The 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein was originally a part of the Federal Theatre Project. It was directed by Orson Welles, and produced by John Houseman.
The musical is a Brechtian allegory of corruption and corporate greed. Set in "Steeltown, USA", it follows the efforts of Larry Foreman to unionize and combat wicked businessman Mr. Mister. Blitzstein portrays a whole panoply of societal figures: Mr. Mister's vicious, outwardly genteel philanthropic wife, sell-out artists, poor shopkeeps, immigrant families, a faithless priest, and an endearing prostitute named Moll. The piece is almost entirely sung-through, giving it many operatic qualities, although Blitzstein (as he often did, even in his full-blown operas) included popular song styles of the time.
The Original Production
Originally set to open at the Maxine Elliott Theatre with elaborate sets and a full orchestra, the production was shut down due to "budget cuts" within the Federal Theatre Project—though it was widely believed that this was instead due to censorship on the part of the government. The theatre was padlocked and surrounded by armed servicemen, ostensibly to prevent anyone from stealing props or costumes. They even impounded leading man Howard Da Silva's toupee. On the spur of the moment, Welles, Housman, and Blitzstein rented the Venice Theatre and a piano, and planned for Blitzstein to sing/play/read the entire musical to the sold out house. Just after beginning the first number, Blitzstein realized that he was being joined by Olive Stanton, the actor playing Moll, who joined in from the audience, since she (along with the rest of the cast) was forbidden by the Actor's Union to perform the piece "onstage". During the rest of the performance various actors joined in with Blitzstein and performed the entire musical from the house. Many who attended the performance, including poet laureate Archibald MacLeish, thought it to be one of the most moving theatrical experiences of their life. Performances to this day rarely use elaborate sets or an orchestra, instead preferring a spare set and single piano in homage to this event (the details of which were recounted by John Houseman in an introductory speech to a 1983 production by The Acting Company, which was recorded along with the entire show by Jay Records.
The success of the production led Welles and Houseman to form the Mercury Theatre.
The Cradle Will Rock was performed shortly after its initial New York production by students at Harvard, with a young Leonard Bernstein at the piano. It was revived on Broadway in 1964 and Off-Broadway in 1983.
The play was produced in 2005 at UCSB by Shrunken Head Productions (a student run production company). The production included a reenactment of the lock out and performers joining in from the audience.
The Tim Robbins Film
In 1999 writer/director Tim Robbins wrote a semi-fictional film recounting the original production of The Cradle Will Rock. The film, entitled Cradle Will Rock (without the "The") blended the true history of Blitzstein's show with the creation (and subsequent destruction) of the original Diego Rivera mural in the lobby of Rockefeller Center (actually the Rivera mural was destroyed in 1933). Several of the original actors from the 1937 production were included as characters in the film (Olive Stanton, John Adair, Will Geer), while others were replaced by fictional characters. Leading man Howard Da Silva was replaced by the fictional "Aldo Silvano".
The film's climax recreates scenes from the original, legendary performance of the show, performed by veteran Broadway performers Victoria Clark, Gregg Edelman, Audra McDonald, Daniel Jenkins, Erin Hill, and Chris McKinney.
Robbins wrote a book (Cradle Will Rock: The Movie and the Moment, published by Newmarket Press) about the original show, his adaptation, and the filming of the motion picture.
Almost the entire show is sung or underscored by music. Not listed below are rhythmic dialogue and dialogue over music.