On November 27, 1937, a new musical revue called Pins and Needles opened at Labor Stage in New York City where it played to capacity audiences until June 26, 1939, when it was transferred to the Windsor Theatre on Broadway for a year-long run. The revue was, and is, unique in the history of Broadway in that it was conceived, collaboratively written with, and performed by theater novices—members of The International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union. 74 years later, on June 22, 2011, the Foundry Theatre opens their revival of the revue, this time in collaboration with the members of a Brooklyn-based social justice organization Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, or FUREE.
The original production of Pins and Needles was conceived by Louis Schaffer, a leader of the ILGWU, who hired a recent Yale graduate, Harold Rome, to create a musical revue that would serve to both entertain and politically educate the hard-working garment workers that made up the union’s constituency. The unapologetically leftist revue consisted of songs calling for workers’ rights, affordable housing, a minimum wage, immigrants’ rights, and economic justice, as well as sketches that satirized a wide-range of topical issues of the day: from the fascist governments then taking hold in Europe and right-wing reactionaries in the U.S., to lighter fare such as a sketch called “Little Red Schoolhouse” that parodied the often-times ineffectual social dramas that were then popular in New York theater. According to the playbill from 1937, the revue was intended to refute the “oft-repeated charge that labour theatres must by definition be humorless.”
In addition to Rome, the ILGWU brought in a host of other professional artists to help create the piece, including Arthur Arent (who would become famous for his contribution to the Federal Theatre Project in the form of his Living Newspaper plays), Marc Blitzstein (The Cradle Will Rock), and Joseph Schrank (a successful Hollywood screenwriter and sometimes playwright), all of whom wrote lyrics and sketches—all working in close collaboration with the garment workers who comprised the revue’s cast. The production was never conceived of as a Broadway hit, far from it, but it became something of a cultural sensation nearly overnight, riding the wave of New York’s rising progressive politics. By the time Pins and Needles closed in 1940, it was the longest running musical on Broadway during the 1930s, quite an accomplishment for a leftist, political cabaret featuring the musical and comedic talents of sewers, seamstresses, and heavy machine operators. In the words of one performer: “One week we were sweatshop workers and the next week we were Broadway stars.”
Fast-forward 70 plus years, to the Foundry’s upcoming production. Much has changed, but much remains the same, and in some ways, the impetus for this new version is the same as it was in 1937. For their version of the show, now called FUREE On Pins & Needles, The Foundry has teamed with FUREE, a Brooklyn-based, multi-racial organization made up of and led mostly by women of color. FUREE organizes “low-income families to build power to change the system so that all people’s work is valued and all of us have the right and economic means to decide and live out our own destinies.” So, in 2011 as in 1937, labor is at the core of this presentation of Pins and Needles, as are politically empowered workers who happen not to be professional performers.
However, when Melanie Joseph, the Foundry’s founder and Creative Producer, hatched the idea to produce a musical featuring social justice activists, she didn’t have Pins and Needles and its history in mind. In fact, in the beginning, Joseph—a highly-respected force in the downtown New York theater scene, and also an avid fan of musicals—was thinking of something more along the lines of Annie or Oliver. It wasn’t until after she and director Ken Rus Schmoll (a 2009 Obie winner for the Foundry’s production of Telephone) had met and auditioned the members of FUREE who were interested in a turn on stage, that they began to really assess what kind of musical would lend itself to representing both the artistic values of the Foundry and ignite the interests and passions of the members of FUREE.
Joseph and Schmoll pored over countless musicals looking for the right piece. Pajama Game was an early favorite, as it centers around a labor dispute, but many such canonical works were eventually dismissed because they had already been optioned for the New York area and, more importantly, due to copyright laws the creators would not be able to alter these musicals to fit the needs of the show. Finally, they discovered Pins and Needles and realized that a revue, rather than a classic book musical, would allow the flexibility needed to create the theatrical world they were interested in. But not even this left-leaning political revue satisfied all of their criteria. After all, the original was created mostly by Eastern European immigrants who came to the United States to get away from newly empowered fascist leaders. While Pins and Needles features quite a lot of still very relevant material regarding labor equality, sky-rocketing New York housing costs and other related issues, it left racial equality and women’s rights almost entirely out of its picture, which certainly wouldn’t do for either the Foundry or the members of FUREE, who have made those two causes the very core of their work. So Joseph and Schmoll, together with their cast, set about adapting the piece to more closely align with the issues FUREE has been fighting for over the last 10 years. While a number of songs have been retained from the original, the creative team, choosing to stay in the musical milieu of the late 1920s and early 1930s, has added songs by artists like Josh White and Leadbelly because, as Joseph notes, “the black music of that period is the history of radical activism.” Likewise, some of the most relevant sketches have remained, but these have been augmented by the addition of several Living Newspaper segments from the FTP’s collaboratively authored 1938 text One-Third of a Nation, as well as at least one contemporary piece by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage. Joseph believes that one of the things this adaptation will do is tease out a relationship between the activist-artists of FUREE and the original cast of politically engaged garment workers, creating, in her words, a “contiuum of activism.” Or, as one of Joseph’s personal heroes, social justice activist Grace Lee Boggs, is fond of saying about 21st century activism: “It’s evolution, not revolution.”
