Head Trick Theater’s director Rebecca Maxfield wasn’t thinking about contemporary politics or parallels when she selected the 1937 labor musical The Cradle Will Rock as one of the two shows the company is putting on during their residency at AS220. Instead, the show, originally funded for development and production by the Works Progress Administration under FDR, is a favorite of hers; one she performed in while in high school in New York. Mayfield who majored in Theater Performance Studies at Brown University has a personal interest in what she calls liveness. This is a quality that is generated between an audience and the performers. She says that theater is about “creating a temporary shared reality while everyone is in the same space.” Liveness is something that can be engaged but not something that can be created, it is in how the audience reacts to what’s happening on stage.
Just because liveness is not something one can imbue into a production, doesn’t mean that Maxfield didn’t push the staging of the show to elicit above average audience engagement. The show starts with the words to Pete Seeger’s “Solidarity Forever,” which is set to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, projected on the wall behind the cast with an invitation for the audience to sing along.
The production is exceedingly minimal. Not even color intrudes on the set, with nothing interrupting the truly “blackbox” nature of the small performance space at 95 Empire Street. Other than the actors, the stage is bare. Instead of dressing the set, Maxfield and her production use a projector to establish the setting for the audience.
Partially for financial reasons, Maxfield decided to limit the cast to fifteen people (full disclosure, two of them are involved in the production of this publication). Each actor performs the role of more than one character which underscores the pleasantly simplified aesthetic of the production.
The original production of the show has reverberated through history. The WPA pulled all funding for new productions right before it premiered, according to Maxfield, some say that the funding was cut precisely because The Cradle Will Rock was set to premier. As it was, the cut in funding caused both the musician’s union and the acting guild to pull their support for the show, because they could not allow their people to perform without the guarantee of a paycheck. The show went up, irrespective of the fact that the actors had been told they were not allowed on stage, and the orchestra was absent. The composer Marc Blitzstein provided accompaniment on the piano from the stage, and the actors performed from the audience.
Maxfield payed homage to that history having the audience sharing their space with the actors. The singers are accompanied on piano by the show’s musical director Noah Fields, from the back corner of the stage. Maxfield singles out the music as a major component of what makes the show fun to put on.
“It’s unique as a musical. Content aside, the music is really interesting,” she said.
The overall impression is that of a variety show; each number is enticingly unique. The limited accompaniment strips away the flash that usually defines a musical show, and allows the actors to command the attention of the audience. The cast is replete with talented voices. While the leads, and a few well-chosen supporting cast members, have the opportunity to showcase their skills with duets and solos, the real surprise is the skill displayed in the ensemble numbers. Rather than settling for the perfected stacked harmonies, traditional of Broadway musicals, the actors are at liberty to make more individuated harmonies, giving the show a bluesy tone. The effect is that of folk music, and the song traditions that evolved alongside labor movement.
The story revolves around the, in Maxfield’s words, “misleadingly named” Liberty Committee, who have been brought into night court, ostensibly for being part of a disruptive union protest. They claim their detainment is a mistake, and will be cleared up by operatively named Mr. Mister, the owner of the steel mills, and big man about town, and the orchestrator of the Liberty Committee.
The story starts with the Liberty Committee being hauled in to the jail along with the “usual suspects,” including a drunk and a prostitute. From there the story unfolds, each character stepping forward to tell the story of how they came to be a part of the liberty committee. The audience is shepherded through this process with Moll, a steel mill worker and occasional prostitute, as their anchor. The scene changes are marked by a change in the projected heading behind the actors, and the ebb and flow of the actors between the seats and centerstage.
Maxfield chose to present the origins of the Liberty Committee, not as flashbacks, but as re-tellings. She wanted to know: “How does the telling of these stories by these workers contribute to their resistance?” She eschewed the simplistic view that is always in vogue among political ideologues that anyone who is not with the movement must be against the movement (regardless of what that movement might be).
Particularly memorable is the musical number about the selling out of the artists. Represented by a violinist and a painter, their self-awareness regarding the Faustian deal they must make with Mrs. Mister to ensure their livelihoods is hilariously honest. It is possibly the best example of Maxfield’s quest for that which “we can do here that we can’t do in another medium.” The self-critique of the original production clearly resonates with the contemporary one. The production members are fond of quoting the musical number, where the two artists are mulling over what it is that makes the rich so special. “What have they got?” they ask. The answer is, inevitably, “Money.”
Maxfield said her goal was to put on a show about the heroes, and not the villains. Over the course of the show, the audience learns how the reverend, the newspaper, the artists, the university, and the doctor all found themselves in Mr. Mister’s pocket. The struggle to balance opportunity and ethical independence has proven unchanged in the intervening 79 years since the musical’s birth. The concern that the people entrusted with the popular wellbeing have been co-opted by powers long known to have little concern for said popular wellbeing, remains as compelling today as it was then. Giving the actors the opportunity to embody the past and the present as a retelling of their choices, allows them to generate an empathic understanding of their characters. The moral imperative of social rather than economic responsibility acts as one of the play’s first principles, and – together with the empathy the actors strive for – forms a complex narrative and emotional fabric.
When considering the play within the current political moment, its greatest asset may very well have little to do with stagecraft, or even good humor. Today we are encased in political cynicism. The American Right has seemingly caved to chauvinism, fear mongering, and violence, while the Left has ceased to speak with the vox populi and suffers from the erosion of its attempt to display progressive political will. The election this November is between the two least popular presidential candidates of all time, if the polls are to be believed.
With candidates like these, who needs enemies, the American voting public asks. Rather than the cynical one liners of the political comedians or the verbal posturing of the TV commentators, The Cradle Will Rock gives an answer.
“She’s primed for resistance, but she’s trying to resist alone,” Maxfield said of Moll. If she’d been a part of a union, maybe her hours at the mill wouldn’t have been cut, and she wouldn’t have to stand on the street corner to make sure she has enough to eat. As long as Moll is alone, prostitution is her only option. The same is true of the members of the Liberty Committee, and of the audience. Alone, no single worker or citizen will be able to change their situation. Standing together, however? That is another matter entirely.