[The May 2016 issue of Allegro (Volume 116, No. 5), the news magazine of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, the union that represents Broadway and Off-Broadway theater musicians, ran an interesting pair of articles under the banner headline, “Labor History in Musical Theatre.” The first piece was about the historic labor musical of 1937, produced by the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), Pins and Needles, which became a surprise hit at the Labor Stage Theatre, 104 W. 39th Street, and the Windsor Theatre, 157 W. 48th Street, where it moved in 1939. Pins and Needles altogether ran 1108 performances from 1937 to 1940 with a largely non-professional cast made up of ILGWU members.
[New York University restaged the labor musical at the historical Provincetown Playhouse, 133 Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village, which the university owns, from 24 to 27 March. The opening date was the 105th anniversary of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, a labor history disaster in the modern-day NYU neighborhood near Washington Square in which 146 garment workers died because of poor safety regulations at the time.]
‘Pins and Needles’
Coinciding with the recent 105th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and just in time for Labor History Month, NYU has revived and restored the 1937 musical “Pins and Needles,” one of the first musical theatre works to deal with the topic of organized labor.
Originally conceived as a community theater show sponsored by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, “Pins and Needles” is a lighthearted and pro-labor depiction of workers in a changing society. The 1937 show, with music and lyrics by Harold Rome, was cast with actual union workers who rehearsed after work and performed Friday and Saturday nights at the Princess Theatre on West 39th Street. The show’s popularity was so immense that the cast ultimately abandoned their day jobs to embrace a full performance schedule of eight shows per week, marking the only time in history that regular workers – who were not trained actors – were able to bring a successful musical to Broadway.
“Pins and Needles” ran for nearly four years with several editions and road tours. Throughout the run, material was added and dropped to keep the show current. As a result, the show did not exist in a specific, static form. The current revival had to be reassembled from original source material, which the Harold Rome estate provided.
Director Meg Bussert, a Tony Award nominee and World Theater Award winner, worked with Local 802 member Joseph Church, who was the show’s orchestrator and music supervisor. (Church’s Broadway credits include “The Lion King” and “The Who’s Tommy,” both of which he music directed and supervised.) Church wrote new orchestrations that honored the unique style and humor of Harold Rome’s songwriting. Bussert rehearsed the production as a workshop, a process that allowed the cast time to discover their characters and situations.
The show also paid tribute to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City, which caused the deaths of 146 garment workers and sparked a legislative battle for improved, federally mandated labor conditions. In honor of the anniversary, which took place on March 25, representatives from theatrical unions attended a special showing and participated in a talk-back.
The cast and musicians were all students of NYU’s Steinhardt Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions. The program in vocal performance produced the show, which ran at the Provincetown Playhouse at 133 Macdougal Street. The student musicians were paid under a UAW Local 2110 union contract, which covers NYU’s graduate students.
[The original Pins and Needles was produced by Labor Stage Inc., and presented by ILGWU. It was staged by Charles Friedman (1903-84) with music and lyrics mostly by Harold J. Rome (1908-98) and book by Rome, Arthur Arent (1904-72), Marc Blitzstein (1905-64), Emmanuel Eisenberg, Charles Friedman (1903-84), David Gregory, Joseph Schrank (1900–1984), Arnold B. Horwitt (1918-77), and John Latouche (1914-56), featuring songs with lyrics by Latouche, Friedman, Arthur Kramer, Arnold B. Horwitt (1918-77), and Bernece Kazounoff. The production was choreographed by Benjamin Zemach (1902-97) with scenic designs by S[ointu] Syrjala (1904-79).]
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[The second Allegro article covers the history of a tobacco-worker’s strike in 1943 (which, you’ll read, gave us the protest anthem “We Shall Overcome”) told in a new jazz opera by Steve Jones., a member of AFM Local 161-710 (Washington, D.C.). The show was co-created by Elise Bryant, the executive director of the Labor Heritage Foundation.]
On June 17, 1943, ten thousand workers, mostly African-American women, went on strike at the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was a dramatic story of courage. Poor workers, who were fed up with the brutal conditions in the largest factory in the South, went up against the power of R.J. Reynolds, the newspaper his family owned, and the unholy alliance – including the FBI – that propped up the Jim Crow segregation laws through this time. The musical “Love Songs from the Liberation Wars: The 1940’s Tobacco Workers Struggle” details how these women won their union.
The show opens up on the R.J. Reynolds cigarette assembly line. Conditions are hot and tobacco dust is flying through the air. The foreman is abusive; the company nurse orders workers back on the line even when they are sick, and pervading it all are the Jim Crow laws, dividing workers white and black, so that they never unite to fight the boss.
The character Theodosia Simpson (based on the real-life worker of the same name), a 23-year old African-American woman, emerges as a leader. She’s willing to confront the foreman. Another character is a husband fighting hatred overseas. He calls for the “Double V” victory – against Hitler and against Jim Crow. Another is a union leader, a white organizer from the North. He is committed to building the union, but is a little naive about how entrenched Jim Crow attitudes are.
As the show progresses, love songs help to tell the story of how the union organized across the color line. It also unfolds that the song “We Shall Overcome” as we know it today came from these tobacco workers’ struggle.
“Love songs” is a somewhat ambiguous term in this show. It includes romantic plot lines but also love for humanity, which involves stopping hatred and segregation. There are whimsical notes: an actual “Jim Crow” character emerges, and sings about the “separate vs. equal” doctrine, among other things. Emma Goldman comes out onstage, falls in love with a worker, and they dance together. Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson – all of whom came to the Local 22 picket lines in the 1940s – sing as a trio.
It could be said there are two major themes – one is the story of the union, and one is the personal and family lives of the characters. Each theme has its own climax. The union plotline culminates in the courageous strike of the tobacco workers. On a more personal level, the black and white characters build relationships as they challenge racial segregation in their fight to form a union.
In real life, just as in the play, the strike ended in victory. The workers – with the help of the seasoned organizers – got a contract signed. Over the next few years, the tobacco workers of Local 22 built a strong membership that became known nationally. A woman named Moranda Smith was appointed to the national executive board of the union – the first African American to win such a position. Many of the segregated aspects of the factory were eliminated, and even the Jim Crow anti-voting restrictions in the town of Winston Salem were fought against and brought down as a result of this union campaign..
Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger all came down to sing and support Local 22. It was clear at that time what a pivotal moment this was in the battle against Jim Crow, and the central role labor could play.
However, over the next few years, Local 22 lost its battle to keep R.J. Reynolds organized. Claims that the union was “Communist-led” and engaged in “mixing races” conspired to end Local 22’s representation of workers at R.J. Reynolds. Also contributing to the union’s demise was a drumbeat of unfavorable articles by the Winston-Salem Journal and the unfair jailing of union leaders on trumped-up charges.
The story of Local 22 could have been lost to history. Luckily, Bob Korstad, a historian in North Carolina, wrote “Civil Rights Unionism,” which describes the victory of Local 22 and the courage of the strikers. Many others carry on the memory. A historic plaque was recently installed in Winston-Salem which commemorates Local 22 and this early victory against Jim Crow. And of course the song “We Shall Overcome” become known throughout the world, in part due to the struggle of these tobacco workers. It has become an anthem for social justice movements around the world. So we can truly say that Local 22 is gone but not forgotten, and “Love Songs from the Liberation Wars” keeps the memory alive.
[The musical previewed at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Kensington, Maryland, on 25 June 2012 and again at the Washington Ethical Society in Washington, D.C., on 21 June 2014.]