Two of the most striking works of social criticism hitting local stages this season are musical theater pieces more than 50 years old. And they’re both informed by the political imagination of one largely overlooked composer, librettist, and playwright. Marc Blitzstein was the musical prodigy of a rich Philadelphia banker, gay and leftist in a mid 20th-century America hostile to both. He adapted Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” into an opera, translated and adapted Kurt Weill’s and Bertolt Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” for the American stage, and became a close friend to Leonard Bernstein. In 1964, Blitzstein was on holiday on the island of Martinique, where he was robbed and beaten by three sailors, who he had picked up in a bar. He internally bled to death at the age of 58.
Blitzstein was also deeply committed to the idea that art should have political imperative, which shaped his output. “Music must have a social as well as artistic base,” he wrote, “it should broaden its scope and reach not only the select few but the masses.”
That spirit expanded the possibilities for musicals ever since, and Blitzstein’s own political commentary is as pertinent today as it was in his time. Baltimore’s Iron Crow Theater kicked off its season last fall with an updated and stripped-down production of Blitzstein’s most infamous work, 1937’s “The Cradle Will Rock,” and StillPointe Theater begins its new season this week with Leonard Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti,” which is dedicated to Blitzstein.
Both are sprightly, popular entertainments that are uncompromisingly critical of the America of their times, and ours. “Cradle” tells the seriocomic story of a businessman, Mr. Mister, completely taking over the make-believe Steeltown, U.S.A. He uses his wealth to corrupt law enforcement, the political establishment, the press, and artists; the only thing that stands in his way are unionizing steelworkers. Its original 1937 production, produced by John Houseman and directed by Orson Welles, was legendarily quashed by the Works Progress Administration that funded it, leading to a celebrated performance by Blitzstein solo onstage with cast members joining him from the audience.
“This unabashedly anti-capitalist 1937 piece was the first musical ever shut down by the federal government for fear of societal revolt and is a defiant indictment of capitalism and socio-political corruption,” writes Iron Crow’s artistic director Sean Elias, who also directed the company’s version, in an email interview. Elias was part of a “Cradle” production as an undergraduate at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, and has been a fan ever since. “It’s as much an attack on wealth and the political power it unjustly wields, as it is an homage to those with nothing, fighting to survive. Could this be any more relevant to the election of 2016 and this current administration?”
“Tahiti,” which premiered in 1952, is a one-act opera about a troubled marriage in the suburban, shining-city-on-a-hill imagination of postwar America. The cast is small—the husband Sam and wife Dinah, and a stylish vocal trio that represents the idealized version of America that was being advertised in radio jingles—and the story takes place over one day. That day unpacks a wealth of turmoil roiling just beneath the surface of the couple’s lives—Dinah’s in therapy, Sam is having an affair with his secretary—and they, perhaps futilely, seek the temporary escapist balm of a movie called “Trouble in Tahiti.” The idea of marital discord as a metaphor for American anomie can feel like a well-trod theme (see also: everything from John Cheever short stories up through “Mad Men”) but in 1952, the paint was barely dry on Levittown’s first picket fences and Bernstein was already calling bullshit on this latest lie of American exceptionalism.
David Schweizer, who is directing StillPointe’s production, appreciates the way Bernstein “upends the whole shiny ’50s American dream,” he says. Schweizer, who grew up in Baltimore, started directing plays in the early 1970s at Joe Papp’s Public Theater in New York, and has been an imaginative director for hire ever since. He began regularly returning to Baltimore to direct plays at Center Stage in the late 1990s, where he met StillPointe co-founding creative director Ryan Haase, who assisted him more recently. In recent years Schweizer has been working on premiering new opera projects for companies around the country, and when Haase approached him about working with StillPointe, Bernstein’s “Tahiti” came to mind, as 2018 is the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth.
“Bernstein’s works are more emotional than political in a conventional sense,” Schweizer says, adding that by dedicating “Tahiti” to Blitzstein, a larger American critique is imbued in the opera. “Blitzstein has a much more obviously lefty, quasi-Kurt Weillian and Brechtian thing going on, but I think Bernstein purposely alerted us that in case we were imagining that he was amusing himself with this easy target of suburban satire, he did see a relationship between that climate and the damage it did to people’s lives. He doesn’t buy the bright and shiny American dream stuff. And by dedicating it to Marc Blitzstein, he was saying, pay more attention than you might think you need to.”
For anybody whose first exposure to musicals was only catching touring versions of popular Broadway fare—a “Cats” here, a “Starlight Express” there—paying more attention than you might think you need to is good advice with which to approach musical theater in general. As America’s first mass entertainment, musicals can be too easily dismissed for being as opportunistically superficial as blockbuster movies and mainstream television, the song and dance to wrap around advertisements for consumption. But unlike independent movies or small-market television series, the scale of musical theater, and the ideas it can advocate, makes it much more economically accessible. DIY theater companies can and do mount ambitious musical projects on nonexistent budgets all across America, creating imaginative experiences that movies and TV can’t touch.
“I think what makes musical theater an ideal platform for radical or even non-mainstream ideas is that it happens live, in front of you, in the now,” Elias says. Iron Crow’s production of “Cradle,” he says, was a direct response to and protest against the current administration and evils of unregulated capitalism, but notes that the musical had lost the comedic edge it had for 1930s audiences.
“I think audiences were experiencing this story as possibility rather than fact,” he says. “Now, with 80 years of history behind us, it’s harder to see the humor in what we know has happened, or what we think is happening, or what we fear could happen again. There’s something about history repeating itself for us as audience members that didn’t exist in the same way in 1930s, and that gives ‘Cradle’ it’s dark and sharp edge today.”
Elias notes that how Blitzstein infused a political critique into his hummable scores provided a path for later composers/librettists to follow (see also: “Chicago,” “Cabaret,” “Hair,” “Spring Awakening”) and Schweizer says the past decade or so has witnessed a rekindled interest in what he calls music-driven theater, a catch all for operas, musicals, and narrative musical performance.
“I think that part of it is that there are young artists who want to create in this mode and they’re no longer scared off by the economics,” he says. “They’re just figuring out ways around it.”
He also notes that even big opera companies and musical producers are embracing new, edgier works that are finding both commercial and critical success. “Fun Home,” the musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name about growing up young and lesbian in a dysfunctional home, won three Tony awards in 2015 and went on to a national tour. Schweizer directed the debut of “The Long Walk,” an opera based on Brian Castner’s book about his experiences commanding an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in Iraq and his transition home, which is beginning to be produced around the country.
“Politics comes in a lot of different forms,” Schweizer says. “‘The Book of Mormon,’ a wild commercial success, is also highly political. I think people today, not in any concerted effort, are turning to this music-driven format to tell a very wide range of challenging stories.”
“Trouble In Tahiti” opens Jan. 12 at St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and runs every Friday and Saturday through Jan. 27. For more information, visit stillpointetheatre.com.