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The Tony nominee is all fired up in Classic Stage Company's revival of the agitprop musical The Cradle Will Rock
Ever since Tony Yazbeck made his Broadway debut at age 11 as a tapping newsboy in the 1989 revival of Gypsy, he's been lauded for his dancing. Certainly his major roles, notably Al in A Chorus Line, Tulsa in the 2008 revival of Gypsy and his Tony-nominated turn as Gabey in On the Town, have spotlighted his fabulous footwork. But in his latest project, Classic Stage Company's streamlined revival of The Cradle Will Rock, he doesn't dance a step, though he climbs the walls, literally, as a union organizer in Steeltown, USA trying to get his brethren to stand up to an evil industrialist. It seems to mark a career shift for the 40-year-old Yazbeck, a true triple threat who's reminding audiences that he's quite the actor, too.
An iconic work of political theatre with music, lyrics and a book by Marc Blitzstein, The Cradle Will Rock is famous for its backstory. Developed as part of the WPA's Federal Theatre Project during the Great Depression, the show was shut down by the government a few days before its 1937 premiere, allegedly due to budget cuts, though many believed its radical message was to blame. So producers John Houseman and Orson Welles rented a new venue, and Blitzstein played the piano while the cast did their parts from the audience so they wouldn't run afoul of the Actors' Equity Association, which barred its members from performing the production on stage without the federal government's approval. Every first-year drama student learns this lore, and Tim Robbins even made a star-studded movie about it. But the Weill-Brechtian musical, which went on to have two Broadway runs, never quite became a classic. Save for a semi-staged mounting at Encores! Off-Center in 2013, it hasn't enjoyed a professional New York production in 36 years.
Considering the erosion of unions, the ever-widening wealth gap and the polarizing businessman in the White House, it's obvious why director John Doyle believes Cradle's time has come once again, and Yazbeck is eager to deliver its message of resistance. TDF Stages chatted with the performer about why he's been working more Off-Broadway, how fatherhood has changed his priorities and why he would be perfect for the upcoming Princess Bride musical.
Raven Snook: Pretty much everyone in theatre knows about The Cradle Will Rock, but many haven't actually seen or heard it. How familiar were you with the show before you signed on?
Tony Yazbeck: I had heard some of the music years ago, like Patti LuPone singing Moll's material. And then I started to research it. The backstory just fascinated me, because as artists we want to effect change. It's our responsibility, it's our duty to help a generation of people move in the right direction. Or maybe three different generations -- that's the hope with this show. I had always wanted to work with John because I love his imagination and storytelling. In rehearsals, we talked about how this material is so current still, which is sad. It feels like we're in this awful place right now, and the great thing about my character is he gives a little hope. He says, "There's power in numbers and we can fight this together, this greed, this corruption." We're seeing it all over. So it's really a great time to be involved in theatre like this because you feel like you're part of the revolution, where artists come together and say, "We can open some eyes up."
Snook: There's no plot really, just vignettes illustrating how Mr. Mister (David Garrison) bought the conscience of so many Steeltown citizens. A lot of the issues seem ripped from the headlines: the manipulation of the press, the bribing of a preacher, the connected kids who get ahead through nepotism, the demonizing of socialism and unions.
Yazbeck: It's crazy! If you just think about the Trump organization and all of the people he invited into the White House, it's almost like they studied this show. I have to say, it's really affected me personally. I became a father two years ago, and it's changed the way I look at what I want to do the rest of my career. We're all complicit in what's going on. We all sell out a bit because, frankly, we have to sometimes, especially as artists. I have to pay the mortgage, so I have to go where the money is, even if that art is not necessarily what I should be doing. But sometimes we sell out more than we should because it's part of our narcissism. We become part of the money hungriness. What I love about this show is that it gets to the simple root of so many problems, which is money. There's never enough for people. You look at these billionaires and they never have enough and there's something evil about it all.
Snook: You play Larry Foreman, the charismatic union organizer, but also the downtrodden Harry Druggist. It's an intriguing doubling.
Yazbeck: I think this is the first time that's been done. John's making everyone double or even triple up in roles. I didn't even know I was playing Harry Druggist until the first day of rehearsal. I started to look at the connection between the characters and what's interesting is that there's sort of a call-and-response to both of those roles. Here's the broken-down, needy, working-class guy, who has everything taken away from him, he's almost like Job. And then a few scenes later, along comes Larry Foreman, the hero, who just wants to organize everybody. It's like the before and after, and I really love playing that dichotomy.
Snook: Cradle is your second Off-Broadway show in a year, after The Beast in the Jungle. Is that by design? Do you find Off-Broadway more exciting?
Yazbeck: I think there's always more interesting work Off-Broadway, to put it candidly. I'm not quite sure what's happening with the climate of Broadway right now. I've been examining it for the past few years and wondering what's going on. I wish we could build more Broadway theatres so there would be more chances for new shows that have something real to say. It's a show business, so it's really about what sells. But it's not just that they want to recoup and have a successful show and make a little bit of money; they want to make a lot of money. They want a Wicked. You look at Off-Broadway, these not-for-profit theatres, and it's the opposite. They really want to put good work out there and they're trying to find a fresh way of coming into somebody's psyche or spirit or soul and connecting with an audience. If I could do this kind of theatre forever, I would love that. Does it pay the bills? No. It's tough because we all worry about money, especially when times are tight or when the big job hasn't come around. It becomes like a disease. And then how do you do good work when you're worrying that much? You can't. You're blocked. So it's a balance.
Snook: Cradle is described as "a play in music." Even though it's mostly sung, it has the feel of a drama, not a musical, and it really highlights your acting skills. Would you ever consider doing a straight play?
Yazbeck: That was definitely one of the reasons I was attracted to this project. I've always considered myself an actor who sings and dances. I think I've done so many musicals because those were the opportunities that were there. I love that people think of me as a dancer, a triple threat or whatever they want to say, but at the same time, I'm a storyteller. So straight plays are definitely in my future. Directing and chorography are, too. I mostly just love to collaborate with people. That's my big passion.
Snook: And just for fun: How often do people ask if you're related to Tony-winning songwriter David Yazbek?
Yazbeck: Oh gosh, I get that question all the time. If people knew my middle name, which is David, they'd be really confused. It cracks me up. No, we're not related at all -- I think he's half Lebanese and I'm half Lebanese. But we worked together once briefly: I did the out-of-town tryout of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Old Globe. He's got such a great sense of play with everything he does. It would be fun to work on something new together.
Snook: Well he was just announced as the composer-lyricist for the Princess Bride musical that's in development. I could see you as Inigo Montoya.
Yazbeck: Oh really? How about that. That would be fun. That movie's a classic. If anybody could write music for that show, it's David Yazbek. So sure, let's put that idea out there.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Top image: Lara Pulver, Kara Mikula, Benjamin Eakeley and Tony Yazbeck in The Cradle Will Rock. Photos by Joan Marcus.