Every catastrophic global financial crisis has its bright side. In London glaziers are doing overtime and a smash-hit Broadway cabaret, written during the last global bout of austerity, finally gets a British premiere in a small theatre in north London. In 1937 the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) asked Harold Rome to write a cheap show that could be performed by the workers on two pianos.
When Pins and Needles was ready the workers had to be convinced because they wanted to do serious political productions. Its charm, wit and great music won them over. However, its opening number, “Sing me a Song of Social Significance”, sets the tone – they are not going to sing songs of “moons and Junes” when the battle is to survive. It is also funny and moving.
A series of sketches and songs sent up their bosses, the advertising industry, fascism, women’s oppression and anything else that made them angry. They rehearsed at night and could only perform on weekends, but within weeks they had left their factories to perform full time. The show then transferred to Broadway and ran to packed houses for over a thousand performances.
It is a trait peculiar to humans that we can respond to social dislocation and violent class struggle by making art. Some of the best examples of revue or cabaret come out of the trauma of Weimar Germany and the Great Depression in the US. Musicians, writers, actors and artists usually associated with the US Communist Party, though not exclusively, wanted to make art for the working class. This was a simple idea of popular culture as a weapon in class struggle.
The Cultural Front, as it became known, was to educate, entertain and politicise the masses. It could encompass the work of Bertold Brecht, Charlie Chaplin, Frida Kahlo, John Steinbeck, Diego Rivera, Paul Robeson and J T Farrell (one of Trotsky’s greatest defenders in the US), as well as thousands of less famous artists and technicians.
As President Roosevelt rolled out the New Deal to prevent revolution and the total collapse of society, public funding for arts programmes of all kinds became available.
One of the most famous productions was The Cradle Will Rock, also made in 1937. It was a Brechtian musical attacking philistine bourgeois society in Steeltown, USA. In turn this became the subject of a film in 1999 about its making and the destruction of Diego Rivera’s mural in the lobby of the Rockefeller Centre. The mural had been commissioned to illustrate industry and capitalism straddling the world – so he included Lenin. The philistines destroyed the mural and the federal authorities tried to stop the production. It was OK “to put America back to work” but not to have the ungrateful swine criticise the system that had thrown them out of work. This meant that its opening night was a huge victory.
Pins and Needles was not only union-made (of course) but none of the performers were professional. It was massively successful not only because they were singing about their lives and struggles but because in every workplace, everywhere, there are talented people who just need a chance. Pins and Needles was re-recorded in 1962 for a 25th anniversary studio album starring the then unknown Barbra Streisand, and was briefly revived off-Broadway in the 1970s.
To keep it fresh throughout its original run, lyrics were updated and topical news added. I thought the song “Not Cricket to Picket”, sung by “Boris Johnson”, must be an updated version, but it barely needed tweaking. Another element of depressing topicality was the song by the young woman who studies hard for an education and finds all it gets her is a “clean” job in a department store.
Now the Con-Dems want to wipe out 80 years of social progress there is a direct link between this show and television presenter Paul O’Grady wielding a fire extinguisher as Millbank riot-consultant, cracking jokes in the face of injustice. This is an enormously enjoyable production that could fill a much larger theatre, but in the meantime it would do them good to have an audience who get the sit-down strike jokes.
After the performance we went back downstairs into the draughty pub where a lot of older Kilburn people sat, their hard lives written on their bodies. Twenty years of “boom” and if they’re lucky they have double glazing. Their parents’ generation made this art because they “wished not for the crumbs but for the whole loaf”. Looking at their grandchildren this time, it’s possible they may decide to take the bakery.
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