At the height of the Great Depression, aspiring singer Olive Stanton (Emily Watson) dreams of getting a job as an actress with the Federal Theater Project (FTP). Playwright Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria) 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.
At the same time, the FTP faces increasing pressure from the federal government, which has begun investigating alleged leftist infiltration of American society through the House Committee on Un-American Activities. 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 local unions for the musicians and actors refuse to let them perform without federal approval, forcing the show to close.
Rather than give in, the show's director, Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen) and producer, John Houseman (Cary Elwes), 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. The climax then cuts to a sequence showing a group of workers destroying the mural Man at the Crossroads, following a dispute between Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) and Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) over the latter's explicit support for communism.
As the cast and audience break into celebration, a group of former FTP performers stage a mock funeral down the street outside. The movie ends with the procession walking 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
Ruben 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
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
This film takes place in the 1930s during the Great Depression. The film takes some narrative license and presents certain events as simultaneous, when they really occurred at different times. Some examples of this are the addition and subsequent destruction of Rivera's Man at the Crossroads in the RCA Building (1933–34), the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (1935), labor strikes against Little Steel (1937) and the Dies Committee’s assault on the Federal Theatre Project (1938) (Weales 2000).
In telling the story of The Cradle Will Rock—a leftist labor musical that was sponsored by the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) only to be banned after the WPA cut the project and diverted its funds elsewhere—Robbins is able to tie in issues such as labor unrest, repression by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and the role and value of art in such a tumultuous time.
The film was released in conjunction with a book that Robbins put together to provide a deeper look into the film's time period. The book includes the film’s script, which is accompanied by essays and pictures describing the people, events, and themes that are the basis for the film.
The children's play Revolt of the Beavers by playwright/screenwriter Oscar Saul (who would later do the screenplay for A Streetcar Named Desire) was also featured in this film. It, too, was under scrutiny from the HUAC for promoting a communistic ideal of equal work and equal rewards. In the film it was valiantly defended by the head of the FTP, Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones), and the play ran for approximately one month at the Adelphi theater in New York.
The film was met with mostly positive reviews. It currently has a rating of 65% on Rotten Tomatoes.
While the original production of The Cradle Will Rock was stated to be "The most exciting evening of theater this New York generation has seen" (MacLeish, Cole 2000), some critics did not feel the same about Robbins' reproduction of the event for film. Although it was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, among other festivals, and some have praised the film as an astute commentary on censorship and the lines between art and life (Cole 2000), others have criticized the piece for attempting to bring too many themes together into one story, and thus losing the power of the original context altogether (Alleva 2000; Weales 2000).