That’s Thunder, That’s Lightning

THE CRADLE WILL ROCK and the Lyrics of Marc Blitzstein

[This essay was originally published, in slightly different form, in 2013.]

CONTINUING MY INVESTIGATION of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, I’ve arrived at the first difficult subject. I’m not talking about the ravages of capitalism or the social responsibilities of artists — those are easy subjects. I’m talking about song lyrics.

I’ve made clear that my love for this musical is unequivocal. (For those of you who have just joined us, see my thoughts on Cradle at the City Center, and my essay about the 1938 cast recording.) But in casting a critical eye toward this work, I’ve mostly explained why I think it’s so great, and why I see some of its apparent defects as strengths. I love Blitzstein’s music, and as I’ve said, I think it accounts for a great deal of the work’s power. But I can only say so much about music. I can write in appreciation of Blitzstein’s work as a composer, and I can describe how the music serves the play, and I can document my emotional response to it. But I don’t have a high enough level of musical literacy to formally analyze what makes Blitzstein’s so special. (Nor does this job need doing—I refer you to the great work of Leonard J. Lehrman.) But lyrics . . . I can talk about lyrics.

Marc Blitzstein deserves to be taken seriously as a lyricist. He was a real lyricist, not just a composer who could get by. In fact, his most commercially successful work, his adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, drew on his skill as a lyricist/librettist and not as a composer. His Threepenny remains the only, I repeat, the only truly singable English version of that score, because he was not just a translator/playwright; he brought a lyricist’s feeling for the weight of words and their interaction with music.

Patti LuPone performs “The Nickel Under the Foot” in the 1985 Acting Company production, directed by John Houseman.

Many Blitzstein lyrics suffer from the one-bad-line problem. The lyricist has a beautiful passage that starts well and ends well, but leaves weaknesses in the connective tissue. A good example is the final section of “The Nickel Under Your Foot”:

And if you’re sweet, then you’ll grow rotten,
Your pretty heart covered over with soot.
And if for once you’re gay,
And devil -may-careless, and oh so hot,
I know you’ve got
That nickel under your foot.

The first two lines are perfect. This is the song’s “change in tone,” which I mentioned in my discussion of the 1938 record. Blitzstein needed another rhyme for foot. By this point in the song, he’s already used put twice, and gotten away with it, by setting it in a nice parallel structure with repeated phrases. So you expect to hear that put/foot rhyme again the last time around, and when it doesn’t happen, it wakes you up, signalling this shift in tone. And “your pretty heart covered over with soot” is such a fantastic, poetic, heartbreaking phrase — this is great songwriting.

Of course the song is going to end with a restatement of the title phrase. Blitzstein also has devil-may-careless up his sleeve — a nice bit of wordplay, slightly diminished by sitting awkwardly on the music. The melody emphasizes the second syllable in the word devil. This is the high note. The singer has to draw out a short i sound, and you hear deh-VILMAY-care-less. This matches a similar scan in the first chorus — “Oh, you can dream and scheme / And happily put and take, take and put,” with the second syllable of happily corresponding with the second syllable of devil in the third chorus — so perhaps Blitzstein had some structural intent here. But repeating the problem doesn’t help, and in any case, there’s no equivalent rhyme buried in the second chorus.

And then we have the problematic connective tissue. “And if for once you’re gay” is a true copout. The corresponding line in each previous chorus internally rhymed dream and scheme on the high notes (somewhat marred by scheme’s instead of scheme in the second chorus), and here Blitzstein makes the mistake he avoided with soot. He doesn’t even attempt to match the internal rhyme, and the words are just filler. “And oh so hot” is even worse: Hot is not a precise enough word here, and we don’t really know what Moll means by it; and in oh so we have two unnecessary syllables, propping up the poorly-chosen hot, which is only there to rhyme with got. Hot and got are too close in sound to foot, so this winds up sounding like a failed attempt at rhyme, even though it isn’t; foot is supposed to rhyme with soot, and so it does.

I go into all this detail because I think this characterizes Marc Blitzstein’s lyrics, in Cradle, in Threepenny, in Regina, and in general. There are beautifully crafted passages of wit and elegance and power, and then there are places that make you wonder why this highly capable lyricist keeps letting himself off the hook.

