave, but included only selected scenes from the musical.
We were delighted to find that Mad Cow Theatre, in Orlando, is mounting a full production, which we saw on June 25th. The staging, by Alan Brunn, the theatre’s Artistic Director, was simple, with 14 chairs in a semi-circle across the back of the stage. A prologue (not a part of the original work) in which each actor participated, provided the audience with historical context. The original production in 1937 was backed by the Federal Government with financing from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), in an effort to put unemployed actors to work. The WPA, pressured to drop the production because of political issues, withdrew funding and had the theatre shut and padlocked; the actors were forbidden to continue. The producers, John Houseman and Director Orson Welles, not to be denied, rented a theatre thirty blocks away, rented a piano for five dollars, and convinced their supporters to come along. They opened the show with only composer Marc Blitzstein on the piano. The actors performed from the audience, thus circumventing the order not to perform on stage. The show eventually had a successful four-month run on Broadway.
The musical is set in Steeltown, USA and concerns the wide rifts between laborers and the wealthy at a time when millions were unemployed. Blitzstein’s intent was political opera for the masses with issues presented in black and white, rather than a nuanced exploration of complex social and economic issues. The story is a series of vignettes showing how the town’s leaders came under the power of a corrupting steel magnate known as Mr. Mister, he is opposed by labor leader Larry Foreman, who is attempting to unionize factory workers. Scenes of strikes, marches and violence show the potential power of organized labor.
No props were used but realistic clothing of the period attired the actors, some of whom played more than one role. The songs and the music, played only on the piano, moved the plot along, although they aren’t songs that you’re likely to find yourself singing. The experience and talented actors in the large cast were selected not only for their singing ability but also for their acting. They did a marvelous job of bringing this work to life, allowing the audience to experience the illusion of being present during the original staging.
After seeing this landmark of theatre history, we are hoping that that some group in Jacksonville will repeat this historical theatre production. We have seen Florida State College and Jacksonville University both do plays of historical significance and this one certainly affords many roles that would present interesting challenges for college and university troupes.
The show closes July 4th at Mad Cow. For reservations and additional information, call 407-297-8788 or visit You can also view their planned 2010-2011 season, which includes plays by, among others, Stephen Sondheim, Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Albee, and Jean Genet.