The Cradle Will Rock!

In 2005 I created a small oil painting depicting striking workers huddled together in the early morning light in preparation for the day’s labor rallies and picket lines. The painting was inspired by the numerous strikes I had personally witnessed in the City of Los Angeles over the years. Titled Amanecer (Spanish for “Dawn”), my painting was a glimpse of life on the streets of L.A., but it was actually meant as a gesture of solidarity with workers everywhere who must put down their tools and withhold their labor in order to better their lives.

"Amanecer" (Dawn) - Mark Vallen 2005 ©. Oil on masonite panel. 9" x 12" inches.
"Amanecer" (Dawn) - Mark Vallen 2005 ©. Oil on masonite panel. 9" x 12" inches.

In February of 2012, I received an e-mail from Paul Moser, the Producing Artistic Director of the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival (OSTF) of Oberlin College in Northern Ohio. The OSTF is a not-for-profit theater that presents free theatrical stage productions to a diverse audience. Moser requested permission to use my painting in the promotional campaign for the Oberlin’s summer season production of the rarely performed musical, The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein.

I was elated to have my painting associated with the revival of Blitzstein’s classic, and so I enthusiastically granted the permissions Mr. Moser sought. A detail of my painting now appears in the season flyer for the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival, as well as on the company’s web site. The OSTF free performance of The Cradle Will Rock begins July 20, and the musical will run until August 4, 2012.

I first discovered The Cradle Will Rock in 2004 through my friend and associate, Eric Gordon, who wrote the definitive biography Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein; a book that gave me tremendous insight into the life, times, and genius of Mr. Blitzstein. Gordon wrote extensively about Blitzstein’s musical masterwork, its creation, controversial production, and lasting influence. Having brought Blitzstein to life for me, I highly recommend Gordon’s superlative book to one and all.

After reading Gordon’s book I saw Tim Robbins’ 1999 film Cradle Will Rock. Despite the fact that Robbins played fast and loose with history, and that his fictional account was less about Blitzstein’s musical than it was an examination of the arts during the Great Depression, Robbins created a work of cinema worth seeing.

In eliciting my support, the Oberlin’s Artistic Director originally wrote to me:

“As you know, this is an election year, and I felt that ‘Cradle’ even though it is 75 years old, would really resonate with our audience at this crucial time. Oberlin is located in a now economically depressed county that was once thriving with steel and auto companies and healthy unions. We are hoping that ‘Cradle’ will appeal to a lot of families in our larger community that are not used to attending (or cannot afford) live theater, and that it will be an inspiring experience for them. I really felt that your painting captured that same sense of communal hope – and that it would really give potential audiences a feel for what the show was all about.”

Marc Blitzstein wrote his musical in 1937 under the auspices of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), which was part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) set up by President Franklin Roosevelt. The FTP was part of Federal Project Number One, the government organization that provided employment to artists during the depression. Through Federal One, over 40,000 artists were put to work across the U.S. The objective was not just to make jobs, but to enrich the nation by providing every citizen with free access to art and culture. The WPA and Federal One left Americans a legacy they still enjoy today – and The Cradle Will Rock is part of that legacy.

A classically trained virtuoso pianist and brilliant composer, Blitzstein wrote Cradle as an allegory; the story took place in the fictional township of “Steeltown, USA”. An oligarch named Mr. Mister owned the town, from its steel factory and media to its police and courts. The people of the town were denied their rights by the scheming Mr. Mister and his henchmen – so they organized a general strike to sweep away all greed and corruption. In modern parlance Blitzstein’s musical was about the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent. Needless to say, the Federal Theatre Project came under intense pressure for producing the left-leaning, pro-labor musical.

Directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman, Cradle was to premiere at the Maxine Elliot Theatre on Broadway with a full orchestra, sets, and stage lighting. However, on the eve of the musical’s opening, the WPA pulled support for the musical in an effort to fend off right wing criticism and avoid funding cuts; federal authorities seized and padlocked the venue, shutting down the production.

Undaunted by the censorship, Welles and Houseman quickly rented an alternative venue, and on June 16, 1937, after some 600 ticket holders gathered at the forcibly closed Maxime Elliot Theatre for the first performance of Cradle, Welles and Houseman led the entire cast and audience on a 20 block march to the substitute venue, the Venice Theatre. Since the Actors’ Equity union prohibited playing a non-union house, the production was left without an orchestra, and worse, actors could not take the stage without violating union rules. What happened next was unprecedented in the world of live stage performance.

Marc Blitzstein sat alone at a piano placed onstage. He was prepared to deliver his entire musical as a solo recital, but as he began his performance, one by one, the actors sitting in the audience unexpectedly stood to voice their parts from their theater seats – and so the complete musical was spontaneously performed. In an unprecedented act of courage and imagination, Blitzstein, Welles, Houseman, and the entire cast of The Cradle Will Rock defied government censorship.

Those lucky enough to enjoy the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival’s revival of Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock will no doubt take pleasure in experiencing a rare live performance of an American classic. I am jubilant to have my art linked with the Oberlin production.

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