The International Ladies Garment Workers Union used the Princess Theatre in New York City as a meeting hall. The union sponsored an inexpensive revue with ILGWU workers as the cast and two pianos. Because of their factory jobs, participants could rehearse only at night and on weekends, and initial performances were presented only on Friday and Saturday nights. The original cast was made up of cutters, basters, and sewing machine operators.
Pins and Needles looked at current events from a pro-union standpoint. It was "lighthearted look at young workers in a changing society in the middle of America's most politically engaged city." Skits spoofed everything from Fascist European dictators to bigots in the DAR. Word-of-mouth was so enthusiastically positive that the cast abandoned their day jobs and the production expanded to a full performance schedule of eight shows per week. New songs and skits were introduced every few months to keep the show topical.
According to John Kenrick, Pins and Needles "is the only hit ever produced by a labor union, and the only time when a group of unknown non-professionals brought a successful musical to Broadway."
From 1937 to 1941, Pins & Needles was a hit musical comedy revue running on Broadway. But this was no ordinary Broadway musical: It was written for and performed by members of The International Ladies Garment Workers' Union. With songs by Harold Rome, ILGWU members sang out for all the people fighting for jobs, housing, a minimum wage, immigrants' rights and economic justice, and performed sketches that satirized the European fascists and the U.S. right-wing reactionaries who rose up against FDR's New Deal.
Originally written for a small theatrical production, the first production of Pins and Needles was directed by Samuel Roland. After a two week professional run, it was adapted for performances by members of the then-striking International Garment Workers' Union as an entertainment for its members. Because Roland was associated with left-wing causes, he was asked by ILGWU president David Dubinsky to withdraw. The better-known ILGWU production was directed by Charles Friedman and choreographed by Benjamin Zemach. It opened on November 27, 1937 at the Labor Stage Theatre and then transferred to the Windsor Theatre on January 1, 1939, finally closing on June 22, 1940 after 1108 performances. The cast included Harry Clark. The production was directed by the African-American dancer Katherine Dunham.
The Roundabout Theatre Company produced a revival Off-Broadway at the Roundabout Stage 1 Theatre in 1978, which ran for 225 performances.
The Jewish Repertory Theatre presented a concert in 2003, to include songs and sketches from all versions of the show.
Pins and Needles was presented in the UK for the first time at the Cock Tavern Theater in Kilburn, London in November and December 2010. The production was directed by Rachel Grunwald and received positive reviews from the theatre press.
New material was frequently introduced during the run of the show; the following list, though by no means complete, is representative of the changes:
•"First Impression" - Entire Company (Music by Harold Rome. Lyrics by Harold Rome and Charles Friedman.)
•"Lesson in Etiquette" (Added by September 1938) - The Expert: Pickets:
• One Third of a Mitten (by Emanuel Eisenberg and Jay Williams)(Added by September 1938)
•"The Great White Way Turns Pink" (Added by September 1938) (Music by Lee Wainer. Lyrics by John Latouche.)
•"Lorelei on the Rocks" (Added December 1938) (Music by Berenice Kazounoff. Lyrics by John Latouche.)
Die Lorelei: A Storm Trooper:
•"Papa Lewis, Mama Green" (added 30 January 1939) (Pantomime and Dance)
Mama: Papa: Children (2):
•"Back to Work" (added by February 1939)
Joe: Strikers: Entire Company.
•"Britannia Rules the Waves" (added April 1939) (Music by Berenice Kazounoff. Sketch and Lyrics by Arnold B. Horwitt and John Latouche.)
The Prime Minister: The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs: The Secretary of State for War: The First Lord of the Admiralty: The German Envoy: The Japanese Envoy: Miss Beamish:
•"The Red Mikado" (added late April 1939) (Book and Lyrics by Joseph Schrank and Harold J. Rome, with apologies to Gilbert & Sullivan. Vocal Direction by Simon Rady.)
Lord High Executioner: Flunky: Three Little Maids: Wandering Minstrel: Gilbert: Sullivan: I.L.G.W U. Titi-Pu Chorus:
•"I've Got the Nerve to Be in Love" (added April 1939) (Pantomime and Dance Staged by Felicia Sorel. Music Arranged by Baldwin Bergersen.)
•"Cream of Mush" (added April 1939) (Sketch by Joseph Schrank. Music and Lyrics by Harold J. Rome.)
Lem Godfrey: Dan Scotti: Pete: Mr. Price: Mr. Perkins: J. Drexel Weller: Mr. Black:
•"Mene Mene Tekel" (added August 1939) Dorothy Harrison
•"The Harmony Boys" (added June 1939) - (Sketch by Joseph Schrank. Music and Lyrics by Harold J. Rome.)
Coggie: Bob: Fritzie:
• Paradise Mislaid (Sketch by Joseph Schrank.) (added by September 1939) Jake: Papa: Minnie: The janitor: "Stupie": Max: Moe: Becky: The Nursa: Lucille: The Moving Man: Jack Smith:
•"Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl," or "It's Better With a Union Man" (added November 1939) - (Sketch by Joseph Schrank. Music and Lyrics by Harold J. Rome. Dance by Katherine Dunham.)
