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Here's to the Ladies Who Launched a Show

The Jewish Rep resurrects Pins and Needles, and so Filichia explains the history of this political musical revue. logo

Members of the Ladies Garment Workers
Union at a Labor Day celebration in 1934
This weekend, Jewish Rep will do a staged reading of the Forbidden Broadway of the 1930s. Pins and Needles, though, had a bigger agenda than just spoofing theatrical performers, producers, personalities, and parvenus; the 1937 musical revue pinned and needled the strife between management and labor as well as the conflicts among nations. Apparently, it worked, for this show became the longest running Broadway musical of its time at 1,108 performances.

Okay, a few asterisks are needed. When the show opened, it was strictly amateur night, for it was a production of the (honest!) International Ladies Garment Workers Union -- the one whose theme song begins, "Look for the Union Label." Louis Schaffer, who headed the group's "extra-curricular activities" -- softball and bridge clubs, that sort of thing -- said, "Hey, gang, let's put on a show!"

Schaffer even had the guy to write it: Harold Rome, who at this point had only sold a few tunes to such disparate types as Gypsy Rose Lee and The Ritz Brothers (those minor-league Marxes). Rome later joined the writing staff of Green Mansions, a summer resort in upstate New York, where Schaffer heard his work. Schaffer then asked Rome to write the musical and, months later, when the composer-lyricist sang his score for the union members, the rank-and-file filed their opinions that it was rank. Rome's references to matters like the AFL-CIO and Hitler seemed to them in dubious taste.

What happened then probably has never occurred again. Schaffer suspected that Rome's renditions didn't do justice to the songs, so he hired pros from the W.P.A. theater department to put them over at a most atypical backers' audition on June 14, 1936. Apparently, the cast did them well, for the union members agreed that they should indeed mount a musical. Twenty-five dressmakers, 10 cutters, three knitters, two pressers, and one person each from the whitegoods, cloaks, embroidery, and underwear departments were then cast. Rome functioned as rehearsal pianist.

So, why didn't Pins and Needles open until more than a year and a half later, on November 27, 1937? Because the cast could only rehearse at night, three times a week. I'm sure that many of them, during those long months, kept singing a line from their famous anthem: "We work hard, but who's complaining?" When the show finally opened, the plan was just to do Friday and Saturday night performances. But they got great reviews, expanded their performance schedule, and went pro, right down to the cast's getting Equity cards. As Rome later said: "Overnight, the amateur pumpkin turned into a golden Broadway coach and the rehearsal pianist into a Broadway Theater Man."

The Union's theater, then called the Labor Stage (at 39th Street and Sixth Avenue) had only 447 seats; so, under today's rules, Pins and Needles wouldn't have even been a Broadway show. (Two decades earlier, the house was the Princess, home to all of those Bolton, Wodehouse, and Kern shows that helped forge the new American musical.) After a year-and-a-half run, Pins and Needles moved to the larger Windsor Theatre, where it eventually retitled itself Pins and Needles 1939, Pins and Needles 1940, and New Pins and Needles. (Jewish Rep will mix and match songs and sketches from all four incarnations.)

Though several members of the original cast recorded some songs from the show way back when, most of us are more familiar with a studio cast recording that Rome headed in 1962. It featured the supporting actress in his just-opened show, I Can Get It for You Wholesale. That Pins and Needles album is still in print and the reason probably is because of that performer, one Barbra Streisand. She did a fine job on songs we'll probably hear at Jewish Rep this weekend: "Doing the Reactionary," in which she urges her listeners "Don't go left, but do go right"; "What Good Is Love," a torch song that sounds like it has millions of kilowatts in its torch; "Not Cricket to Picket," about a protest march; and "Sittin' on Your Status Quo," a teacher's lesson on how to deal with management problems. But Streisand's piece de resistance was "Nobody Makes a Pass at Me," a second cousin to "Miss Marmelstein," which in 1962 put her on the map that she's been on ever since.