Blitzstein in 1946

RHYME, HOWEVER, IS not Blitzstein’s problem. He is almost impeccable in this department. First, and most importantly, he deals almost exclusively with actual rhymes. In the score of The Cradle Will Rock, there are only four or five failed attempts at rhyme. The first — seven and given — is inexcusable, and it really stands out, coming early in the first song at the very beginning of the show. Later, we get a buried mistake involving press and best, and a forced attempt to rhyme sun with the last syllable of Solomon. And in the otherwise elegant title song, there is an identity (surround and around) where there should be a rhyme. But this is still an excellent scorecard.

Blitzstein more often has problems with emphasis and scanning. A good portion of his lyrics are smoothly rendered, but there are serious lapses. The most egregious scanning errors tend to coincide with the most angular melodies. “The Freedom of the Press” has a very angular vocal line, and poses a real challenge to the lyricist; Blitzstein doesn’t quite rise to it, and the number is full of awkwardly-emphasized passages like this one, which features missed accents, and ends with an unnecessary word added to pad empty space:

I believe newsPAPers
Are GREAT mental SHAPers
Is dePENdent on them, REALLY

This liability also haunts many of the recitative sections in the nightcourt scenes (there is no reason for Moll to drag the word scared out for three syllables!), as well as the song “Honolulu” (“JUNior’s going to BE a journaLIST”). Worse, it nearly destroys the impact of “Art for Art’s Sake,” which is substantively one of the most important songs in the show. I’ve always admired Blitzstein’s willingness (apparently at Brecht’s suggestion) to include artists in his attack on the prostitutes of capitalism, and the message of “Art for Art’s Sake” is still vital. But the point of this short song is obscured by the uneasy marriage of its words and music. It consists of only ten lines, each of which ends with the phrase “for art’s sake,” but the s at the end of art’s slurs together with the s at the beginning of sake, and it sounds like “for our steak,” or something. Too bad.

THE LYRICS FOR The Cradle Will Rock are rich in variety and invention. Each character has a distinct voice, which helps put them across as individuals even though they’re one-dimensional archetypes. The score is a tapestry of techniques: Traditional song; blank verse accompanied or punctuated by music; spoken rhymed verse, with or without rhythm or music; counterpoint; choral response; spoken or sung rhymed or unrhymed dialogue. Cradle resorts to unison choral singing only when it’s dramatically justified, as when the Liberty Committee explodes with impatience (“Oh what a filthy nightcourt!”), or when the entire company reprises the title song as a kind of protest chant. The spoken rhythmic sections of the score (“Hurry up and telephone to Mr. Mister / To hurry up and come to the rescue!”) are particularly deft and innovative. To my knowledge, this technique is not used as extensively or as successfully in another Broadway score until Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, twenty years later.

Micki Grant performs “Joe Worker” in the 1964 Off Broadway revival.

Like all good writers, Blitzstein was a good rewriter. The evolution of the song “Joe Worker” demonstrates his ability, however inconsistently applied, to work out a lyric until he got it right. This song, often a showstopper, was written earlier and interpolated into Cradle. Its original title was “Poor People.” In Blitzstein’s initial 1936 Cradle typescript, it has become “Workpeople.” The title refrain “Joe Worker” is a great improvement. It scans better, and by singularizing the pronouns, Blitzstein makes the lyric more personal. When the character Ella Hammer sings, “they feed him out of garbage cans / They breed him in the slums,” we feel the dehumanizing indifference with which capital treats labor in Ella’s parable. In the earlier draft, with “they feed them” and “they breed them,” the song seemed to participate in that indifference. Elsewhere between the two drafts, Blitzstein makes the kinds of adjustments and refinements known to all meticulous lyricists. “Workpeople will go / And stand outside stores they know” is improved as “Joe Worker will go / To shops where stuff is on show.”

The end of “Joe Worker” is a devastating emotional climax, made effective by the indescribable power of the music and the inventive rightness of the words. Musically, the penultimate line is a restatement from the first chorus, whose lyric asked:

How many toiling, ailing, dying, piled-up bodies,
Brother, does it take,
To make you wise?

Having established his pattern, Blitzstein is able to conclude the second chorus with a surprising and heartrending variation:

How many times machine guns tell the same old story,
Brother, does it take…

The notion of deadly weapons “telling the same old story” is a great piece of lyric invention. The irregular grammar of “how many times machine guns,” complemented by the gathering intensity of the music, perfectly expresses the rage and despair of the character and the situation.

“Hard Times,” as heard in the 1960 City Opera revival. Until Tim Robbins’ 1999 film, this production was the only time the full orchestrations were heard publicly.

