On November 27, 1937, Broadway patrons were serenaded with “Sing Me a Song of Social Significance,” the hit song from the labor movement-inspired musical “Pins and Needles.” Although no major New York press critics attended the opening — they would show up in dribs and drabs over the next three months — “Pins and Needles” went on to play 1,108 performances, breaking the longstanding records of past blockbusters such as the 1919 “Irene” (670 performances) and the 1929 “Show Boat” (572 performances). In fact, “Pins and Needles” would keep the record until 1945, when “Oklahoma” surpassed it. What makes it even more amazing is that “Pins and Needles” was not your usual Broadway musical — in fact, it was not your usual Broadway anything.
The play, which was briefly revived last month at the Center for Jewish History in New York by the Jewish Repertory Theater, was a series of musical sketches that satirized American labor, European fascism and problems of class and capitalism, and drew its nonprofessional cast from the ranks of International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. It drew its inspiration from such diverse sources as newspaper headlines, the plays of Bertolt Brecht and the political cabarets of Berlin and Tin Pan Alley, but “Pins and Needles” was a singular American invention: Broadway agitprop that appealed to both high and popular culture while trumpeting its radical political message. There was nothing like it until then, and there’s hardly anything like it now.
In its inception, “Pins and Needles” was the brainchild of Louis Schaffer, the cultural director of the ILGWU, who had envisioned an amateur musical revue to be performed by garment workers. In 1936 he met composer and lyricist Harold Rome — fresh from three summers of writing topical material for weekly shows at Green Mansions, an Adirondack summer resort — and together they devised some musical numbers for the yet-to-be-named show. Schaffer and Rome presented a rudimentary version of the show to union membership on June 14, 1936, and the audience was won over — gloomy socialist realism was not, they began to understand, the only way to win converts to the cause.
The show was cast with all union performers and rehearsed for a full year (they had, after all, full-time jobs) before it opened at the Labor Stage (formally the famed Princess Theater). The show played only on weekends, its cast and crew keeping their full-time employment as pressers, dressmakers and cutters.
Within months, word leaked out that “Pins and Needles” was the most engaging and original show in New York.
The genius of Rome’s music and lyrics — shaped, of course, by Schaffer’s vision as well as supplementary “book” material by Emmanuel Eisenberg, David Gregory, Charles Friedman, Arthur Arent and Marc Blitzstein — was that it took very serious matters very seriously, but with a sly, sneaky and always ironic sense of humor. In “Four Little Angels of Peace” Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo and Chamberlain explain how much they “abhor war” but, in lilting rhymes and a singable tune, describe why they shouldn’t disarm: “though I clean up my schmutz/ with a real Nazi putsch/ It is all for the sake of the Aryan.” And in “It’s Not Cricket to Picket,” a Park Avenue matron politely explains to an organizer why protesters should act more, well, ladylike.
While political satire was the backbone of “Pins and Needles,” it was Rome’s sophisticated view of sex and romance that charmed both union workers and the Broadway theater-going elite. For example, in “Nobody Makes a Pass at Me,” a lonely union worker bemoans her singleness in a plaintive query to an advice columnist: “Nobody’s knocking at my door/ What do they think my knocker’s for?” And in “It’s Better with a Union Man,” the audience learns of “Bertha the Sewing Machine Girl,” a working lass pursued by a leering nonunion worker. As the singer warns us to “always be upon your guard/ demand to see a union card,” he is extolling the pleasures and virtues of organized love. In song after song, Rome portrayed the plight of working women and men — almost always with a Yiddish intonation and a Jewish sense of humor — but never looked for easy sympathy, only respect.
Rome’s lyrics were sassy, funny and filled with Yiddish, New Yorkerisms and common sense. It was no surprise that “Pins and Needles” garnered great word of mouth and quickly sold out. After a year it moved uptown to the Windsor Theater on 48th Street and then back down to the Labor Stage. Over the next five years the show went through several revisions — not counting the updates of topical material that Rome added almost monthly, including “Mene, Mene, Tekel,” which linked the biblical story of Daniel to the class struggle by mixing elements of Gospel music with Yiddish words.
Rome himself was drafted in 1942 and wrote material for the Special Services’ shows. He returned to Broadway after the war to write such critical hits as “Wish You Were Here” (1952), “Fanny” (1954), “Destry Rides Again” (1959) and “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” (1962).
“Pins and Needles” was a distinctive product of its time. Funny, charming and witty, it managed to be overtly political and bitingly satiric without ever losing its enormous empathy and rootedness in humanity. It was a singular, shining moment in U.S. theater history. It is difficult to imagine how such a show would ever be written, never mind produced, today.
Michael Bronski has written on culture, sex and politics for the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the Village Voice. His latest book is “Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps” (St. Martins, 2003).