Sound Advice Reviews
Blitzstein and Goldstein
With a new production of Marc Blitzstein's politically charged The Cradle Will Rock currently taking up residence Off-Broadway, it's a good time to bring attention to that score via another company's live recording of the classic that features satire, gravitas, grit, and an axe to grind. Then, in a more modest mode, we move from Blitzstein to Goldstein, a kind of warm and fuzzy, folksy family-focused memoir told in song.
THE CRADLE WILL ROCK
The Cradle Will Rock will make you stand up and take noticemaybe even stand up and cheerif you ever get smugly complacent about the comfortable state of the metaphorical cradle of the show's title: the cradle of liberty in the United States. Liberty and justice for all are not things we can blithely boast of as constants now, and so this musical by Marc Blitzstein has been constantly relevant and thought-provoking, ever since it debuted way back in 1937. A recently released live recording by Opera Saratoga of its 2017 production makes the case strongly and with much skill, with flourishes and forcefulness and some welcome dollops of cheeky humor to leaven the swaths of message-heavy earnestness which is nigh impossible to avoid.
Also coming with the territory is a decided lack of subtlety in what can certainly be called more of an allegory than a story. Cards are on the table from the start. What you hear is what you getand you'll get it hammered home, even if you're new or only vaguely familiar with this piece and the style. The points are made loud and clear through the plodding plot pleading for freedom of the press, praising unions, exposing corruption among the powers that, alas, beand the characters who are broad archetypes, such as a foreman named Foreman and a man of the cloth named Reverend Salvation. The broadly-drawn people in the saga could make interest sag by being too cartoonish to engender sympathy or emotional identification. Given the not-so-easy challenge to entertain and stimulate thought nonetheless, the opera company rises to the occasion rather well.
In the eight decades prior to the mounting by this company based in Saratoga Springs, New York (formerly known as the Lake George Opera), there have been numerous recordings of the score, including two others which, like this one, claimed to be the first to be "complete." Besides full stage productions and cast albums, The Cradle Will Rock's score has had exposure in other media: broadcasts on radio and television and the 1999 film which, with some artistic license, also recreates the story behind its legendary opening night. On that June 1937 evening, Blitzstein, 21-year-old, director Orson Welles, producer John Houseman, and cast and crew found their theatre padlocked and funding pulled by the government sponsors. (A 13-minute bonus track at the end of the two-disc set is a tape of Blitzstein himself, articulately relating the fascinating, oft-told tale of how they all traveled as a caravan twenty-plus Manhattan blocks with audience, press, and piano in tow to an empty theatre, determined that "the show must go on," even though the rehearsed orchestra couldn't play and actors had to deliver their material from spots in the auditorium instead of on stage.)
Although it was never intended to be done with just piano accompaniment, that famed first night and the first run done that way has led to some productions and cast albums being presented with just keyboard, while others have had an orchestra as it was conceived. It has impact both ways. This incarnation has the masterful veteran conductor John Mauceri magnificently leading a 24-piece orchestra. The composer's original orchestrations are used, so we get the Hawaiian guitar, piccolo, and accordion. Blitzstein was nothing if not single-mindedly direct in telegraphing what he wants us to absorb; harsh, unblinking admonishments and tough-minded people are presented with some plain speech (his lyrics and dialogue) with basic melodic lines that can be insistent and throbbing. Arguably, the detailed multi-instrumental sounds surrounding non-legato, minimalist melodic figures decorate and embellish those barer bones in ways that add interest and depth, too. At their strongest, they add commentary, new layers, and, yes, beauty.
Most of the major soloists are rich-voiced singers with many credits in opera and concert work, while some roles and the large ensemble are populated by members of the company's Young Artist Program. In this property, a hybrid of opera and musical theatre, there can be swaths of grandness and some parts that might sacrifice vocal richness to bring out clownishness or harshness, big and small scale singing, the full-throated presentations and the more conversational. Under the direction of Lawrence Edelson, we get all of the above, with some approaches that may surprise those familiar with other interpretations, including performances by distinctive stage presences the likes of Jerry Orbach, Nancy Andrews, Tammy Grimes, Patti LuPone, and Howard Da Silva, a longtime stage performer who was in the original cast and directed two revivals. Justin Hopkins is irreverent as the reverendquite brash, especially when calling out in a piping voice for a "collection!" As power-grabbing big cheese Mr. Mister, Matt Boehler looms and leers menacingly, crass but showy. As his wife, Audrey Babcock has a very formal operatic sound, with vibrato galore, and I needed to grab the booklet with all the words to catch them when she was participating. Ginger Costa-Jackson as the lamenting prostitute and Nina Spinner as Ella, forcefully telling of a worker's sad fate, seem cut from a different cloth, managing to bring the most three-dimensional portrayals. Christopher Burchett as Foreman forcefully holds attention as a force to be reckoned with, not suffering fools easily. John Tibbetts and Scott Purcell bring a fun vaudevillian-esque touch to their face-off as two self-satisfied artist types. Many others shine in smaller bits, most notably Maestro Mauceri himself, making the most of opportunities for comic effect in spoken cameos as the seemingly oh-so-bored court clerk wearily calling each "next?" case.
