Brooklyn theater reprises working class musical with a twist

Nearly seventy-four years ago, a troupe of Jewish-American and Italian-American mostly women garment workers took to the stage in New York City to perform Pins and Needles, a musical revue that features songs and comedy sketches that satirize the economic, social, and political institutions that created and perpetuated the Great Depression and celebrate the everyday lives and loves of working people who struggled to cope with the Depressions impact on their world.

Pins and Needles ran for three years, one of which was on Broadway. In explaining its success, Michael Denning in his book The Cultural Front says, “The success of Pins and Needles lay in its union of class, ethnic, and feminist energies, in the way it sang for young Jewish and Italian working-class women in the needle trades.”

In June a new version entitled The Furee on Pins and Needles: A New Revolutionary Musical debuted at the Irondale Center of the Foundry Theater in Brooklyn and ran for a limited engagement of three weeks. The cast members of the original revue were members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). This time, the cast consisted of 20 members of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), a working class community organizations whose members are mostly African- American and Caribbean immigrant women.

Many of the fights for economic and social justice that the ILGWU members sang about are still going on today. “We’re still struggling for rent laws, for affordable housing, for union representation, for better working conditions,” said Marilyn Charles, one of the current cast members to the Fort Greene Patch, a Brooklyn community newspaper.

The original production, which Denning calls “a controversial marriage of vaudeville revue and radical theater,” alternated songs sung directly to the audience and topical comedy sketches on wealth and reaction in the US, fascism, and the radical theater itself.

Some of its songs were and remained popular, so much so that Columbia Records issued a Barbara Streisand record in the 1960s made up of songs from the original production. The song’s on the record include “Chain Store Daisy,” “It’s Better with a Union Man,” “Doing the Reactionary,” “One Big Union for Two,” and “Sing Me a Song of Social Significance,” the opening number of FUREE on Pins and Needles, that begins with these lines:

I’m tired of moon songs, of star and of June songs. . .

Sing me of rights and sing me of justice. . .

Sing me of lost wages and wars. . .

Like the original Pins and Needles that added new songs and sketches to remain timely during the course of its three-year run, Furee on Pins and Needles includes four songs that weren’t in the original revue including Josh White’s “Free and Equal Blues.”

The FUREE version also includes some sketches that weren’t in the original revue, such as a scene taken from Lynn Notage’s play Fabulation that depicts the indignities suffered by women waiting in line to apply for public assistance benefits.

The cast consists of people who have or would like to have full-time day jobs including health care workers, day care providers, laid off telephone operators, and legal secretaries. The director, Ken Rus Schmoll, the musical director, Richard Harper, and the choreographer, Camille Brown are all full-time theater arts workers.

The performance of Furee on Pins and Needles gave the FUREE members an opportunity to express their hopes and frustration about the past, present, and future and to initiate a dialogue with the community about what it will take to build a society that is more just, more equal, and more sustainable.

“Our members have had an incredible experience using the arts–singing, dancing, and acting–to give voice to issues like a living wage and affordable housing,” said the FUREE website.

“This musical is about the struggle of families and union workers in the changing society of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, which is perfectly relevant in our society,” cast member Marilyn Charles said.

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