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'The Cradle Will Rock' to get revival from Iron Crow Theatre

'The Cradle Will Rock' to get revival from Iron Crow Theatre
A rehearsal for Iron Crow Theatre's production of "The Cradle Will Rock." (Roxanne Daneman)

On the day 80 years ago that a pro-labor, anti-monopoly/corruption/greed stage work was about to be premiered in New York, a wind from the federal government blew and down came the production, cradle and all.

But the targeted piece, Marc Blitzstein's "The Cradle Will Rock," didn't stay censored for long. Met by security guards at the theater's padlocked doors on June 16, 1937, members of the company turned around and headed 20 blocks uptown to a hurriedly rented venue, generating quite a buzz along the way.

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By the time the show, without costumes or scenery, started at about 9:45 p.m., an audience of more than 1,700 packed the place to witness one of the most famous incidents in American musical theater history.

That history will be recalled t​​​​his weekend when Iron Crow Theatre opens a revival of "The Cradle Will Rock."

"We definitely pay homage to the show's opening night," says company artistic director and CEO Sean Elias. "We'll use just a solo piano, as was used then. And we'll have some of the actors begin performing from the audience, which is what happened at the premiere."

Those original conditions resulted from union issues — ironic, considering that "The Cradle Will Rock" couldn't be more pro-union in stance.

The actors' union prohibited the non-union "Cradle" cast from stepping onto the stage of the alternate theater, and the musicians' union decreed that the orchestra couldn't be in the pit. Blitzstein ended up alone onstage playing an old upright piano while the actors performed out in the house.

The same government agency that shut the production down also got it started. Blitzstein's "play with music" (he later called it an opera) was created under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration.

A good deal of talent was assembled. Actor-director Orson Welles and actor-producer John Houseman headed the creative team. The cast included another familiar name: Will Geer, now best remembered as the grandfather on TV's "The Waltons."

But the political climate worked steadily against "The Cradle Will Rock." Conservatives in Congress were complaining of a liberal bias in WPA projects. And they would hardly be appeased by a show set in "Steeltown, USA" that championed the unionization of workers. (A deadly encounter between police and protesters took place at a Chicago steel plant a couple of weeks before "Cradle" was scheduled to open.)

"I think the history of the show is still relevant and makes a strong statement about the power of art, how it can create a reaction of fear of the unknown," Elias says. "The government was afraid. It was all a triumph of fear. But the work is much more than its remarkable opening night."

Elias has not updated the text for this revival.

"It's extraordinary how relevant and necessary the words from 1937 are in 2017," he says. "Especially after last year's election, this is the musical of our time."

"The Cradle Will Rock" may be the original anti-one-percent theater work. As one of Blitzstein's lines puts it, "There's something so damn low about the rich."

War mongering, police brutality, suspect journalism, the commercialization of art, hypocrisy in religion, corruption in the medical profession — they all get targeted here in some way, too.

"Learning about this kind of agitational, propaganda theater was exciting when I was in college," says the New Jersey-born Elias, 31, who played the role of Reverend Salvation in "The Cradle Will Rock" in college. "It was the first time I realized that theater had power, and specifically socio-political power."

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Blitzstein, who died in 1964 at age 58 after an apparent gay-bashing, also slipped into the work some sexual orientation hints for a character or two, hints that Iron Crow, Baltimore's self-described "queer theater for a queer city," will underline.

"I hope people will find a lot of things to learn," Elias says, "and will feel their importance."

If you go

"The Cradle Will Rock" opens Friday and runs through Oct. 8 at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Tickets are $15 to $30. Call 410-752-8558, or go to theatreproject.org.

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