Marker Highlights Composer Lost in History

A new historical marker honoring Philadelphia composer Marc Blitzstein was unveiled June 12. | Marissa Stern

A crowd gathered at 419 Pine St., the birthplace of Marc Blitzstein, on a 90-some degree June 12.

Curious passersby across the street looked over to find Philly actress Liz Filios singing “Nickel Under the Foot” from The Cradle Will Rock, accompanied by composer Leonard Lehrman.

The performance was part of a morning’s celebration of Blitzstein, a Philadelphia native born in 1905 who later studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and became the composer of such works as Cradle, Regina, an adaptation of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (the song “Mack the Knife” may ring a bell) and much more — though you may have never heard of him.

Michael Norris has tried to change that for 25 years.

“He was just a really great artist and he was born right here, and he’s been kind of overshadowed and forgotten,” said Norris, who works for the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, though this was a separate “labor of love” for him.

“He also was someone who really — in addition to being a great artist and a great composer — was very concerned about social causes and saw a great link between his role as an artist and his ability to advance progressive causes and civil rights,” he added of Blitzstein, an openly gay man, though he was married to writer Eva Goldbeck until her untimely death. “I feel like he was kind of the forerunner of artists we need more of today, now more than ever.”

Norris and Terry Graboyes applied for a historical marker from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in the fall, and, on June 12, a new blue marker was unveiled. Speakers like Lehrman, the author of Marc Blitzstein: A Bio-Bibliography who has completed some of Blitzstein’s unfinished operas like Sacco and Vanzetti, were on hand to celebrate the artist’s career and life.

This week marks the 80th anniversary of Cradle, a satirical political folk opera set in Steeltown, USA against the backdrop of a steel strike and the all-powerful Mr. Mister.

But the legacy of its opening night might outdo the musical itself.

As the 1937 musical, directed by Orson Welles, was set to open, as a PBS article recounts, “fearing The Cradle Will Rock’s pro-labor message will cause further damage to the [Works Progress Administration], on the eve of opening night, federal authorities shut the production down.”

As Welles and producer John Houseman searched for another venue, the cast and audience marched 20 blocks to another theater, the article said. As Blitzstein opened the musical, the cast members — sitting in the audience as Actors’ Equity barred them from performing the show onstage — began to stand and say their lines.

Six months later, the musical had its Broadway premiere, and several iterations and revivals have followed suit in past years.

The timing of the musical’s anniversary provided an impetus for the historical dedication as well as a reading of Jason Sherman’s It’s All True later that night at the National Museum of American Jewish History, which tells the story of Cradle’s opening night.

The musical’s story itself is one that resonates to Norris even 80 years later.

“It’s a story that’s still playing out in terms of how you balance the needs of workers against the needs of companies and owners,” he said, citing present-day examples like the ongoing movement to raise minimum wage.

Grayboyes hopes that festivities around Cradle’s anniversary and the marker will invigorate a new generation to learn about Blitzstein.

“The reason for doing this, obviously, is that Marc has almost been forgotten where his other contemporaries are well remembered,” she said, such as many of the musicians whom he mentored and developed friendships with like Leonard Bernstein.

“Going back as far as the Jews have been in this country, we have had a major impact on music,” she added, “and again, Marc’s gotten forgotten in all that and my real goal in being involved in this was that folks in Philadelphia hopefully will rekindle an interest in seeing Marc’s works.”

She helped incorporate nearby Society Hill Synagogue, of which she is a member, to the morning’s activities as the synagogue hosted a reception afterward.

When Graboyes approached Rabbi Avi Winokur of the day’s events, he was immediately onboard — and became even moreso after he learned more about Blitzstein, who died in 1964.

“I did a little bit of research and I realized that this guy is a hidden gem,” Winokur said. “He’s one of those artists that history can just pass right over unless you do something about it.”

Learning of Cradle’s opening night “really focused my attention on what he did and what he stood for because the Jews have so long been involved with the labor movement and the struggle for human rights and he used his art to further that cause,” he added.

Sarah Davis grew up hearing stories about her great-uncle Marc and recalled how revered he was in their family.

“He was like a god, he really was, in my family,” she said, noting that she was born after he died and as the youngest sibling, she was always listening in on the adults in her family as they talked about him. A photo of Blitzstein, who she described as always beautifully dressed, hung in her father’s study.

The marker ceremony was a big deal for her family and she hopes it will inspire more productions of his work.

“He just is constantly neglected in this city and he really is an important part of Philadelphia’s history — part of its Jewish history but [also] part of its artistic history,” she said. “Some of it may have had to do with politics. He was a real lefty at a time when that was not always easy to be, and he was gay at a time when that was not always easy to be, so he was a little bit — as a few people said — [of] an outsider.

“But even so, the music was so great that for that alone he should be recognized more, so it’s really nice to see that happening a little bit. Let’s hope it continues.”

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