For innovation in the musical theater, the most significant individual song in Cradle is probably “Hard Times.” It presents three conversations taking place over three years, between Mrs. Mister and Reverend Salvation (with chorus), and contains some of the sharpest lyrics in the score. The number alternates between musical comedy (for Mrs. Mister) and arioso liturgical pastiche (for Reverend Salvation). Its penultimate line is Mrs. Mister’s hilarious, spoken, unrhymed “I can see the market rising like a beautiful bird!” “Hard Times” is Cradle at its most satirically pointed. It comes early in the show, as the first flashback from the nightcourt, and I take this as a sign of Blitzstein’s daring: Before the evening is over, he will identify members of the press, the arts, medicine, academia, and small business as hypocrites and prostitutes, but he starts with the church.

Scene Six, from the 1964 Off Broadway revival, including “Don’t Let Me Keep You” (aka “The Rich”), “Ask Us Again,” and “Art for Art’s Sake.”

Scene Six, featuring Mrs. Mister and the two artists, Yasha and Dauber, is almost as sharp. The scene culminates in “Art for Art’s Sake,” which is marred by the aforementioned scanning problem. But before we get there, there are two very good songs: The brief “Ask Us Again,” and the main content of the scene, a number sometimes identified by its first line (“Don’t Let Me Keep You”) and sometimes by the title “The Rich.” Yasha and Dauber are more concerned with being artists than with creating art. They fret openly about their careers, and have little to say about their work. Reliant upon Mrs. Mister’s patronage, they quickly agree to join her husband’s Liberty Committee, but have no interest in its substance (“Politics? Cora, we’re artists!”).

For there’s something so damned low about the rich!
It’s incredible, the open way they court you.
All these millionaires, I can’t tell which is which.
What can they do?
What can they do?
What can they do?
Support you.

Yasha and Dauber snidely mock Mrs. Mister’s ignorance and philistinism (“What she doesn’t know about music / Would put Heifetz back on his feet again!”), but take no issue with the social injustice wrought by her family’s stranglehold on the town. They don’t even seem to be aware of it. There is “something so damned low” about their patrons, but apparently it isn’t their oppression of the working class. “Moneyed people,” as Mrs. Mister refers to her crowd, are relevant to Yasha and Dauber’s worldview only for their ability to support Yasha and Dauber. Even the content of their art can be dictated by their backers. This blithe ceding of civic duty among artists is something Marc Blitzstein fiercely protested, not only in his work (see especially “Art For Art’s Sake”), but by example. If the lyrics in Scene Six of Cradle include some of his best writing, perhaps it’s because he knew this criticism of artists could not be taken seriously unless it was also a demonstration of his own creative facility.

Jerry Orbach performs the title song in the 1964 Off Broadway revival.

THE TITLE SONG is a straightforward musical monologue, not really noteworthy for structural or dramatic innovation, but it’s my favorite song in the score, and it contains some of Blitzstein’s best lyric-writing. The song is delivered by Larry Foreman, the union leader who is the nominal hero of Cradle, though he doesn’t appear until late in the action. The verse/intro, which emerges naturally from the spoken lines leading up to it, establishes the song’s central metaphor with playful intensity:

Upon the topmost bough of yonder tree now,
Like bees in their hives,
The lords and their lackeys and wives –
A swingin’ “Rockabye Baby” in a nice big cradle.

Here we have another example of idiosyncratic phrasing — “a swingin’ ‘Rockabye Baby,’” on which the vocal line shifts to a singsong cadence which evokes, without directly quoting, the lullaby from which the title is taken. The phrase “nice big cradle” corresponds with a slowing, descending line in the melody, and it’s left hanging, deliberately unrhymed, establishing tension. The verse goes on to introduce the birds who will figure in the chorus, with more idiosyncratic phrasing, consistent with Larry Foreman’s colloquial spoken language (“a birdie ups and cries…”); then it builds, lyrically and musically, to the explosive chorus:

That’s thunder, that’s lighting,
And it’s going to surround you!
No wonder those stormbirds
Seem to circle around you!
Well, you can’t climb down, and you can’t sit still;
That’s a storm that’s going to last until
The final wind blows…and when the wind blows…
The cradle will rock!

The aforementioned identity (surround/around) notwithstanding, this is crystalline work, the lyric as exquisite in its simplicity as the music in its sophistication. The words, no less than the music, give this number its heart-racing power, its bracing mixture of anger and optimism. I think any other lyricist, including me, would have written “that thunder, that lightning.” It seems good, and correct, and obvious. It is good, and it is correct, and here’s our problem — it is also obvious. Blitzstein’s lyrics were sometimes careless, but they were almost never generic or drab. His words, like his music, don’t always wind up where you think they’re heading. They’re full of quirky phrases and unexpected word usage, in some ways similar to the work of another politically-conscious Broadway lyricist, Yip Harburg.

