It might seem unbelievable that a theatrical play or musical from 1937 would still have any relevant societal themes nearly 80 years later. But as a play that "clearly condemns capitalism and big business," Dr. N. J. Stanley, chair of the theatre department at Lycoming College, believes that the theme of "The Cradle Will Rock" is as timely as ever.
"The play champions the creation of unions to support the working classes and create fair wages and conditions," Dr. Stanley, who directs the play, said, also adding that "fairness and equality and respecting human dignity are powerful ideas that transcend time."
"There is a lot of talk right now by the president and Congress about raising the minimum wage. It is appalling to me that over 75 years after 'Cradle' premiered, working people in the United States still live in poverty because the minimum wage is so low."
Michael Blaustein, as Mr. Mister, back looks on as Michael Sampsell, as Editor Daily, back right, and Tyler Wuerthner, as Junior Mister sing about Hawaii during a rehearsal for Lycoming College's production of the musical 'The Cradle Will Rock.'
Taylor Granger as Yasha, left,
Emily Early as Mrs. Mister, middle, and Hershey Millner as Dauber rehearse a scene for Lycoming College's production of the musical 'The Cradle Will Rock.'
Although referred to as either a play or a musical, "The Cradle Will Rock" is a bit of both.
"(Marc Blitzstein, the original composer) called it 'a play in music,' because 90 percent of the libretto is underscored with music. There is not the standard juxtaposition of song and spoken dialogue. That does occur, but more often there is spoken dialogue over music or a mix of spoken and sung dialogue," Dr. Stanley said.
Gary Boerckel serves as the play's director of music; he is a professor emeritus of music at the college, where he served as chairman of the music department for more than 25 years.
"The music of 'The Cradle Will Rock' lampoons the popular music of the time - crooned ballads and erotic tangos, for example - while providing powerful and poignant themes for the sympathetic characters," he said.
Dr. Stanley has a special passion for the "play in music"; she first read about "The Cradle Will Rock" while an undergraduate student.
"I first read about the play's unusual opening performance (when I was an undergraduate) ... the actors were banned from being on stage and performed from the audience. When I researched the play's history in more detail, I became fascinated with it and that obsession has never waned," she said.
And it didn't. She directed "The Cradle Will Rock" once previously in 1977; it was her thesis production to attain her master's degree in direction from Florida State University.
"It was a huge hit and I have been fascinated by the play ever since. I have always wanted to try my hand at it again - actually, it's the only play I have ever longed to direct twice," she said.
The satirical musical performance is set in 1937, in "Steeltown, U.S.A.," where a local tycoon named Mr. Mister owns the steel factory and "everything and everyone else."
But along comes a young, subversive Larry Foreman, who wants to upset Mr. Mister's reign by organizing a steelworker's union. Mr. Mister's plan of attack, then, is to "thwart Larry's plan by turning the whole town against him."
In preparation for the big premiere at Lycoming College, Dr. Stanley researched "The Cradle Will Rock" last summer, reading what she said is a 2-inch-thick file that she accumulated over the years.
The idea to direct "The Cradle Will Rock" again after 37 years came after Dr. Stanley was chatting with Boerckel, who collaborated with Dr. Stanley as the musical director for "The Threepenny Opera" in 2012. She learned that "Cradle" is one of his favorite musicals, too.
"We both believe that Mark Blitzstein is something of a genius," she said.
Blitzstein, who was born in Philadelphia, isn't the only genius to be associated with "The Cradle Will Rock."
Dr. Stanley fills some big shoes as the director; Orson Welles ("The War of the Worlds," "Citizen Kane") directed the original performance in 1937. ("Cradle" also was made in to a film in 1999.)
In addition to the performance being "incredibly entertaining and very theatrical" with "lots of spectacle and color." Dr. Stanley said that "Cradle" also has an extremely serious side.
"('The Cradle Will Rock') demonstrates that musicals can tackle hard topics and make meaningful contributions to our culture," she said. " ... people were rioting all over the country (at the 1937 premiere); there was blood shed in our streets over the issue of union organizing. This play is not fluff. It has a dire, earnest point of view, and it is very smart."
Dr. Stanley faced a few challenges directing such a performance.
The performance has a large cast of 22 (including students, faculty and an alumnus), which she said poses the challenge of keeping the stage picture interesting. Additionally, the play is set in a "Night Court," with scenes interspersed with flashbacks from the past.
"Many characters are on stage for virtually the entire play and they must stay involved in the action. I told the actors that their body positions are very important because they're always part of the visual environment. I think of them as living scenery," Dr. Stanley said.
Another challenge, she said, is getting some of the actors to step beyond their comfort zones.
"Most modern theater is realistic and to create such big, bold caricatures, while still keeping the character honest, is a daunting task," she said, adding that Blitzstein's lyrics are very clever, with his characters ridiculous but human at the same time.
"Although 'The Cradle Will Rock' was - and still is - controversial, it has always appealed to those who enjoy a witty parody and music that engages the mind as well as the ear," Boerckel said.
To catch this "blistering critique of big business," pick up a ticket at the Lycoming College box office, which is located in the lobby of the Mary L. Welch Theatre with the entrance on Mulberry St., between noon and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
It runs April 9-12, with all performances beginning at 8 p.m.
But interested persons take note - the performance is recommended for mature audiences; one of the main characters is, ahem, a "lady of the evening."