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BWW Interviews: Judy Kuhn Talks Encores! and Cradle Will Rock

This weekend, Encores! is launching a new series at City Center to celebrate smaller shows that never made it to Broadway, or didn't last there as long as they could have. The inaugural production of Encores! Off Center is Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, and while the musical may be best remembered for its legendary premiere-which involved a strike, battles with unions, a lockout, the composer alone on the stage and actors performing from the audience-the show itself has plenty to recommend it.

Broadway stalwart Judy Kuhn, who originated the role of Cosette in Les Miserables on Broadway, plays two roles in the reimagined 1937 musical, and says that while the show may be about the Depression, it feels very contemporary. "The piece is extraordinary," she said in a phone interview after a rehearsal. "It has an extraordinary score, and it's great political theater and satire. We don't see a lot of that right now. But it feels so relevant, and it's gonna be a great thing for people to see."

And just as the musical was so controversial in 1937 that its producer-the government-funded WPA-tried to close the show before it opened, Kuhn hopes that this production also strikes some sparks in a similarly politically charged atmosphere. "The politics of this piece could anger some people," she acknowledged. "But because it's done in a fun, crazy way, I hope-as with all theater-it will get people talking and thinking. I'm sure some could say that it's anti-rich people-which it is, kind of-but, really, it's more about how wealth is distributed and how it's used not for the greater good in this country. It's used in self-interest. And as I say, we're having the same conversations now."

The production will also be notable for what the audience will hear: When the musical had its world premiere, the musicians' union prevented the artists from playing Blitzstein's score. While the actors sang from the audience, the composer played the piano from the stage to accompany them. Because of this, Kuhn said, many productions try to recreate that vibe and only use a single piano. And while other productions over the years have used a full orchestra, Kuhn noted that this will be the first chance for many to hear Blitzstein's score in a theater performed by a full orchestra-the way the composer intended his music to be heard.

As with most members of the cast, Kuhn is playing two roles in the show: The editor of the paper (aptly named Editior Daily) and Sadie, a love interest. Editor Daily is usually played by a man, so Kuhn will be playing the role as a man. "The language and the world of play does not support having the editor as a woman," Kuhn explained. "So I'll be chomping on a cigar and playing the role as a man. I hope people will get it!" Sadie, meanwhile, has a major love scene that serves to emphasize the plight of the downtrodden characters in the show. "The audience knows from moment they walk onstage that they will die," Kuhn says with a dry laugh. "Blitzstein wrote this song that's very different from anything else in show. It feels like a hymn or a prayer. This couple sings about how in love they are, and it works for the characters because they consider their love holy, yet the music has that mournfulness in it. And the audience will feel that."

Under Sam Gold's direction, the cast remains onstage throughout the show, and Kuhn said that she especially enjoys getting to watch her team work. "It's very episodic, so everybody has their scene in which their character and their situation is explained, and it's just been fun passing the baton around," she said.

Kuhn is also impressed by the Encores! Off Center project. "Some of the most challenging and naughty work happens off-Broadway," she said with a laugh, "So now there's a place for those pieces to get another look. I think it's fantastic that they're doing it. Those shows often have a smaller cast and a smaller orchestra-so it's great that they've set up a new series with new parameters."

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From This Author Jena Tesse Fox

Jena Tesse Fox is a lifelong theatre addict who has worked as an actress, a singer, a playwright, a director, a lyricist, a librettist, and (read more...)