Barbra Streisand in a 1962 concert
In both songs, Streisand plays an underappreciated lass. The joke in the 1937 ditty is that she's an ugly young woman but feels she should still have snagged a man because she's used all the right unguents and ointments. Not only that: "I began Gone with the Wind," she rues. (I'm presuming that Harold Rome himself started and finished that book, given that decades later he provided the score for a musical version of the Margaret Mitchell tale. It played London under its famous title some time after an engagement in Japan, where it had been called Scarlett. For a detailed look at that production, get the published collection of Rome's wife Florence's correspondence; it's called, of course, The Scarlett Letters.)

Streisand's recording of "Nobody Makes a Pass at Me" is one of her best of the era, partly because it reflected her persona back then, when all of us were adjusting to her looks. (A Saturday Evening Post writer in 1962 delicately commented, "This is not a face that would launch a thousand ships.") Now that she's an ice queen, her singing "Nobody Makes a Pass at Me" again is as likely as her bedding James Brolin's co-star in Capricorn One, ex-husband Elliott Gould.

"Nobody Makes a Pass at Me" is one of the show's rare apolitical songs. The tune that opens the album, "Sing Me a Song of Social Significance," very well expresses the musical's dominant sensibility. "It's Better with a Union Man" is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, suggesting that if a woman dated someone non-union, she'd pay a terrible price. "Back to Work" is a hearty and exuberant song about a strike's ending. And though it was meant as a Biblical-sized warning, "Mene, Mene Tekel" has tickled many many over the years.

"Sunday in the Park" stepped out of the show to become a modest pop hit of the day. It sounds pleasant enough on the '62 disc, but some of the more controversial lyrics were dropped -- the ones which state what citizens are forbidden to do by an oppressive government. (I learned this from seeing Pins and Needles at the ol' Roundabout on West 23rd Street in 1978 when I was seated next to a sixtysomething couple, two longtime lefties who told me that Pins and Needles was their first date; they had attended the night after they'd met at a May Day Parade.)

When Pins and Needles opened, the country had endured the Depression and war was on the horizon in Europe. So the musical may again, for better or worse, be a show for our times. One song that didn't make the 1962 disc was "Stay Out, Sammy" in which a mother warns her kid against getting involved. Says Jewish Rep spokesperson Warren Hoffman, "This song was only in the show for a few weeks, when much of the country was against joining the war in Europe. As sentiment shifted, the piece was replaced by 'Sittin' on Your Status Quo.' All this reflects the quick-changing nature of the revue and that the material did its best to reflect current events and sentiments."

When Britain didn't stand up to Germany in 1938, John Latouche and Arnold Horwitt wrote a sketch cleverly entitled "Brittania Waives the Rules." And while Broadway was hosting both The Hot Mikado and The Swing Mikado, Pins and Needles delivered "The Red Mikado," in which "Three Little Maids" was rewritten as "Three Little DARs are we; full to the brim with bigotry." (Let the punishment fit the crime: Rome was commenting on the Daughters' not allowing opera star Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall in Washington because she was black.) In the sketch, those Daughters got stabbed, and out of their bodies flowed plenty of blood -- blue in color, of course.

At Jewish Rep, director Gary John LaRosa and musical director Nathan Hurwitz swear that they'll maintain the integrity of the original show and stress its relevance to today. The production will feature material that hasn't been heard since the original. Hoffman also says that a trip to the Harold Rome Archive at Yale University turned up the original Act One finale, "Men Awake!" This will be performed, along with three of Joseph Shrank's original sketches. What will be most interesting, though, is "Four Little Angels of Peace," the song that has Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Stalin matter-of-factly mentioning their military atrocities -- all in the cause of "peace, peace, peace." Does that sound familiar these days?

Pins and Needles plays Thursday, March 27 at 8pm; Sunday, March 30 at 3 and 7pm; and Monday, March 31 at 2pm at the Jewish Rep, Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, NYC. All tickets are $35. Call 917-606-8200 for information.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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