Sam Gold, one of the most in-demand stage directors working today, opens City Center’s new Encores! Off-Center series tomorrow with a five-performance run of Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 agitprop pop opera, “The Cradle Will Rock.”
Hollywood these days may be infatuated with stories about Wall Street corruption and greed, but for the theater, it’s been a long-term romance. “Cradle” is about a showdown between Mr. Mister, the owner of a steel factory, and Larry Foreman, an idealistic organizer determined to unionize the workers.
Funded by the New Deal-era Works Projects Administration and staged by Orson Welles, the politically explosive show was shut down during the final days of rehearsal. On opening night, 600 audience members were redirected to an abandoned theater where the cast performed from their seats in the audience, Blitzstein accompanying on piano.
I spoke with Gold in a rehearsal room during a planning break with choreographer Chase Brock. Wearing navy blue slacks, gray New Balance sneakers and a T-shirt, he sported fashionable scruff and unkempt, curly hair.
Tarmy: So much of the narrative about this piece is tied to its original production.
Gold: It’s a great story, and it became theater lore, but I want people to come to City Center to see “The Cradle Will Rock,” not the show that the story is about.
Tarmy: Why revisit this piece, now?
Gold: Jeanine Tesori, the artistic director of this program, wanted to inaugurate the new series with it. I’ve been thinking a lot about my civic responsibility as a young artist. Who pays my bills, what my rights are, what I’m responsible to as an artist.
Tarmy: Who does pay your bills?
Gold: Mostly nonprofit theaters. They have a certain structure for how the work gets paid for and how they pay the artist, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to make my work for a subscriber audience, what it means to make my work for mostly corporate and individually funded nonprofits, and what my relationship is to civic responsibility.
Tarmy: Would you say you’re a responsible citizen?
Gold: My grandmother-in-law was a union organizer and a communist. She died last month and in her will she said to her family, “No one in the generation of my grandchildren is political, and no one fights for the causes we were fighting for. I still believe the revolution is coming, and you’re not fighting for it...I’m still going to leave you my estate. But I want you to know I’m disappointed.”
Tarmy: She never expressed disappointment while she was alive?
Gold: Oh, she said it all the time. It was just amazing reading it in her will. To see her in her 90s at Occupy Wall Street -- she was in her 90s with more stamina to stand out there with a sign than I was. I just bought a co-op in Park Slope.
Tarmy: Can theater be a political tool anymore?
Gold: In the abstract the answer has to be “yes.” Theater has to be political. Do I see a lot of theater artists in my community really engaging in overt political or social change? Not my particular community. Certainly not my work.
Tarmy: This play is close to 80 years old. How do you make it appeal to a more contemporary audience?
Gold: It was written to hit you over the head over and over and over again, until it stops being appealing and you gain a critical distance in which to think about the issues. So my goal would be not to make it more palatable to a contemporary audience, but to honor the spirit of the artists who were trying to effect political and social change. I believe in a didactic theater. I believe in propaganda.
Tarmy: How does that affect your casting choices?
Gold: I like to work with people over and over again, because you develop a vocabulary together. And it’s nice if they can also sing the songs, too. Because if they sing it badly you can kind of write it off.
Tarmy: Today, so much theater is considered entertainment, escapism.
Gold: I’d like people to think about labor, the disparity of wealth and corporate greed. These are very much issues in our national conversation right now. When any good director does an old play, it has to relate to our moment. Theater is live and in the present.
“The Cradle Will Rock” runs July 10-13 at City Center, 131 W. 55th St. Information: +1-212-581-1212; http://www.nycitycenter.org.
(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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