Philly firebrand who mentored Bernstein is back in the spotlight, big-time

John Tibbetts (left) and Scott Purcell in Opera Saratoga’s revival of Philly composer Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock.”

SARATOGA — Philadelphia is finally owning Marc Blitzstein as a cultural hero who arose from its own streets and musical institutions before being killed in Martinique in 1964 in an apparent gay-bashing. A historical marker erected last month outside his birthplace on Pine Street commemorates his impact — as a mentor to Leonard Bernstein among other things.

With the current rehabilitation by Opera Saratoga of Blitzstein’s best-known composition, the 1937 opera-of-sorts The Cradle Will Rock, Blitzstein is again attracting national attention. Often discussed but not often heard in full, it plays through Sunday at the Spa Little Theater.

The sleek, mustachioed composer, born in 1905, began as a blazing Depression-era star, influenced key figures from Bernstein to Bob Dylan, and had many noble failures. But who, exactly, was he?

“When he came into the room, the lights got brighter …” Orson Welles once said. It was Welles who originally directed The Cradle Will Rock, Blitzstein’s paean to the unionized working class. “He was an engine, a rocket directed in one direction, which was his opera, which he almost believed had only to be performed to start the revolution.”

Marc Blitzstein (Courtesy of Opera Saratoga)

The government-sponsored Federal Theatre Project, which developed the show, officially canceled that first production’s opening night due to the piece’s incendiary nature, so the actors marched up to Manhattan to another theater, where Blitzstein performed the piece alone onstage at the piano while the actors sang their roles from the audience.

Since then, The Cradle Will Rock has almost been eclipsed by its ever-fascinating backstage story. Even the rollicking 1999 Tim Robbins film Cradle Will Rock only hinted at the artistry behind it.

But at Opera Saratoga’s opening night last Sunday, Blitzstein emerged from his own shadow.

The production pulled no punches. Set in Steeltown USA, lorded over by ultra-wealthy Mr. Mister, the show’s social ecosystem includes a desperate prostitute, a passionate labor organizer, a corrupt clergyman, a clueless arts patron, and much else in a story that’s a pageant with a narrative.

Amid flashbacks, they all get satirical star turns in the skeletal set whose sketchy nature keeps up with Blitzstein’s swift, cinematic scene shifts. After Reverend Salvation’s big number, a glitzy dollar sign was hung up on the cross that dominated the set.

In this piece about angry people, the Lawrence Edelson-directed production had no polite veneer to soften Blitzstein’s social outrage, with a cast that had the scrupulousness of opera but the theatricality of Broadway.

The coup was Opera Saratoga’s musical restoration: Though The Cradle Will Rock has a tradition of bare-bones piano accompaniment, the Curtis Institute-trained Blitzstein wrote sophisticated orchestrations that are heard in the 1960 New York City Opera live recording on the Cantus Classics label. But that performance only hints at the added dimension that the orchestrations brought to the characters at Opera Saratoga under conductor John Mauceri, a longtime Blitzstein champion.

What might be mere caricatures from the distant apex of 1930s Communist Party USA felt real. The muscular, raucous, free-ranging, in-your-face music seems to embrace whatever was in the winds of 1937 — including bracing harmonic splashes of Aaron Copland and slinky rhythms from Kurt Weill — all in Blitzstein’s own synthesis. And here’s the best news: This production will be commercially recorded.

Surely, there’s other Blitzstein out there that’s worth discovering. Isn’t there?

Well, it’s complicated.

After Cradle, Blitzstein left a large range of work whose merits polarize even the most intelligent, like-minded listeners, including the Broadway musical Juno, the grandiose Airborne Symphony, and the never-completed Metropolitan Opera commission Sacco and Vanzetti. 

His most durable stage work isn’t his own. He adapted and translated the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht Threepenny Opera — resetting it in 1910 Philadelphia in one early version.

So powerful was the adaptation that young Bob Dylan had a life-changing experience upon encountering the song “Pirate Jenny” with Blitzstein’s English lyrics, according to biographer Howard Pollack’s excellent Marc Blitzstein His Life, His Work, His World (Oxford University Press).

But in his own works, Blitzstein the dramatist dares you to like Blitzstein the composer. His works are so message-heavy that he seemed to curb any temptation to be musically ingratiating, lest the message be lost amid nice tunes.

Blitzstein could write good melodies. In The Cradle Will Rock, “Nickel Under Your Foot” (beautifully sung in Saratoga by Ginger Costa-Jackson) is attractively bluesy but never simply pretty. “I Wish it So,” a halting character study from Juno, was a hit almost in spite of itself. Even his inspirational celebration of aviation in Airborne Symphony ends with a list of the great cities destroyed by bombs.

In Blitzstein’s least-political work, his 1949 opera Regina (an adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes), much of his score stays out of the foreground, framing the drama more than seizing it. Eight years later, Bernstein seized a Regina motif and made it blossom into his signature song, “Maria.”

Blitzstein could have done something like that, but his choices weren’t mainstream.

Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 (“Kaddish”) follows Blitzstein’s Airborne example, combining orchestra, narrator, voices, and chorus, but explores an idea that will never become as technologically dated as aviation: belief in God.

Post-Blitzstein composers including Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim modify their compositional voices with each major piece. But Blitzstein’s can be hard to recognize from one piece to the next.

All such observations are provisional since there’s so much Blitzstein we don’t know. The folk opera Reuben Reuben, about a war veteran who is unable to speak, drove Boston audiences toward the exit signs. Some said it was a work of genius; others called it incomprehensible. Unfinished works such as Sacco and Vanzetti  — the score of which was found in the trunk of Blitzstein’s automobile by a used-car salesman — are said to have his best music.

Some works have been completed by others. But biographer Pollack says in his book that both pieces are so fragmentary as to be “irretrievable in some fundamental ways.”

Pollack concludes that Blitzstein would have reestablished himself as a leader in American musical theater had he finished these pieces. At the moment, it’s fair to say Blitzstein changed the world through others who followed his lead. But with his other works reexamined as intelligently as in Saratoga, might his impact become more direct?