March 2, 1905- Marc Blitzstein
Blitzstein was a composer and lyricist of enormous innovation and influence. He remains one of the most versatile and fascinating figures in the history of American music. His creations include films scores, Broadway musicals, operas, art songs and chamber pieces. A prominent leftist and a social maverick, Blitzstein constantly pushed at the edges of convention of mid-20th century America in both his work and his life.
Despite being open about his gayness, Blitzstein married a woman when he was 23 years old. He and his wife, Eva Goldbeck, stayed married, united by love and loyalty to their Leftist causes, until Goldbeck’s death in 1936. Because of the era in which he lived, Blitzstein needed to be publicly closeted, but he was honest about his homosexuality with friends and colleagues. His erotic life was exclusively gay. His homosexuality provided him with sympathy for the outsiders of this world that motivated and inspired his political activism.
Interest in Blitzstein and his work declined in the 1960s and 1970s. I have met few people, even in the theatre world, who know of him, but he was a significant figure in the history of American Musical Theater. Some attention to Blitzstein resulted from Tim Robbins’ fine film The Cradle Will Rock (1999), which is not a film version of the musical in 1936, but instead centers on the creation of the original staging of the show. In the film, Blitzstein is played by Hank Azaria and he is portrayed as gaining inspiration through the ghosts of Bertolt Brecht and Goldbeck.
Goldbeck’s passing affected Blitzstein deeply and prompted him to dive into the Broadway production of The Cradle Will Rock, which was directed by Orson Welles. It has become a landmark in Broadway history: US Federal Marshalls padlocked the theater on opening night; the cast, crew and audience staged a spectacular exodus to another theater, secured at the last minute; Blitzstein sat alone on the stage at a rented upright with Welles at a desk off to the side, setting the scenes; cast and musicians performed from the audience. It re-opened Off-Broadway later that same season.
The Cradle Will Rock was a defining moment, but Blitzstein was beyond definition. He wrote film scores and the successful radio opera I’ve Got the Tune. He also contributed material to leftist shows, nightclub revues and to several other projects, including a score for an anti-fascist Julius Caesar that was praised by gay composer Virgil Thomson.
No For An Answer is another socially conscious musical by Blitzstein. It is about the survival of democracy at home in the face of domestic fascism. The musical seems to anticipate recent events like the attack on civil liberties after 9/11, the killing of Trayvon Martin seven years ago this week, and the election of a White Nationalist POTUS. It was staged at Mecca Temple in New York City, on Sunday, January 5, 1941. Although it was supposed to have a limited engagement, it ran for two additional Sundays. There was no scenery and Blitzstein was at the piano. It marked the New York debut of Gay Icon, Carol Channing (God rest her soul).
After that first Sunday night performance, New York City License Commissioner issued a ban on further performances because the Mecca Temple lacked a proper theater license and the auditorium had many building violations. He warned that if anyone tried to present the show the following week, they would be stopped by police and firemen.
It received positive reviews and gay composer Aaron Copland called it one of “the most original works in that form composed in this county.” No For An Answer got no answers from Broadway producers, and no one would finance a full production. A later concert performance in 1960, with Blitzstein again at the piano, constitutes the entire performance history of the piece during Blitzstein’s lifetime. The show finally received a fully staged production at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in 2001.
Blitzstein’s Airborne Symphony, a 12 movement piece for orchestra and chorus about air power was first performed in 1946 by the NYC Philharmonic Orchestra. The conductor was Leonard Bernstein, who became best friends with Blitzstein, and continued to champion this piece, recording it in a 1947 release, and recording it again in 1966.
Blitzstein on Bernstein:
We are almost telepathically close. Sometimes we compose startlingly similar music on the same day, without seeing each other.
His most memorable theatrical work is probably Regina (1949), an opera based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes. His brilliant translation and adaptation of the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera was a huge Off-Broadway success. His opera Reuben Reuben (1955) and the rather good musical Juno (1959), based on the play Juno And The Paycock (1924) by Sean O’Casey, both received good reviews, but not much interest from audiences.
In 1958, Blitzstein received a subpoena to appear before the House Committee On Un-American Activities. Testifying in a closed session, Blitzstein admitted he was once a member of the American Communist Party that had ended in 1949. He challenged the right of HUAC to question him at all. He refused to name names. He was recalled for a further public session, but after a day spent sitting in a waiting room, he was not called to testify again. By 1959, the McCarthy Hearings were running out of steam, but the strain of the experience dipped Blitzstein into despair and deep depression.
Blitzstein’s life was troubled and he suffered terribly. He would hang out in dangerous spots, approaching tough dudes for rough sex, and ending up in situations that a more prudent and modern gay man would have avoided. I have been there myself. A lack of self-worth driven by society’s hatred of homosexuals can lead to a sort of despair that can make a person dive into careless actions. Even today, with the progress made for queer people, closeted gays will still meet strangers online, putting themselves in danger.
In 1963, Blitzstein decided to spend the winter in Martinique. In January 1964, Blitzstein was 58 years old, in ill health, and found himself in a Martinique waterfront bar late at night, with a large amount of cash, drinking too much, and trying to pick up three sailors. Who among us has not? After leaving the bar, one sailor slipped into a nearby alley with Blitzstein to have sex. The others followed and all three robbed him, beat him and stripped him of all his clothes except his shirt and socks.
The police found him crying in the middle of the night and took him to a hospital. He bled to death from internal injuries the next day.
Bernstein, learning of Blitzstein’s death as he was in his dressing-room preparing for a concert, dedicated the performance of The Eroica he was about to conduct to Blitzstein’s memory, and wrote the following:
He was so close a personal friend that I cannot even begin to measure our loss of him as a composer. I can only think that I have lost a part of me, but I know also that music has lost an invaluable servant. His special position in musical theatre is irreplaceable.
Blitzstein’s is a story of an artistic genius who refused to sell out. He certainly deserves wider recognition after so many years of neglect.