BROADWAY RECALL: Protest Theatre

BROADWAY RECALL:  Protest TheatreWelcome to BROADWAY RECALL, a bi-monthly column where's Chief Theatre Critic, Michael Dale, delves into the archives and explores the stories behind the well-known and the not so well-known videos and photographs of Broadway's past. Look for BROADWAY RECALL every other Saturday.

When Time Magazine named "The Protester" as 2011's Person of the Year, it was in recognition of the worldwide demonstrations of discontent among the poor and middle class.  Here in New York, whether you agree with their motivations and methods or not, the Occupy Wall Street movement has been a continual reminder of the country's economic hardship.

As with many grass roots movements, theatre artists, both famous and lesser-known, have helped spread the message.  On December 2nd, a 24-hour program of free performances occupied a privately owned public space on the NW corner of Broadway and 50th Street, familiar to theatre-goers as the small, below-street-level plaza where we catch the downtown 1 train.  Among the performers was monologist Mike Daisey, who spoke for nearly a half-hour on his views of Broadway, the theatre and corporate politics.

If the Occupy Wall Street movement had an official musical, it would likely be The Cradle Will Rock, Marc Blitzstein's allegorical tale of a union leader who leads a fight against a wealthy businessman who controls his town's police, press, church, elected officials and even some artists.

Not only was it the first significant American musical to deal with contemporary political issues in a serious manner, but its opening performance even turned into a political protest.  Produced by the WPA's Federal Theatre Project, word of the musical's leftist views prompted immediate budget cuts intended to close the show just before the first performance.  When producer John Houseman and director Orson Welles found the Maxine Elliott Theatre padlocked with government guards forbidding anyone entrance on what was supposed to be their opening night, another theatre was booked.  But with the scenery, costumes and orchestral parts – all considered government property – no longer available, and Actors' Equity threatening to dispel any member who appeared on stage from the union, the plan became to have Blitzstein simply play the piano and sing the material himself on a bare stage.  The legendary ironic twist occurred when the actors defied their union and began performing the musical in the audience, never setting foot on stage.

Below is an audio clip of Cradle's most famous song, "Nickel Under the Foot."  Sung by a character forced by poverty into prostitution, the lyric tells of the disillusionment of finding even the most modest of pleasures out of reach.  This recording, sung by Tammy Grimes, is taken from a 1960 radio broadcast of New York City Opera's production, and is a rare opportunity to hear the original Blitzstein orchestrations that would have been played on opening night if not for the controversy.

Blitzstein was heavily influenced by the musicals of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, and the Occupy Wall Streeters would certainly approve of the moral expressed by one of the characters of their 1929 Happy End; "Robbing a bank's no crime compared to owning one."

Happy End, about a romance between a Chicago gangster and a Salvation Army lass, had a satirical plot that suggested bank-robbing as a means of helping the poor.  The show didn't make it to Broadway until 1977, when the Chelsea Theatre Center's Off-Broadway production moved to the Martin BeckChristopher Lloyd, who starred as tough guy Bill Cracker, hurt his leg the day before the Broadway opening, so his understudy, Bob Gunton, took over the role until he was able to return, playing the part on crutches.  The nearly 50-year-old show was nominated for a Best Musical Tony, allowing Lloyd and company to sing "The Bilbao Song" on the telecast.

Certainly the most significant piece of protest theatre seen on Broadway in 2011 was Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart.  Based on the facts involving the obstacles encountered in organizing the Gay Men's Health Crisis during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, this was a play that, during its 1985 Off-Broadway run, dared to accuse the standing President of the United States of ignoring the spreading of AIDS because it was thought of as a "gay disease" and painted the then Mayor of New York as a closeted gay man who refused to support AIDS prevention programs for fear of being outed.  It took more than 25 years to get The Normal Heart to Broadway, despite a very well reviewed Off-Broadway revival in 2004, but when Kramer's passionately raw expression of theatrical outrage finally hit the mainstream audience, it was met with shocked disbelief at the behavior of New Yorkers of a not very distant past and admiration for a playwright who truly helped make a positive difference in the world.

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