Blitzstein with members of the original cast, 1937 or ‘38

“That’s thunder, that’s lightning” — We are not describing the weather; we’re pointing directly at the sky and telling you what’s what. Larry Foreman, is not waxing poetic. He’s gloating, reveling in a fantasy of the oppressors’ downfall. At the end of the chorus, Blitzstein has a particular challenge: He has to drive home his cradle metaphor, and end the chorus as a galvanizing battle-cry, even though we all know what’s coming.

“That’s a storm that’s going to last until / The final wind blows”—Blitzstein begins this couplet with the word that’s, neatly referring back to the first lines of the chorus. The tempo and intensity of the music make it possible for Blitzstein to gracefully split “until / The final wind” over two lines without an awkward break. It’s correct for until to be the rhymed word here (rhyming with “you can’t sit still”), because it leads into the key phrase of the show. The accented rhyme on until provides the sense of an anticipatory pause, which is necessarily missing from the music.

(In an earlier nightcourt scene, Blitzstein is less successful with the same technique:

And see that goes for you too.
I must admit they’re new to
This place…

The words emphasized by the rhymes needn’t be emphasized, and the melody line creates an unnatural break in the middle of a thought.)

“The final wind blows…and when the wind blows…” — The repeated lyric corresponds with a repeated musical phrase, and then both explode into the inevitable, but still thrilling, exclamation of the title. The music is all sharp, bouncing, forward momentum, and so is the lyric. The phrases which straddle line breaks are the connections between ideas. The song dramatizes the character’s thought process. The conclusion is a quote from a universally-known, seemingly benign children’s lullaby (which is actually kind of terrifying). In sharing his vision of what the future holds for the Liberty Committee and their like, Larry Foreman is drawing on something each of us has known since childhood. We all know what happens when the wind blows. This is also an illustration of the power of music and lyrics to inform a worldview, something Blitzstein had eschewed in his avant-garde period, but had come to care about deeply by 1936.

The second chorus begins the same as the first one, but wraps up with a slightly different and less ingenious lyric. The second time around, we get the end of a thought where we were previously left hanging with until. Therefore, “the wind blows” no longer seems like the conclusion of a thought process. There’s no longer any dramatic justification for repeating the phrase, so it now feels like a poetic affectation: “For when the wind blows…Oh, when the wind blows…”

“The cradle will rock” is an incredible phrase. It combines the soothing gentleness of a baby’s lullaby with a sense of menace. In Blitzstein’s appropriation, the cradle contains not an innocent child, but corrupt professionals who profit at the expense of the less fortunate. Since the impending doom inherent in the phrase “the cradle will rock” is theirs, the spirit of the title song is both dark and joyful. This is an assurance about the future, as opposed to reassurance about the present: Right now, we are the victims of great injustice, but we’re not helpless, and if we take collective action, the cradle will rock. This is great art as well as great agitprop.

Orson Welles in 1937

WE CHILDREN OF the Sondheim revolution are slow to realize how recently the musical theatre changed. Certainly, when Blitzstein wrote Cradle in 1936, there was no precedent for this level of storytelling, characterization, and integration of elements in musicals. It was not really a musical, according to what the term meant at the time. Blitzstein, at a loss for words, described the work as an opera, or “a play in music.” What premiered at the Venice Theatre on June 16, 1937 was not just a new work, but a new form. Hallie Flanagan, the visionary director of the Federal Theatre Project, recalled in her memoir: “This was not just a play set to music, nor music illustrated by actors, but music and play equaling something new and better than either.” And here’s Orson Welles, from his 1938 preface to the published libretto:

“The work is apparently indestructible. And what is more interesting, it is certainly entirely new. The arts of Music and the Play have had efficient business relationships in the past, an occasional partnership and a few happy marriages. Here, finally, is their first offspring. It is a love-child, and besides being legitimate, it looks like both its parents, and it is called a ‘music drama.’ As a matter of fact, it isn’t easy to find a title for a new art form. Just now of course this one has only one real name: The Cradle Will Rock.

Orson Welles had a social conscience, though he was not above working the street corner (what evil lurks in the hearts of men?), and ultimately was more interested in art than in social causes. It’s still remarkable, and a measure of Cradle as a leap forward for its form, that Welles chose to emphasize not the show’s political messages, or the behind-the-scenes drama of its original production, but its formal originality as a work of art.

Originally published at