“A joyful masterpiece, with an unbelievable cast.” Judith Angelo’s comment on YouTube.com 7 years ago.
At the height of the Great Depression, aspiring singer Olive Stanton dreams of getting a job as an actress with the Federal Theatre Project. Playwright Marc Blitzstein is working on his new musical, The Cradle Will Rock, but lacks the inspiration to finish it. While attending a public protest, he is visited by two imaginary figures representing his late wife and the famed German playwright Bertolt Brecht. They encourage him to make the play more relevant to the times rather than an abstract concept.1
Ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw is assigned the untalented duo Sid and Larry to train. He attempts to initiate a romance with FTP clerk Hazel Huffman. Actor Aldo Silvano moves out of the apartment paid for by his parents because of his family’s fascist sympathies.
At the same time, the FTP faces increasing pressure from the federal government, which has begun investigating leftist infiltration of American society through the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Huffman and Crickshaw rehearse her alarmist testimony. The committee accuses FTP director Hallie Flanagan of propagating communism, making reference to her past claims and the play Revolt of the Beavers.
Huffman rejects Crickshaw’s advances. He oversleeps and wakes up to Sid and Larry doing his routine, with one of them playing the dummy. Depressed, Crickshaw gives a show in which his dummy is a communist. Part of the disgusted audience, Huffman cries and leaves. Crickshaw leaves his dummy on the stage, which is carried off by Sid and Larry. After her testimony, Huffman is shunned by her coworkers.
The WPA, faced with the threat of losing its budget, cuts funding for all FTP productions, lays off thousands of workers, and orders all ongoing projects, including The Cradle Will Rock, to cease their activities. The actors’ union refuses to let them perform without federal approval, cancelling the show’s opening.
Rather than give in, the show’s director, Orson Welles, and producer, John Houseman, set up an improvised performance in a shuttered theater, with Blitzstein as both the cast and the orchestra. As he begins the first song, the other actors suddenly appear in the audience and perform the entire play without setting foot on the stage. A group of workers destroy the mural Man at the Crossroads, following a dispute between Nelson Rockefeller and Diego Rivera over the inclusion of Russian communist leader Lenin in the artwork.
As the cast and audience break into celebration, a group of former FTP performers stage a mock funeral of Crickshaw’s dummy (renamed “Federal Theatre Project”) down the street outside. The procession walks into present-day Times Square, which is lined with billboards advertising Broadway plays.
Hank Azaria as Marc Blitzstein | Bob Balaban as Harry Hopkins | Jack Black as Sid | Rubén Blades as Diego Rivera | Corina Katt Ayala as Frida Kahlo | Victoria Clark as Dulce Fox | Joan Cusack as Hazel Huffman | John Cusack as Nelson Rockefeller | Cary Elwes as John Houseman | Kyle Gass as Larry | Paul Giamatti as Carlo | Philip Baker Hall as Gray Mathers | Erin Hill as Sandra Mescal | Barnard Hughes as Frank Marvel | Peter Jacobson as Silvano | Cherry Jones as Hallie Flanagan | Angus Macfadyen as Orson Welles | Bill Murray as Tommy Crickshaw | Allan F. Nicholls as George Zorn | Vanessa Redgrave as Countess Constance LaGrange | Gil Robbins as Congressman Joe Starnes | Susan Sarandon as Margherita Sarfatti | Jamey Sheridan as John Adair | Barbara Sukowa as Sophie Silvano | John Turturro as Aldo Silvano | Emily Watson as Olive Stanton | Harris Yulin as Congressman Martin Dies