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The Offstage Musical

The Cradle Will Rock brings agitprop theater, accompanied by a play to explain the politically charged musical, to St. Louis


On June 16, 1937, the federal government barred the doors of a New York theater to prevent the musical The Cradle Will Rock from being performed.

The powers that be, rattled by pre-McCarthy paranoia that communists were infiltrating our democracy, had gotten wind of Cradle's muckraking message: In a world of capitalism, anyone and anything can be bought by big business, from the government to the schools to the church to the press to revolutionaries themselves.

The allegorical musical features puppetmaster businessman Mr. Mister and a populace of manipulated townies, such as the hypocritical Rev. Salvation, the bootlicking artist Dauber and lost soul Harry Druggist. Larry Foreman is the young hero fighting for right; Moll, the character who symbolizes the audience, is a prostitute. There's an opportunity for every stripe of American to be offended.

Understand that Cradle was written at a time when nascent labor unions and industry clashed on the streets, leaving people injured and sometimes dead. The Great Depression left some intellectuals feeling that maybe this democracy thing wasn't all it was cracked up to be and that the promise of forced equality through socialism might be worth looking into. FDR's scrappy alphabet-soup programs were giving folks some hope, though.

That's where the Federal Theatre Project came in. The FTP and its ambitious leader, Hallie Flanagan, offered work to unemployed theater professionals in a bold plan to spread live theater throughout the land.

The only problem was the single-minded anti-communist watchdogs who encouraged the feds to stop funding any play that contained a whiff of anti-democratic sentiment -- and Cradle had much more than a whiff.

The story of how director Orson Welles, producer John Houseman, writer Marc Blitzstein and the company gave life to Cradle, frantically finding a new theater to perform in on opening night and skirting the rules such that the actors performed the musical while standing among the audience and never venturing onstage is the subject of the Tim Robbins movie Cradle Will Rock and the more historically accurate play It's All True, written by Jason Sherman and performed by the HotHouse Theatre Company.

New Line will present the original musical and HotHouse will perform the play about the musical in "rotating repertory" in the same blackbox space. HotHouse managing director Donna Parroné calls these works "agitprop theater" and says, "Theater's really kind of fallen into the entertainment section of our country, and here's a time period [the 1930s] when it wasn't."

Imagine the power of that hot June night in 1937, when the Cradle actors had a momentous decision before them: to defy the federal government and perform the musical they'd worked so hard to hone or to knuckle under to Mr. Mister for real. Life imitated art, and the actors stood up and became freedom fighters.

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