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Arts: UC Berkeley Stages Blitzstein’s ‘Cradle Will Rock’ By KEN BULLOCKSpecial to the Planet

Friday October 07, 2005

The UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies will present Marc Blitzstein’s celebrated musical about the labor movement, The Cradle Will Rock, originally staged by Orson Welles for the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project in 1937, openi ng tonight (Friday) at 8 p.m. with five more performances through Oct. 16. 

Blitzstein’s 10-scene radical musical became notorious by the manner it first came to the stage. Set in “Steeltown, U.S.A.” during a strike, Cradle was scheduled to open for previ ews, when WPA guards locked the company out of the Maxine Elliot Theatre in New York. Quickly switching the show to the Venice Theatre 21 blocks away, remounting it without sets or costumes and inviting the preview audience to walk to the new location, We lles and Blitzstein overcame a union prohibition of the cast appearing onstage by putting Blitzstein at an upright piano, reciting stage directions while playing the score, as the cast members delivered their lines and sang from the audience, lit by spotl ight. 

The musical was a huge success and had its opening and a brief run at the Venice, followed by a performance in a Bethlehem, Pa., amusement park and tour of the steel districts of Pennsylvania and Ohio. 

Welles and Blitzstein continued to collaborat e on stage and radio, Welles even presenting Count Basie playing Blitzstein numbers at a concert, and The Cradle Will Rock saw further production by Welles’ Mercury Theatre in an oratorio version on Sunday nights when Welles’ successful anti-fascist stagi ng of Julius Caesar (with music by Blitzstein) wasn’t being performed. A recorded version, narrated by Blitzstein, became the first full-length Broadway show on disc. 

The Cradle Will Rock, and association with Blitzstein, is often credited with Welles’ p oliticization, spurring in his staging Caesar (perhaps the first fully modernized and politicized production of Shakespeare). Welles later campaigned for Franklin Roosevelt and considered a run for the Senate against Joseph McCarthy, earning a 1940 memora ndum from J. Edgar Hoover concerning his leftist and anti-racist affiliations. Welles’ Hollywood career was further pushed to the brink of ruin when he accepted a request to make a never-completed omnibus film in Latin America for the Office of Inter-Amer ican Affairs. Blitzstein, who began his career as an apolitical modernist aesthete, later would say: “Music in the theater is a powerful weapon.” 

A few months before his death on Oct. 10, 1984, Welles rewrote a screenplay about the original production of The Cradle Will Rock, and prepared to film it, but financing fell through three weeks before shooting was scheduled to start. Welles’ script was published in 1993. In 1999, Tim Robbins’ film on the play was released, a fictionalized account representing Welles as somewhat supercilious. 

Last year marked Blitzstein’s centennial, which was celebrated by San Francisco’s Other Minds Festival and other events around the country. Blitzstein achieved recognition through Welles’ production of The Cradle Will Rock. The memory of that event, and current revivals—like UC Berkeley’s this week—have sparked an interest in the various works of this activist composer. 



UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies presents The Cradle Will Rock Oct. 7-16 at the Zellerbach Playhouse. $14; $10 for UC faculty and staff; $8 for students and senior.. Director Lura Dolas will join a panel discussion following the show Saturday, Oct. 8. For more information, call 642-9925 or see http://theater.berkeley.edu. 


A related panel discussion, “Cradling the New Deal,” will take place on Oct. 12 at 5 p.m., looking at the history of labor organizing during the Great Depression and today to provide context to some of the themes in The Cradle Will Rock. The panel, mod erated by Shannon Steen, will include Fred Glass, Peter Glazer and Kathleen Moran.›