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by Michael Portantiere

Raul Esparza Rocks the Cradle

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    What's the most politically significant date in American theater history? You'll often get one of two answers (or both) to that question: May 10, 1849, the night of the so-called Astor Place Riot; and/or June 16, 1937, which marked the first performance of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock.

    Here's the nutshell version of the latter event: The Cradle Will Rock was produced in the midst of the Great Depression by the Federal Theatre Project of the WPA (the Works Progress Administration, later the Work Projects Administration), which meant that it was wholly funded by the U.S. government. Previews were to begin at the Maxine Elliott Theatre on that June night, but the production was shut down by the WPA four days beforehand -- supposedly because of budget cuts, but more likely due to the perceived agitprop nature of the show, an allegory of corporate greed with a decidedly pro-union slant.

    Finding the theatre padlocked, producer John Housman, director Orson Welles, and writer Blitzstein rented the much larger Venice Theatre and a piano in time for the first scheduled performance. That evening, the audience members who had gathered outside the Maxine Elliott marched 21 blocks north to the Venice. Because the musicians' union wouldn't allow its members to play for the show unless Houseman could pay their salaries in full, and Actors' Equity wouldn't permit its members to perform onstage at the Elliott because of the dicey politics of the situation, Blitzstein sat at the piano and began to go through the show solo. But he was soon joined by Olive Stanton, the actress playing Moll, from the audience. Gradually, other members of the cast joined in and performed the entire musical from the house, thereby defying the spirit if not the letter of Equity's decree.

    A somewhat fictionalized version of this amazing, true story is offered in Cradle Will Rock, a 1999 film directed by Tim Robbins; but while several songs from Blitzstein's score are heard in the film, it doesn't give a very clear picture of the show as a whole. Revivals are scarce as hen's teeth, so it's pretty damn newsworthy that the new Encores! Off-Center series will be presenting The Cradle Will Rock this week. Sam Gold is directing a cast that includes Judy Kuhn, Danny Burstein, Anika Noni Rose, Peter Friedman, and Henry Stram. The pivotal role of Larry Foreman, which was created by Howard Da Silva, will be played by Raul Esparza, a searingly intense actor who seems born to the assignment. It's been several years since I last interviewed Raul, but I recently got a chance to catch up with him and talk about this once-in-a-lifetime project.


    BROADWAYSTARS: I know you're big into theater history. How long have you known the story behind The Cradle Will Rock?

    RAUL ESPARZA: For many years. I read John Houseman's memoirs, and he describes the night. It's interesting; you can't really tell if Houseman and Orson Welles liked each other. They seem to have been antagonistic geniuses. Considering that this show led to the founding of the Mercury Theater, which then led to Citizen Kane, it's a seminal piece for that alone. I knew a lot more about the history of the show and the events of the opening than I did about the show itself. When I was asked to do it, that was the first time I read it.

    STARS: I imagine you've seen the Tim Robbins film.

    RAUL: Yes. For me, it's not very successful. The way he uses that sort of Doctorow method of mixing non-fiction with fiction -- it gets a little silly, I think. And yet, some of the sequences that deal with The Cradle Will Rock directly are great. Emily Watson and John Turturro are particularly great. But having Frida Kahlo dressed up like some Mexican peasant and dancing around, when supposedly she could barely move her muscles? I'm just not sure what Robbins was trying to do there. Also, I watched the film again recently, and I was distracted by the fact that the office they used for Cherry Jones [who plays Hallie Flanagan] is my office for Law and Order: SVU. I was, like, "I know that fireplace from somewhere..." Of course, Cherry is extraordinary in anything she does, and I think the film affords a great deal of dignity to Hallie Flanagan and what the WPA and the Federal Theatre Project were trying to do. Honestly, my introduction to the WPA, when I was a teenager, was in the lyrics of "I'm Still Here."

    STARS: The film's semi-fictionalization of the story is a bit of a problem for me, as well. For example, John Turturro plays a character corresponding to Howard Da Silva, but he has a different name. And Turturro looks nothing like Da Silva.

    RAUL: I know. Da Silva was already bald at that time. One of John Houseman's stories is how Da Silva tried to break into the Maxine Elliott to get his toupee. Can you imagine a play being thought so dangerous that they padlocked the theater? The good thing that came out it was that, as I said, it led to the creation of the Mercury Theater. Houseman, Beatrice Straight -- all those people are legendary. And Blitzstein. The first time I heard his music was on a beautiful album that Dawn Upshaw did; I think the Blitzstein songs are the best ones on that album. Then, when they offered me this show, I started to explore some of his other work.

    STARS: In the 1947 Broadway revival of The Cradle Will Rock, Larry Foreman was played by Alfred Drake. And there was an Off-Broadway production in 1964, with Jerry Orbach.

    RAUL: It's interesting: Foreman is considered the male lead of the show, but he doesn't show up until very late in the proceedings. His first entrance is so long delayed.

    STARS: When playing a character like this, do you approach him as if he's a flesh and blood human being, even though he's really more of a symbol?

    RAUL: I'm debating that. I'm going to go down the flesh-and-blood-human-being track for rehearsal purposes -- which will be for the next day or two, because this is Encores! -- and we'll see if that yields anything interesting. What Sam Gold and I have talked about is, we can't pretend Larry Foreman is not a symbolic figure. I believe the play functions mostly as iconography. Steeltown, U.S.A. could be anywhere, even though it's obviously modeled on Pennsylvania and the strikes that were happening there in the thirties. I'm also wondering how to use the audience. Who is Larry talking too? We're trying to get more specific about that. It's a very Brechtian play, and in that sense, part of your job is to remind the audience that you're playing a part -- that you're a separate person from the person you're playing.

    STARS: When Urinteown opened, it was recognized as largely a parody of the Brecht/Weill musicals. But, as I recall, few if any people commented on how much it owes to Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock -- probably because they weren't familiar with the show's plot and characters..

    RAUL: Exactly. I had no idea until I read it. This show reminds me so much of The Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, but it also has its own kind of delicate melodic structure. It's easy to think of it as a totally strident piece, but there's some seriously beautiful music in there.

    STARS: Neither of the theaters that figured in the story of the show's first performance still exists, so I guess you can't recreate the pilgrimage from one to the other.

    RAUL: The Maxine Elliott was on 38th Street, just off of Broadway. And the Venice was up here, near City Center. One of the things Sam is trying to do with this show is to somehow suggest the history of it. Because we're not just taking on The Cradle Will Rock, we're taking on what it historically meant to New York theater, and what it says about unionization and the working man. I can't imagine that we're actually going to radicalize the City Center audience, but there are still so many causes that exist today. In Wisconsin and Michigan, they have "right to work" laws, which I talk about in the show. They're called "right to work" laws, but what they really mean is you're fucked, because they're anti-union. And look at what the Supreme Court just did with the Voting Rights Act. It's the same court that has allowed corporations to be treated like individuals. The corporate presence in politics, and what that implies about who's going to run the country -- we've got our causes, don't we? That's what this play is about.

    Published on Saturday, July 6, 2013

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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