One of the most prized records in my collection is a private recording of a 1937 performance of the Broadway musical Pins and Needles. I brought it out for a listen again, after the musical film La La Land‘s success.
Rarely mentioned today Pins and Needles was a smash hit in its day, it ran for 1,108 performances, becoming the longest-running musical in Broadway history.
It is without doubt the most radical musical to hit Broadway. It was a musical revue sponsored by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the cast was drawn from its members. A marriage of the music hall tradition, radical theatre and vaudeville revue it looked at political and social topics of the day.
The roots of Pins and Needles go back to 1934 when the ILGWU set up an amateur drama section of the union. After staging a run-through of the musical with a cast of unemployed union members in June 1936, the union decided to go ahead with the production.
The ILGWU hired Charles Friedman as the director and Harold Rome as the musical director, composer and pianist. He later went on to compose songs for the films Rear Window and Anchors Aweigh.
For a year and a half Friedman and Rome rehearsed the cast at the Old Prince Theatre on 39th Street, New York. The actors had to hold down their day jobs and do all their rehearsing in their spare time. Pins and Needles opened in November 1937 with 19 numbers performed by a cast of 44.
Although Pins and Needles was based around a number of core songs, to keep the show fresh new ones dealing with current political topics were added.
Like all great musicals there were show stoppers and yes, there were love songs – but with a twist.
I’ve decided the only way I can woo you
Is to take a hint from the AFL and the CIO…
I’m on a campaign to make you mine
I’ll picket you until you sign
In one big union for two
No court injunctions can make me stop
Until your love is all closed shop
In one big union for two
Seven days a week I want the right
To call you mine both day and night
The hours may be long
But fifty million union members can’t be wrong
–– One Big Union for Two
Pins and Needles was a product of its time. In the first half of the 1930s the US was blighted by mass unemployment. The second half of the decade was a period of militant resistance. There were victorious trade union struggles led by the CIO union federation and rank and file activists.
There were also attempts to break the stranglehold of the racist Jim Crow laws in the Southern States and mass campaigns against institutional racism in the Northern cities.
Communists and socialists played a key role in these campaigns. They also played an important role in using culture – theatre, music, art and film – to highlight these struggles and to create a radical artistic movement that left a permanent imprint on the arts in the US.
Marc Blitzstein produced the revolutionary musical Cradle will Rock, Duke Ellington recorded the radical jazz suite Jump for Joy which challenged racism, John Steinbeck’s novels raged against poverty, Disney cartoonists walked the picket lines and Billie Holiday sang Strange Fruit at Cafe Society.
The historian Michael Denning describes this movement as the Cultural Front. Pins and Needles was one of the most important artistic achievements of the Cultural Front and it declared war on the cultural orthodoxy of the day.
I’m tired of moon-songs of stars and of June songs,
They simply make me nap
And ditties romantic drive me nearly frantic
I think they’re all full of pap
History’s making, nations are quaking
Why sing of stars above
For while we are waiting, Father Time’s creating
New things to be singing of
Sing me a song with social significance
–– Sing me a song of Social Significance
The production broke down many theatrical social barriers, with a predominantly female cast of mainly Jewish and Italian garment workers – a first in Broadway history.
Originally the musical revue was only performed at weekends. But the success of the show meant that the cast’s employers gave them time off work and the garment workers became full time actors and members of the actors’ union.
The show was so popular that the cast was invited to perform the show at the White House for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in 1938.
Some of the most popular songs in the revue were the ones that mocked the rich and powerful:
All the best dictators do it
Millionaires keep steppin’ to it
The four hundred love to sing it
Ford and Morgan swing it
Hand up high and shake your head
You’ll soon see red
Doing the reactionary
Don’t go left, but be polite
Move to the right
Doing the reactionary
–– Doing the Reactionary
A second production of the musical opened in June 1939 at the larger Windsor Theatre on 48th Street, the venue that also hosted Marc Blitzstein’s political musical The Cradle Will Rock, which was directed by Orson Welles.
A third and final version of the revue was launched in November of the same year.
The final curtain came down on Pins and Needles on 22 June 1940. A few of the cast continued with their stage careers, but most went back into the garment industries.
McCarthyism may have decimated the radical cultural tradition in the US in the late 1940s and 1950s but it couldn’t destroy its legacy.In 1962, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Pins and Needles, a new production was showcased, featuring none other than Barbra Streisand.
The sad truth is that Pins and Needles is the only hit theatre production produced by a trade union and the only time a group of unknown non-professionals brought a successful musical to Broadway.
An advertising leaflet beautifully summed up the spirit of the production.
We’re not George M Cohans or Noel Cowards
Or Beatrice Lillies or Willie Howards
We’ve never played in stock or studied in the playhouse…
Dressmakers, cloakmakers, cutters, underwear workers, knit-goods workers,
Neckwear makers, embroiderers, stampers, checkers, examiners,
Graders, pressers, trimmers, binders, pinkers,
All of us – from the shops.
• You can listen to clips and buy the album of the 1962 version of Pins and Needles here.