The Singing Waiter: Bertha: Ted Trueblue: Harold Hotfoot: Ensemble:
•"We Sing America" (added November 1939) Entire Company
•"What This Party Needs" (added 2 November 1939) - (Sketch by Joseph Schrank. Music by Harold J. Rome. Lyrics by Harold J. Rome and Arthur Kramer.)
Bill: Mack: First Graybeard: Second Greybeard: Third Greybeard:
•"Why Sing of Skies Above?" (Sing Me a Song of Social Significance)
• Mussolini Handicap (by Arthur Arent)
Mussolini: Four Prize Winners:
•"Public Enemy No. I"
• The General Is Unveiled (Staged by Benjamin Zemach. Ballet Music by Harold Rome.)
General: Speaker: Secretary: Invited Guests:
The Women's Auxiliary assembles to unveil the statue of a famous general on his birthday. In the middle of a stirring address by Mr. Warmonger, the general, comes to life and does as he has always done: set man against man. When he resumes his granite self, he leaves behind him a chastened and thoughtful group.
•"We'd Rather Be Right" - (Sketch by David Gregory. Music by Harold Rome. Lyrics by Arthur Kramer.)
First 100% American: Second 100% American: Third 100% American: Boy:
•"When I Grown Up" (The "G Man" Song) (added for New Pins and Needles tour) - Solo
•"Sitting on Your Status Quo" - Solo and Ensemble
•"Oh, Give Me the Good Old Days" (added by March 1940) Solo
• International Situation (Sketch by Joseph Schrank.)
•"Pity the Poor Millionaire" - (Music and Lyrics by Harold J. Rome.)
•"Stay Out, Sammy" (added by March 1940)
•Poker Players (Sketch by Joseph Schrank) (New Pins and Needles tour)
Adolf. Phui: Joe: Benny: French General:
• Let 'Em Eat Guns (Sketch by Joseph Schrank.) (added for New Pins and Needles tour)
A Lecturer: The Exhibit:
•"History Eight to the Bar" (added for New Pins and Needles tour) (Music and Lyrics by Harold J. Rome.)
Professor: D. Harrison. Students: Sherman Edwards, A. Charmat, E. Bregman, T. Fazio, L. Morrison, Sylvia Cahn, A. Levy, E. Gerber, W. Castellano, J. Nicita.
•"Alone on the Lone Prairie" (added for New Pins and Needles tour) (Music and Lyrics by Harold J. Rome.)
"The Pluto Boys" (added for New Pins and Needles tour) (Music and Lyrics by Harold J. Rome.)
Girl: Imp: First Demon: Second Demon: Third Demon:
•1+1=1 (added to NY run briefly, New Pins and Needles tour) (Sketch by Joseph Schrank.)
Announcer: Judge: Professor: Boy: . Girl: Expert: Man on Street: Vendor: Mother: Daughter: Citizen: Miss Dewberry: Shady Fellow: Passerby:
• The Little Red Schoolhouse (by Emanuel Eisenberg)
Schmaltz: Bernadette: Mildred: Lena: Boss: . Union Man:
•"Sunday in the Park"
Papa: Mama: Boy: Girl: Cop: Balloon Man: Vendor: Couple: Man With Carriage: Lonesome Guy: Park Attendant: Radical: Man on Bench: Passersby:
•"Dear Beatrice Fairfax" (Nobody Makes a Pass at Me) Solo
(Sketch by Charles Friedman. Music and Lyrics by Harold Rome.)
The Stray: Doorman: Stage Manager: Banker: Manufacturer: Wholesaler: Retailer: Consumer:
Entire Company, Dance Group
(Prelude Suggested by a Poem of Langston Hughes. Conceived and Staged by Benjamin Zemach.)
•"It's Not Cricket to Picket" Solo, Company
•"Vassar Girl Finds Job" (Chain Store Daisy) Solo
•"F. T. P. (Federal Theatre Project) Plowed Under" (by Marc Blitzstein) Mr. Bureaucrats: Mrs. Clubhouse: Mr. Zealous:. Mr. Stallalong: Mr. Hippity Bloomberg: Guards:
•"What Good Is Love?" Solo
•"One Big Union for Two" (Dance Routine by Gluck Sander.)
•"Four Little Angels of Peace"
Eden: Mussolini: Japanese: Hitler:
•"Slumming Party" (Doing the Reactionary)
(Monologue, Music and Lyrics by Harold Rome. Dance Routine by Gluck Sander.)
Mrs. Dalrymple III: Her Protégé: Her Nephew: Her Aunt: Her Uncle: Her Chauffeur:
•"We've Just Begun" (Music by Harold Rome. Lyrics by Harold Rome and Charles Friedman.)
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