The endeavor evidences the pluses and minuses of live recordings. There are many incidents of energy and electric current from actors to audience when zingers ring through the air or strong emotions are paraded. Laughter seems sporadic, occasionally is distracting, applause does not break the flow, but, alas, at times volume and clarity vary so much that it feels like one actor is so much in our face and, a muffled moment later, another (or members of the ensemble) could be in a garage far away. In the interest of completeness, we get the whole enchilada here, which means some long stretches of dialogue which could feel tedious and harangue-like after one or two listens in a brief period. (I ended up playing this quite a bit, but the musical, in the several recordings I own, has always been one I admire and respect more than really love.) But, at the end of the day, I'm glad to be reminded of The Cradle Will Rock. We needstillto hear what it has to say. And Opera Saratoga lets it have its say with panache, integrity, and impact.
Ah, family! The ties that bind (not necessarily for the good), the lies that bind, or maybe blind us to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In the musical called Goldstein, one member of the titular clan writes a high-profile book about his relatives, incurs their ire and hurt, and old wounds become sore spots again. Aiming his spotlight back to immigrant Jewish grandparents arriving in America, and hopscotching over the years and back, we get a sense of the blood relatives' blood, sweat, and tears that informed their lives and attitudes. The routes to exploring his roots get anointed by the Pulitzer Prize committee and Oprah Winfrey's book club, but surviving relatives won't take the unflattering revelations (true, distorted, or disputed) lying down and we're led to think that some now deceased are rolling over in their graves.
But don't look for high drama in contradictions and confrontations and sadness; instead, much of the score by Michael Roberts (Charlie Schulman wrote the book) is unrelentingly perky, plucky, and aims to be heartwarming rather than heart-poundingly dramatic. This particular family tree's representatives don't come across as the most intriguing. Perhaps the goal was to make the dramatis personae "generalized" enough to be recognizable or typical in some way, but it also makes them lack the kind of detailed characteristics or quirks that would make them more compelling. They are closer to "types"even stereotypes parading their Jewishness in references, stock personalities. But there is plenty of old-fashioned, feel-good musical comedy Golden Age joy glittering through Goldstein.
Although there are tryingly transparent elements on display, with a palpable dumbed-down determination to be cuddly and convivial, there is craft in admirable amounts in Roberts' score. That applies to both the likeable, instantly accessible and melodic tunes and the attentive rhyming and lyrics that don't meander, but stay on task to make their points efficiently.
Originally called The Goldstein Variations, the musical comes off in the recording as opting for cute over combative, even though there are purported conflicts among kinfolk both in the back-to-back flashbacks with some tensions and in the unsettled reactions to what's in the book. ("Alternate facts," anyone? Proceed gingerly and don't yell, but gritting your teeth and whining are allowed.) Staying in its own low-speed-limit lane, Goldstein has the advantages of being unpretentious, offering pleasantly hummable tunes and efficient lyrics that show craft and care. To an extent, it's a welcome change of pace from scores that can be overblown, with chest-thumping rampages that owe little to musical comedy traditions. Among the chipper songs, "Tell Me All" is a hard-to-resist charmer that feels like a throwback to early 20th century musical comedy courtship numbers, approximate appropriate pastiche for the earlier-generation scene in which it is set. Nonetheless, there's a palpable kind of pat satisfaction, a sense of playing everything "safe," like the material and company are consciously trying not to offend or cross any lines, favoring a kind of TV sitcom sensibility pushing buttons rather than pushing limits.
Arrangements and orchestrations are by the songwriter, also the record producer for this recording, with an eight-member band on hand, expanded from what was heard in the production which opened one year ago this week at The Actors' Temple in Manhattan under Brad Rouse's direction. Sinai Tabak is pianist and musical director. The credits indicate that the accompaniment and the vocals were recorded separately, in different studios. The recording only includes bits of Schulman's book, which is based on an earlier non-musical play of his. The booklet does not offer a plot synopsis or background information, but we do get the words and quite a few photos of the New York production.
The cast of six has spirit and almost business-like briskness. We meet the characters, the living and the ghosts of ancestors, in the rather engaging opener, "They Are Here," as the easygoing memoirist of the Goldstein clan (Zal Owen as Louis) sets thing up. The standout among these singing actors is Meghan McGinnis, playing an aunt at different ages, exhibiting warmth, vulnerability and backbone. The changing world over her long life is reflected in her solo about how "Boys" were treated very differently than girls in her youth, when she was not allowed to pursue educational opportunities because of her gender. The bitterness is not overplayed, but it's there. The actress, memorable in the recording of the two-character Daddy Long Legs musical, appears to be the heart of the show.
Sarah Beth Pfeiffer gets a kind of juicy opportunity to bring sarcasm and snarkiness to the mix that will be a highlight for those waiting for something with some edge: Her big moment to gripe and seethe, addressed to her character's husband, is about the non-joys of frequent weekend trips "Visiting Your Mother." Jim Stanek, Amie Bermowitz, and Aaron Galligan-Stierle round out the company as they express their views, pair off in twos, and schmooze. Topics addressed include starting a business and a family, hopes alive and dashed, and making peace with the past and relatives who are not always honest with each other. The fellow who wrote the tome is a gay character who'd been closeted, but that is not addressed in any of the songs or included spoken material.
You might say that Goldstein begrudgingly presents family conflicts because, well, the consensus is that conflict is the cornerstone of drama. But we get a sense that everybody here sees that as a necessarily evil and would rather rush to moments where people make up or want to make up for lost time and put the rose-colored glasses back on. In the coming-to-America scene, the newly arriving immigrants on ship burst with the happy hopes of what lies "Up Ahead," and want to get there, full steam ahead. What was in store for the Goldstein generations wasn't always smooth sailing, but coming along for the ride has its rewards. And I'd be interested to see what might be "up ahead" for these writers.