Steeped in Depression-era politics, “The Cradle Will Rock” takes aim at greedy corporations accused of exploiting workers and undermining civic institutions to protect their own wealth. The landmark 1937 Broadway musical, composed by Marc Blitzstein and funded by the WPA’s Federal Theater Project, barely made it to the stage — the government pulled the plug over the play’s controversial content just before opening night, forcing producers to relocate the entire production at the last minute.
According to Andrew Vaught, the co-founder and artistic director of Cripple Creek Theater Co., this historic play has plenty to offer contemporary audiences. The company’s revival of “The Cradle Will Rock,” directed by Vaught, opens Friday at the Marigny Opera House.
“Given the political and social climate of the times right now, with so many people feeling the top pressing down more and more, to see a play about people trying to shirk off that burden could be really good,” Vaught said.
“The Cradle Will Rock” is set in Steeltown, USA, where the powerful factory owner Mr. Mister is at odds with union agitators. The show opens with the arrest of a prostitute named Moll, who ends up in jail with some of the most prestigious members of the community — including the pastor, the newspaper editor and the president of the local university — only to realize that she’s not the only one trading her respectability for the chance to earn a quick buck from the powers-that-be.
As the story unfolds through a series of musical numbers, the hero of the show, union organizer Larry Foreman, stands up to Mr. Mister and eventually encourages others to do the same.
His call for citizens to “rock the cradle” is meant as a rallying cry for working-class audiences who feel powerless in the face of wealth and corruption.
“The Cradle Will Rock” is a perfect fit for Cripple Creek, whose stated mission is to present works of cultural, historical and political relevance in order to provoke social action.
“There’s a real sense of culpability in (the play),” Vaught said. “We’re the ones responsible. We propagate this system. We have to own that, and we have to move that forward. I think it really says that you can be brave and you can make this hard choice, because there are thousands of people who want to make that choice with you.”
In keeping with the show’s democratic spirit, the diverse 16-person cast features Cripple Creek company members alongside a range of performers, including Brian Tsu, the pianist for the show who also takes a turn on stage, and New Orleans R&B singer Rahim Glaspy. In a creative bit of gender- and race-blind casting, Larry Foreman is played by actress Monica R. Harris.
By funding the show through a Kickstarter campaign and a series of grants rather than ticket sales, the company is offering free admission to the play.
“Making this a free show takes theater off a perch in a lot of ways, so that theater is not something that is restricted or accessible only through education,” Vaught said. “It’s a live public forum. Making it free is the best gesture we can make to say anybody can come see this show; it’s for everybody.”