Workers' rights on the march since 1937

Marc Blitzstein and the cast of The Cradle Will Rock (1937); courtesy marc-blitzstein.org

The Cradle Will Rock is a Depression-era labor opera about capitalism and corporate corruption. Larry Foreman fights to unionize workers in “Steeltown, USA,” and is pitted against greedy tycoon Mr. Mister, who controls the factory, press, and church. Written by Marc Blitzstein, The Cradle Will Rock was set to open on Broadway in 1937, as part of the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project, directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman. But its pro-union, borderline socialist themes were so controversial that opening night was shut down with just four days’ notice. What happened next instantly became part of Broadway legend.

“The preview performance was already sold out,” says Robert Benedetti, who directs The Cradle Will Rock at New Mexico Actors Lab — his fifth time with the material. “The federal marshals showed up and barricaded the theater so that they couldn’t take props, costumes, or even the music itself out of the building. It was all declared government property. The cast went out on the street and entertained people for a while, while Welles and Houseman found another venue.”

The eager crowd marched 21 blocks up Broadway, from Maxine Elliott’s Theatre to the much larger Venice Theatre, gathering more audience as they went. People were invited off the street to see the show for free. In an ironic twist — given the play’s plot — the musicians’ union and Actors’ Equity Association both found reasons to prohibit their members from performing in a new venue. But Blitzstein was a free agent. So he began the performance singing alone at a rented piano on an empty stage. He planned to do the entire play by himself. And then, one by one, actors performed their parts from their seats in the auditorium.

“That’s pretty much the way the show has been done ever since,” Benedetti says. “It’s how I’ve always done it. We start outside the theater with a prologue that explains the first opening night, and a few Woody Guthrie songs. Cast and audience then symbolically march into the empty theater, and the actors start the performance from the audience.”

The Cradle Will Rock opens at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 2, at New Mexico Actors Lab (1213 Parkway Dr.). Performances continue through Sept. 19; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Facial coverings are required. Tickets are $25. 505-395-6576, nmactorslab.com 

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