|The cast of Pins and Needles were not only workers recruited from the shop floors, but, almost unheard of on Broadway. truly ethnically and racially integrated. Edna Gerber in light coat, center sings.|
Here’s a pop quiz. What is the only musical revue ever to become a long running Broadway hit that was sponsored by a labor union and was performed exclusively by workers straight from the shop floor? Give up? The answer is Pins and Needles which premiered in New York City at The Princess Theater on November 27, 1937.
The title and idea for the show came from Max Danish, long-time editor of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) newspaper Justice. The idea was to present at topical revue of original sketches and songs looking at Depression era America and the rise of Fascism in Europe from a labor perspective. There was a brief two week run with professional actors in a small theater off Broadway directed by Samuel Roland. With most of the ILGWU members out on a strike, union President David Dubinsky decided to mount the show as an entertainment for the strikers and featuring members of the union. Roland offered his services, but Dubinsky asked him to withdraw because he was a well known “Red” and the union was being viciously attacked for its radical connections.
The amateur show proved surprisingly good. Cast members may have included sewing machine operators, cutters, and fitters and other garment industry trades folk, but some of them had experience in the lively New York Yiddish theater scene and others were trained musicians driven to the trades by the Depression. It was decided to mount a full scale show at the Princess, an empty theater the union was already renting as a meeting hall.
When the show opened it was only performed on Friday and Saturday nights—the cast members all had full time jobs in the shops during the week. Critics ignored the show at first because of its amateur cast, but word of mouth led to sell-out houses and a demand for more performances. After a few weeks the cast quit their day jobs and were mounting the show on a professional eight-show a week basis.
A long list of writers contributed to the book. The best known was composer Marc Blitzstein who became famous the same year for his musical The Cradle Will Rock, a Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded production directed by Orson Welles that had been shut down for it controversial pro-union stance. Despite his musical talents, Blitzstein only contributed to the book of Pins and Needles. Other credited writers were Arthur Arent, Emmanuel Eisenberg, Charles Friedman, David Gregory, Joseph Schrank, Arnold B. Horwitt, John Latouche, and Harold Rome.
Rome was credited with writing the music and lyrics, although over the course of the show’s long run others occasionally wrote lyrics for his songs and songs by other composers—often members of the cast—were also used. It was the beginning of a long career in the musical theater that included another topical revue, Sing Out the News, in 1938 and post-war shows including Call Me Mister, Wish You Were Here, Fanny, Destry Rides Again, and I Can Get it For You Whole Sale.
Directed by Charles Friedman and choreographed by Benjamin Zemach the show was presented with two pianos and a mostly bare stage with minimal props and scenery. To keep it fresh new sketches and songs were added over the long run. Only a handful of songs appeared in all productions. While no songs became break out hits, many were memorable and are still performed including Sing Me A Song With Social Significance, Nobody Makes a Pass at Me, One Big Union for Two, Four Little Angels of Peace, Sunday in the Park, and Mene, Mene, Tekel.
When the show ended most of the performers returned to their trades, but at least one, comic character actor Harry Clark went on to appear in several more Broadway shows, most memorably as one of the two gangsters in Kiss Me Kate. He also had small roles in B-movies in the 1940’s and early ‘50’s and was a semi-regular on the Phil Silvers Show (also known as You’ll Never Get Rich and Sgt. Bilko.)
|The Princess Theater was re-dubbed the Labor Stage for the run of Pins and Needles. The silk stocking set in evening gowns mixed with workers in threadbare off-the-rack suits bargain basement frocks in the audience.|
When the show opened the venerable, but small Princess Theater was renamed The Labor Stage Theater. By January 1, 1939 the show had outgrown the 399 seat house and moved to the larger Windsor Theater (formerly the 48th Street Theater.) It continued to run there until June 22, 1940. That was 1108 performances making it the longest running Broadway show until Oklahoma!
In 1962 Columbia Records released a 25th Anniversary studio recording of some of the most famous songs and sketches from the run. At Harold Rome’s insistence the recording featured a young protégé, Barbra Streisand who he had just cast as Miss Marmelstein in his musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale.
The show had a revival Off-Broadway at the Roundabout Stage 1 Theatre in 1978 and was presented in a concert version by the Jewish Repertoire Theater in 2003. It was staged in an new production in 2010 in London at the Cock Tavern Theatre.