Monday, November 5, 2012

Howard Pollack's "Marc Blitzstein"

Howard Pollack is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of Music at the University of Houston and author of, among other books, John Alden Carpenter: A Chicago Composer; Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man; and George Gershwin: His Life and Work. His latest book is Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World.

Here Pollack shares some insight on the stage and screen adaptations of The Cradle Will Rock, words and music by Blitzstein:
The life of the American composer-librettist Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964) had its fair share of drama, from his early years as a piano prodigy and enfant terrible to his turbulent marriage to the brilliant writer Eva Goldbeck, their travels together through Europe (including deportation from Belgium for alleged subversive activities), Eva’s tragically young death from anorexia, the legendary 1937 Broadway premiere of The Cradle Will Rock (for which Blitzstein wrote the words and music), his involvement with Orson Welles, John Houseman, and the Mercury Theatre, his leftist and pro-Soviet activities, his years of service during World War II (including coaching the U.S. Army Negro Chorus and traveling the French countryside collecting Resistance songs in the service of William Wyler’s documentary The True Glory), his homosexual adventures and affairs, his landmark adaptation of Brecht-Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (which helped make “Mack the Knife” one of the great hits of the century), his confrontation with the House on Un-American Activities Committee, and his own tragic death at the hands of three seamen in Martinique in 1964.

The premiere of The Cradle alone has inspired not only the play It’s All True (1999) by Jason Sherman, but two unfilmed screenplays --- Rocking the Cradle (early 1980s) by Ring Lardner Jr. (one of the Hollywood Ten) and The Cradle Will Rock (1984) by Orson Welles (his final screenplay, and dedicated to Blitzstein’s memory) –- along with one script that made it to the screen, namely, Cradle Will Rock (1999), written and directed by Tim Robbins. Whereas Welles contemplated casting the witty, urbane, and irreverent Canadian comedian David Steinberg as Blitzstein, Tim Robbins chose the more soulful Hank Azaria to play the composer. (Robbins also cast, in a small cameo, Susan Heimbeinder as wife Eva.) Welles had the advantage of being able to draw on his friendship with the composer --- who, for all his melancholia, typically came across as gracious, energetic, and, to quote Joan Peyser, “juicy in every way” --- in imagining Steinberg in the part. As for Robbins, it would be interesting to know more about how he made the decisions he did with regard to the casting of Blitzstein and others involved with the original Cradle, including casting Angus Macfadyen as Welles, Cary Elwes as John Houseman, Cherry Jones as Hallie Flanagan, Henry Stram as Hiram Sherman, and John Turturro as essentially Howard Da Silva, although here slightly veiled as Aldo Silvano. Robbins in all likelihood knew that the Italian-sounding Da Silva, who in the years after The Cradle created the role of Jud Fry in Oklahoma! (and who was born Howard Silverblatt), was Jewish, but making the character Italian gave the filmmaker the opportunity to flesh out a fictional subplot in which Turturro/Silvano could enter into conflict with his Mussolini-admiring relatives. Such are the vagaries of theatrical presentations of historical events.
Learn more about Marc Blitzstein at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue