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Museum Musings

6.2.17: Remembering a Great Philadelphia Artist

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I first heard the name “Marc Blitzstein” when I was a college student in the mid-1980s. I was spending a semester abroad in London, when a touring production of his musical The Cradle Will Rock came to town starring Patti LuPone and directed by John Houseman, who at the time I knew of only as the star of The Paper Chase.

 

As an emerging progressive, I was drawn to the show’s “power-to-the-people” themes and began to read up on Blitzstein and his work. That’s when I learned about the original production of Cradle and its notorious first performance in 1937. Produced by the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project (imagine the U.S. Government hiring theatre artists—now that’s progressive!), this production was directed by a 22-year-old Orson Welles and produced by—you guessed it—John Houseman. Reportedly because of its pro-union stance, the production was shut down on the eve of its first performance. The cast and production team were locked out of the theatre, and so they marched up Broadway in protest with several hundred audience members, took over an empty theatre and performed the show with only Blitzstein himself playing the score on piano.

 

June 16th marks the 80th anniversary of this event, one of the most remarkable in the history of American popular culture. But, with the exception of the 1999 film Cradle Will Rock, in which Hank Azaria portrayed Blitzstein, this innovative and influential composer, a native Philadelphian, has faded into obscurity.

 

This month, though, Blitzstein will finally get the recognition he so richly deserves. On Monday, June 12, at 11:00 a.m., the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission will unveil a historic marker recognizing Blitzstein near the site of his birthplace, 419 Pine Street. All are welcome to attend the dedication, which will include performances of Blitzstein’s work and speakers addressing his roots in Philadelphia, his artistic legacy and his work as an activist. NMAJH Director and CEO Ivy Barsky will emcee.

 

Then, come to NMAJH at 7:00 p.m. that evening for a reading from InterAct Theatre Company of the play It’s All True, which recounts the dramatic creation of The Cradle Will Rock. Purchase reading tickets here.

 

Blitzstein died in 1964 and was buried in Chelten Hills Cemetery in West Oak Lane. He has never been fully embraced or celebrated as one of Philadelphia’s great artists. That will change on June 12. Please join us.

 

-Michael Norris

 

5.24.17: Revolutionary: A Pop-Up Street Art Exhibition

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Shkoyach is a temporary projection to be displayed at the National Museum of American Jewish History as part of Revolutionary: A Pop-Up Street Art Exhibition. In this project, a series of pairs of watercolor portraits is being projected at monumental scale within the Museum’s lobby. On a walk-through of NMAJH’s educational displays and collections in the main galleries, I collected some of the images on view of Jewish women engaged in social justice work across more than 100 years of American history. I then researched images of Black, Latina, and Asian women engaged in the same types of public actions, strikes, protests, and organizing meetings. The resulting watercolor portraits are intended to offer a personal and humanizing response to the extraordinary and ordinary heroism of these women. The title, Shkoyach, is a Yiddish expression often used to acknowledge and appreciate an act of bravery, wisdom, or chutzpah. It is a contraction of the more formal Hebrew “Yasher Koach”, and the literal translation is “May your strength be directed forward.” The expression, and this project, acknowledge both the importance of what has already been done, and the importance of using our strength for future action. Nine pairs of women are portrayed; I hope you will stop by the Museum to learn more about them.

Revolutionary: A Pop-Up Street Art Exhibition will celebrate 13 contemporary Philly-based artists whose work challenges the social and political status quo at 13 prominent locations around Old City, Society Hill, and along the Delaware River Waterfront from May 24 through July 4, 2017. Click here for more information.