REVIEWS: “The Cradle Will Rock” and “The Lehman Trilogy”
I’m fairly certain that Marc Blitzstein, communist author of the seminal 1937 musical “The Cradle Will Rock” about labor strife amid The Great Depression, would have plenty to say about “The Lehman Trilogy”—and none of it too kind.
That’s because the latter work, a new play by Italian poet Stefano Massini, offers a sympathetic portrait of the Lehman brothers, 19th Century Jewish immigrants to America who created a financial services empire that infamously collapsed in 2008, triggering a global financial crisis.
From The Great Depression to The Great Recession, these works, a musical and a play, are now unwittingly in conversation with each other some eighty years and fifty blocks apart, from downtown at Classic Stage Company to the Upper East Side at the Park Avenue Armory. Below I take a look at each:
“The Cradle Will Rock” (Revival Musical, Classic Stage Company): I first saw Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 musical parable “The Cradle Will Rock” in a concert production that kicked off the Encores! Off-Center series at City Center. It was 2013, and Blitzstein’s trenchant exploration of the economic and political disenfranchisement of working people in “Steeltown, USA” amid The Great Depression spoke so clearly to the moment that I was floored by the force of the allegory at hand and its resonance some eight decades after its premiere. Little did I know then what the ensuing six years of American politics would bring. In the era of Trump, the cradle of the nation itself is rocking with a dangerous rapidity, so it’s no surprise that “The Cradle Will Rock” has returned to the stage, and lands anew.
Commissioned as part of the Federal Theatre Project, the original production was infamously shut down by the government on the eve of its opening night over objections to the content. A folk opera, the musical stridently expounds a pro-union message while excoriating nearly every institution of American society—law, journalism, religion, medicine, and academia—for being corrupted by greed. Believing in the urgency of the piece, and with fidelity to freedom in the arts, Director Orson Welles and producer John Houseman subverted government security guards by renting a new space and having their cast perform from the audience with Blitzstein alone on piano, so as not to violate union rules. The story of this famed production was captured in Tim Robbins’ 1999 film “Cradle Will Rock”.
In Blitztein’s metaphor, unregulated capitalism makes prostitutes of us all—an idea that finds increasing popularity in the wake of The Great Recession. For Classic Stage Company, director John Doyle’s typically pared down production pays homage to the original with the score performed on a sole piano by four members of the cast. A strong ensemble of ten occupy a thrust stage scattered with steel drums, a frenzy of wires emanating from a telephone poll string above the audience (set by Mr. Doyle). In the pseudo-propaganda story, Larry Foreman’s (Tony Yazbek) efforts to unionize the workers of Steeltown land him in jail, where he meets a prostitute named Moll (Lara Pulver), and members of the Liberty Committee, an anti-union group funded by the town’s industrial puppeteer Mr. Mister (David Garrison) whose money and influence is everywhere.
The balance of the play explains how Mr. Mister came to corrupt and control every facet of the community, from the pharmacist Harry Druggist (Tony Yazbek) and Dr. Specialist (Eddie Cooper), to the priest Reverend Salvation (Benjamin Eakeley), Editor Daily (Ken Barnett) of the paper, President Prexy (Ken Barnett) of Steeltown University, and eventually the working people themselves, signing up for the Liberty Committee to advocate against their own common interest.
In Mr. Doyle’s production, the once fashionable 1930s agitprop and Brechtian elements of the piece are emphasized—particularly in the near-constant exchange of heaps of cash bribes—giving a sense of what it must have felt like to see the original production. Of course, these conventions are heavy-handed and twee in 2019, since later works of art have expressed the same ideas with greater finesse. Still, the bluntness of Blizstein’s allegory, from the character names to the songs and situations, conveys an unmistakable—and never more necessary—message that is perhaps most effective when delivered with such forceful frankness.
Mr. Doyle streamlines the two act musical into one 90 minute presentation, doubling and tripling characters, to simplify the storytelling. Mr. Yazbek is a standout, as always, but this production ends up being too minimalist for its maximalist ideas, and too one-note in delivery. The result is highly legible but lacks in heart and gut. Then again, “The Cradle Will Rock” is a difficult piece to love for it shines an uncompromising light on the darker truths of the American experience and is the product of an uncompromising artist. Opened April 3rd; runs through May 19th at Classic Stage Company; discount tickets here.
“The Lehman Trilogy” (New Play, Park Avenue Armory): this new play by Italian poet Stefano Massini (translated by Ben Power) contains a fount of contradictions. An epic saga staged on a grand scale in the massive Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory, it unfolds intimately with three actors who play dozens of characters. A fundamentally American story, it’s written by an Italian, and directed and performed by a group of Brits. And in seeking to dramatize and humanize the upstart tale of how three immigrant brothers from Bavaria created a global financial services conglomerate, it glides—wholesale—over any ethical interrogation of their actions or conversation about their greater economic and civic impact. It is a biographical play without a moral or a critical point of view that tells a piece of history somehow devoid of historical context.
In short, the enterprise itself amounts to a visually stunning but morally hollow (or dare I say, bankrupt?) act of socially irresponsible theatre-making teeming with sordid implications that may have passed over the heads of its European audiences but are glaring in this North American premiere. Imagine telling the life story of Bernie Madoff but leaving out the part about the Ponzi scheme; that gives you a sense of what is missing here.
The Lehman brothers who arrived in America separately between 1844 and 1850 were dreamers, sure, but also profited from slavery and even owned slaves themselves. For a century they capitalized on the unpaid or underpaid labor of people of color—from the cotton fields to the building of the railroads—then profited from wars (all of them) and by preying on consumers through subprime lending that sent global financial markets into a tailspin following their bankruptcy. They destroyed lives and livelihoods, but got very rich in the process. Yet, to watch “The Lehman Trilogy” is to generously see these men as scrappy immigrants who achieve the “American Dream” while completely glossing over the fact that that dream was achieved on a fundamentally rotten foundation of exploitation and grift. By the time that the Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) was said for the Lehmans—something that actually happens in this play!—my eyes couldn’t roll back far enough at all the gaslighting.
Despite these grave and nearly fatal political objections, there is still much to admire about this production, imported from the National Theatre in London. For starters, actors Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Ben Miles reprise their acclaimed performances playing the “original” Lehman Brothers, their sons, and grandsons—and a host of ancillary characters—over the course of nearly two centuries of storytelling. In a feat of virtuosic skill and endurance, the three almost never leave the stage during this 3 hour and 20 minute play, and somehow manage to not only remember their lines but keep the action engaging. It’s a cliché, but regardless of its length, the play flies by in no small part due to this suite of masterful performances under the precise direction of Sam Mendes.
Performed in widescreen on a rotating glass box surrounded by a giant, curved cyclorama upon which a series of panoramic video projections (by Luke Halls) suggest the shifting topography of American development—from the cotton fields of antebellum Alabama to the skyscrapers of mid-century Manhattan—the imagery (set by Es Devlin) throughout is powerful and moving. I do wonder, though, if the striking and cinematic visuals are necessary to the piece, which is written almost entirely in third-person narration usually performed by one actor at a time. In rampant violation of the “show, don’t tell” maxim of theatre, almost nothing actually happens on stage such that (another contradiction!) “The Lehman Trilogy”, despite its physical size, might also work just as well as an audio presentation.
In the final analysis, I was impressed by the scale and ambition of this work, but dispirited and flabbergasted by its tone-deaf politics. The legacy of Lehman Brothers ought to be told with the proper context, otherwise the lessons of the Lehman brothers can’t be properly learned. Opened March 27th; runs through April 20th at the Park Avenue Armory; sold out.