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A marker for Marc Blitzstein, a unique American voice in music

Will Philadelphia reclaim its native son?

Singers cheer the unveiling of a historical marker noting the birthplace of composer Marc Blitzstein at 419 Pine St.
Singers cheer the unveiling of a historical marker noting the birthplace of composer Marc Blitzstein at 419 Pine St.Read morePETER DOBRIN / Staff

Marc Blitzstein has long been known as a musicians' musician — a streetwise version of Irving Berlin, a pioneer of a distinctly American sound in opera, and an artist-agitator of the first order.

His music, though, hardly comes around, and he's been largely forgotten by the city that produced him.

If there is to be a Blitzstein awakening, Philadelphians are getting a chance at starting it. Monday morning in Society Hill, with the help of a series of speakers and a dash of song, fans and passersby gathered to dedicate a historical marker in front of the site of his birth.

"An influential American composer, lyricist, and translator who brought vernacular to musical theater was born here," states the marker, put up in recognition of Blitzstein's impact on "music, social progress, and politics," said Nancy Moses, chairman of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, to a crowd of about three dozen. "His work is quintessentially America."

The actual house where Blitzstein was born in 1905, 419 Pine St., was demolished long ago; another stands in its place today. He had an international career, but was very much of Philadelphia, living in the once-Jewish neighborhood near Fourth and Lombard Streets, and later at 18th and Spruce Streets. He attended the University of Pennsylvania and Curtis Institute of Music, played a Liszt concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and was married at City Hall. His successful one-act opera, Triple-Sec, was premiered in the ballroom of the Bellevue.

And yet the city has work to do in claiming one of its own.

"He's a great artist who has been somewhat overshadowed and overlooked." said Michael Norris, who was largely behind the effort to get the marker, "As a Philadelphian, the fact that he was a Philadelphian makes that extra frustrating to me. I'm a problem-solver, so I wanted to fix that problem, and this seemed like the best way to do it."

Norris is vice president of external relations for the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, though this is a personal passion project for him. It started with getting to know The Cradle Will Rock, "since that's a work that was very progressive and socially conscious, and speaks up for the underdog, all things that are important to me personally."

Speakers on Monday noted Blitzstein's progressive politics, his outsider identity as a Jew, and his sexuality. Blitzstein, who died in 1964, was also the translator of Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, which made him "primarily responsible" for the American popularity of that work and "Mack the Knife," said Elizabeth Blaufox of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music.

He was a strong influence on other composers, most notably Leonard Bernstein, who said of Blitzstein's death: "I can think only that I have lost a part of me."

Blitzstein's family was "beyond thrilled" to see the marker go up, said great-niece Sarah Davis, who lives in Queen Village. "It's wonderful to see Marc honored in his hometown. There hasn't been a ton of that."

Later Monday, at the National Museum of American Jewish History, InterAct Theatre Company was set to revive for a single night a reading of It's All True, the play that recounts the creation of The Cradle Will Rock. The federal government's unsuccessful attempt to silence the premiere in 1937 of the Orson Welles-John Houseman production made the work a cause célèbre.

"Everyone sells out under capitalism" is how the plot of the musical was described by Leonard Lehrman, the Blitzstein scholar who also was on hand Monday, just before a group of singers and a small ensemble performed the finale from the musical about greed and corruption.

Blaufox referred to the work's "alarming new relevance." Was the timing of a new push for Blitzstein purely coincidental?

"It was not part of the plan, obviously," Norris said. "And certainly as someone who works in the cultural community, there is extra value in highlighting someone who was politically active and socially conscious in perhaps a very different time than we are in now. But the value of artists doing that kind of work is essential now more than ever."