Every once in a while, I see a production that reminds me of what theater can really be. I'm not talking about commercial theater. I'm talking about theater in its purest form, which, at least for me, is about connecting with people and their stories and about communicating important and challenging ideas.
But this past Saturday, I had the great pleasure of attending a show that accomplished both, putting forth a slate of real and courageous people and presenting a series of ideas that, while not new, are just as important now as they were when the show in question was first produced.
That show is Pins and Needles, a topical revue that first appeared in 1937, and which at one time was the longest-running show on Broadway (at 1,108 performances), until Oklahoma! came along and nearly doubled the record. This left-leaning satirical show featured music and lyrics by Harold Rome, and sketch material by Rome, Marc Blitzstein, John Latouche, and others. One remarkable thing about the show was that it was performed by theatrical amateurs, a rotating series of members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. These days, the show is primarily remembered for its 25th anniversary cast recording featuring the vocal stylings of a young Barbra Streisand.
Otherwise, Pins and Needles has virtually disappeared from the theatrical landscape, apart from a few scattered productions by Off-Off-Broadway companies. I include Pins and Needles in my unit about the rise of the satirical musical show in the 1930s, but until now I've never had a chance to see it live. So, when I read a Playbill article about an upcoming production, I immediately bought a ticket. The article mentioned that the show would be performed at The Foundry, a theatrical collective in Brooklyn, and by an African-American group called FUREE (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality). The article also said that this production would comprise original material from the 1937 production, with additional material by Pulitzer-Prize winner Lynn Nottage, among others. Frankly, they had me at Pins and Needles, but the rest of the details only served to fuel my interest.
When the show started, I immediately sensed that something was amiss. The performers were...how can I put this...not polished. In fact, they were clearly rank amateurs. The production values were actually quite strong: the lighting, costumes, setting, and musicians were all thoroughly professional. But the cast was clearly not. The acting was a bit stiff, the diction was fuzzy, and some of the cast members could, frankly, barely hold a tune. At first I was confused, but then something funny started to happen. I got caught up in the raw but joyful enthusiasm of these wonderfully real people. I reminded myself that the original piece was performed by amateurs, and I found myself wondering whether the original cast was as endearing as these passionate people who proceeded to win me over and, eventually, blow me away.
Director Ken Rus Schmoll and dramaturg Melanie Joseph, the latter of whom is also the artistic producer of The Foundry Theater, have taken the original Pins and Needles and adapted it for an all-African-American ensemble. They've retained much of the original score, and a few of the sketches, and supplemented these with period songs and adapted scenes that illuminate the black experience, both of the 1930s and of today. Purists might balk at such liberal artistic license, but the original production of Pins and Needles was at all times a work in progress. Numbers came and went, as did scenes, based on topicality and the changing political landscape. So Rome, Blitzstein, Latouche and their collaborators would probably have been just fine with the idea of re-purposing their material for such a worthy effort. In fact, I think they would have been thrilled.
The whole piece came together for me during an entirely new scene toward the end of the show. Five of the performers perch themselves behind music stands and tell the stories about how they became activists. It could have been didactic and dull, but the stories, as adapted here by Sara Zatz, helped drive home the message that these weren't just performers. They were the actual people who were living out the stories that they were presenting. Apparently, FUREE started as a group of local activists from the projects around New York City, with the common goal of improving the living conditions in public housing, but the mission of the group has since expanded to include empowering the people of the projects to take ownership of their surroundings and of their lives. I found myself remarkably moved finding out about the real struggles of these enthusiastic performers. How often does theater afford you such an opportunity?
Beyond the performers, much of the material from the original Pins and Needles is just as relevant today as it was in the '30s and '40s, including sections about immigration, union busting, and Welfare. The last of these really hit home for me, as right before my New York trip, I had had a vivid discussion on the subject with my father. My dad, a staunch conservative, loves to collect and retell stories about Welfare cheats. Most recently, he told me about a woman who deliberately had an increasing number illegitimate children until she was getting $100,000 a year in public assistance. Of course, my father falls victim to the typical conservative ploy of taking one data point and making generalizations. I have no idea whether the story is true, but even if it is, every system has the potential for abuse. Does that mean we throw out the baby with the bathwater?
I really wish my father had been with me at Pins and Needles. Here were the stories of the people who don't want a handout. They want a chance. A chance to make a life of their own. As one song lyric from the show puts it, "I don't want your millions, mister. I just want my job back." Connecting with people and their stories. That's what theater is all about.
Pins and Needles has two more performances this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 PM. If you go, remember, these aren't AEA pros. These are real people, with a genuine and heartfelt connection to the material they so joyfully present. I hope you find it as transformative as I did.