MARC BLITZSTEIN, a musical playwright and composer, was born on this date. Combining a love of music and theater with the social principles of the American left, Blitzstein composed the definitive Depression opera in The Cradle Will Rock (1936), the closest work of art produced in America to the genius of Brecht and Weill.
He won national attention in 1937 when his pro-union musical The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Orson Welles, was shut down by the Works Progress Administration. In addition to The Cradle Will Rock he is known for his Off-Broadway translation/adaptation of The Three Penny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. His works also include the opera Regina, an adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes; the Broadway play, Juno, based on Seán O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock; and No for an Answer. He completed translation/adaptations of Brecht’s and Weill’s musical play Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and of Brecht’s play Mother Courage and Her Children with music by Paul Dessau. Blitzstein also composed music for films, such as Surf and Seaweed (1931) and The Spanish Earth (1937), and he contributed two songs to the original 1960 production of Hellman’s play Toys in the Attic.
The dramatic premiere of the pro-union The Cradle Will Rock took place at the Venice Theater on June 16, 1937. The cast had been locked out of the Maxine Elliott Theatre by the Works Progress Administration, the government agency which had originally funded the production, so the cast and musicians walked with the audience to the nearby Venice. There, without costumes or sets, they performed the work concert-style, actors and musicians alike, sitting among the audience (to evade union restrictions on their performance) with Blitzstein narrating from the piano. In 1939, Leonard Bernstein led a revival of the play at Harvard, narrating from the piano just as Blitzstein had done. Blitzstein attended the performance, after which he and Bernstein became close friends; Bernstein would later say that Blitzstein’s contribution to the American musical theatre was “incalculable”. The 1999 film Cradle Will Rock was based on this event, though heavily embellished. In the film, Blitzstein (played by Hank Azaria) is portrayed as gaining inspiration through ghostly appearances by his idol Brecht and his late anorexic wife.
Blitzstein was openly gay. He wrote to his sister in 1929, regarding prior attempts to suppress or hide his orientation, “it is absurd to assume there are no sins; there are definitely Cardinal sins — sins against oneself, against one’s law. My sin is, has been… the willingness to corrupt my nature.” His first lover was the conductor Alexander Smallens, with whom he traveled to Europe in 1924. Blitzstein nevertheless married novelist Eva Goldbeck in 1933. They had no children. His mother-in-law was Berlin-born musical star and opera singer Lina Abarbanell. He dedicated a number of works, including Romantic Piece for Orchestra (1930), String Quartet, ‘The Italian’ (1930), the ballet Cain (1930), and the Serenade for String Quartet (1932) to his wife-to-be. She died of anorexia in 1936, and his grief prompted him to throw himself into the work of creating The Cradle Will Rock.
It’s hardly surprising that Blitzstein’s English version of Brecht and Weill’s Three–Penny Opera ran for years on Broadway and sparked a recent Weill revival. Sadly, in 1968, the composer was murdered by a hustler in Fort-de-France, Martinique, while at work on an opera about Sacco and Vanzetti.