The Foundry has long been interested in collaborating with social justice groups and has, most recently, realized that vision through a series of public dialogues between artists and activists organized over the last several seasons. Indeed, the production of FUREE On Pins & Needles is only one part of an ambitious festival called NYC...Just Like I Pictured It that pairs innovative artists with member-based, community-oriented social justice organizations with the goal of creating new works out of these unusual unions. This year’s festival evolved out of the earlier dialogue series’ Out of the Global City and This is My City/Esta Es Mi Ciudad, but while those events asked collaborators what they might change about New York City as it exists, NYC...Just Like I Pictured It asks participants (including its audience) to envision—to dream up—a whole new city; the best of all possible New York Cities.
Speaking of the shared motivations of artists and activists, Joseph notes the common ground “between people whose lives and livelihoods depend on imagining a better community...people who imagine...who traffic in empathy to find meaning in life.” The festival, then, is a chance for collaborative teams of artists and social justice workers to send their imaginations forward, together, to construct these new NYCs out of the work of each organization and each artist and the passions that co-exist between the two. These collaborations are: Third Root Community Health Center, a worker-owned cooperative of healthcare practitioners who strive to bring affordable holistic health practices to Flatbush, Brooklyn, working with playwright and performer Eisa Davis and singer-songwriter Morley; Adhikaar, which works with the Nepali-speaking community of New York City with a focus on community building and human rights, collaborating with playwright and director Aya Ogawa and designer Jeanette Yew; New Immigrant Community Empowerment, a Jackson Heights, Queens-based organization organizing new immigrants to build social, political, and economic power, working with director Lisa Rothe and performer Carlo Alban; Green Oasis Community Garden, an urban greenspace in the Lower East Side, working with playwright Jason Grote and director Maureen Towey; and United Playaz, Bronx Chapter, a group of high school students banding together to empower the youth of their schools and neighborhood, working with Steven Sapp and Mildred Ruiz of the ensemble performance company UNIVERSES.
While the Foundry has long had the passion for mixing their artistic rigor with social activism, Joseph says that this ambition took a huge step forward when the company decided to add a community organizer to the full-time staff. The current Community Programs Producer and co-Producer of the festival is RJ Maccani. Maccani brings his experience of working inside social justice groups to the Foundry, helping first to reach out to groups that might be interested in a deeper, more collaborative relationship and then to match artists with each organization. Maccani is careful to note that each new work in the festival is created very much as a result of the direct, passionate, and sometimes necessarily messy meeting of social justice organizers and individual artists, most of whom hadn’t known each other’s work before the process began. Maccani says that one of his personal hopes for the festival, one which in many cases is bearing exciting fruit, is that each collaboration will “create a dynamic that would be transformational for everyone involved,” including the audiences that are coming undoubtedly from both sides of the artist-activist aisle. He believes that melding these two related but too-often separate groups in the charged space of collective creation might improve the health of the organizations involved, allowing their members to connect on a deeper level, and it might also cause the artists to modify their own practices to employ the ethos of activist engagement and that, finally, the works created might be another stepping stone to fundamentally changing the city all of us love. The six collaborations that comprise NYC...Just Like I Pictured It continue the Foundry’s full-throated commitment to the idea that art can, should, and will be a force to shape the world to come. In collaborating with social justice organizations who have also made it their missions to rethink our current world, the Foundry shows us a path to activating our own imaginations—which, in turn, activates our hearts, heads, and hands—to remake the world we know into one we together will into being; a world that we collectively, collaboratively create.