By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH
The music and lyrics for “No for an Answer” were written by Marc Blitzstein in 1937, whose earlier musical play, “Cradle Will Rock,” became a popular rallying cry for theater artists during the depression after federal agents closed the theatre in which it was to open. Led by the director and Blitzstein’s friend, Orson Welles, the audience and actors walked 20 blocks to another theater and performed “Cradle” from the audience seats.
Blitzstein tried to get funding for “No for an Answer.” He financed, out of his own pocket, a concert performance for producers, with Carol Channing in the lead. But the show, set in the Catskill resort town of Crest Lake, N.Y., in 1936, was never produced in its entirety.
The play closed after three nights, some felt, because of its leftist views. The political climate in this country at the time (1941, shortly before Pearl Harbor) was a lot like today’s, with the jingoistic atmosphere after the September attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Blitzstein wrote “No for an Answer” as a paean to youthful hope and had said that he was concerned about the chances of youth in the modern world. He was a Communist Party member from 1939 to 1948, and believed that a victory over fascism in Europe should lead to a renewed sense of democracy here in the United States.
Now, 60 years later, his modern opera received its only full-scale premiere at San Francisco’s Zeum Theatre, with a performance by graduate students of the American Conservatory Theatre’s M.F.A. program. It closed Nov. 10.
The opera is based on unemployed Greek and Jewish resort workers in the Catskills in the 1930s who wanted to unionize to ensure stability during the off-season and receive the benefits a union would offer. They started a club, in a restaurant run by Nick Kyriakos, (played by Adam Ludwig), ostensibly as a choral group, led by Cutch, (Mellisa von Siegel).
There, they rehearsed protest songs, interspersed with talk about forming a union. We learn that on the order of the town leaders, some members, among them Kyriakos’ son, Joe (Jed Orlemann), had been arrested and jailed for trying to organize. On his release, he returned to the restaurant.
For one reason or another, some among the urban rich often appear to be fascinated by the radical working-class, who are “low-lifes” to most of them. Blitzstein included this aspect into his script by introducing the characters of Clara (Julie Fitzpatrick), a wealthy woman, and her husband, Paul (alleged to be based on Blitzstein himself, played by Ryan Farley), who visited the club. To Clara, the poor were plotting and dangerous; but Paul thought them noble.
Songs like “Fraught” and “Dimple,” sung and danced by Jessica Diane Turner and Neil Edward Hopkins; and “Penny Candy,” a delightful vaudeville-like diversion, lightened up the show. Still, for every frothy lyric such as these, there were also laments about homelessness and poverty. Like Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht, Blitzstein believed in the power of music and lyric to sharpen the intellect of the playgoers as well as the emotions.
When cops closed the club because of a questioned illegality, the members staged a demonstration on the courthouse steps, stating vociferously that they will not take no for an answer. A town mob, with police backing, burned down the club; Joe was shot in the back.
Undaunted, the protesters said they would rebuild and the meetings would go on. Somewhere in the course of the play, Paul’s wife experienced an epiphany about the social inequalities between the rich and the poor and stayed to help.
After the fire, the club members rejoiced when their mimeograph machine was found. Though covered in soot and ash, it still worked
Nothing is as important to freedom of expression via print than the means to accomplish this on a wide scale. And long before copiers, computers, and the Internet, there was the mimeograph machine. For years it stood as a symbol of the voice of the people (this is probably true today for many countries, and the mimeograph may still be used in some schools in the United States).
Some aspects of the play were not clear. Specifically, Blitzstein never fully explained why the townspeople and authorities of a small resort town in the Catskills were so bent on destroying the club and demoralizing and killing its members. What threat did they pose other than the fact that they were foreigners?
For authorities to burn down the club, shoot people, and put innocent lives in danger smacked of overkill and reminded me somewhat of the FBI’s 1993 attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.
Today, Greeks and Jews in the United States are generally not viewed in the same light as they had been during the Depression years. More recent immigrants, such as Asians and Latinos-as well as Blacks-now face threats and harassment because of the current recession, which is worsening. More people are being laid off, and work is being shifted to countries whose oppressed populations will labor for pennies.
And since Sept. 11, many Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants suffer not only job loss, but racial profiling, detainment, threats, and much worse.
Peter Maleitzke, ACT’s musical director said, “This is a challenging show, no question. … The audience may freak out. It’s not a safe play because it’s about things that matter.”
Some have criticized “No for an Answer” as being dated and stated that it and “The Cradle Will Rock” are period pieces. A quote from the program notes pointed out that “the militant demonstrators protesting the World Trade Organization and allied mechanisms of global capital seem to be warning us today that indeed we are still ‘in the period.'”