By Peter Filichia
September is National Sewing Month, so this would seem to be as good a time as any to honor people who work with pins and needles.
It’s also a good chance to celebrate the musical and studio cast recording of Pins and Needles, too. Harold Rome, its composer-lyricist, had to wait more than twenty-five years to get that recording in 1962, but when he did, he had to be very pleased.
The participation of then-newcomer Barbra Streisand was only one reason why.
It’s a miracle that the album ever happened, for Pins and Needlesis one of the great underdog success stories in Broadway history. When it opened in 1936, it starred Murray Modick, Millie Weitz and Ruth Rubinstein.
Modick was a dress presser; Weitz a dressmaker and Rubinstein made underwear – all members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. They toiled on or near Seventh Avenue, then the clothes manufacturing center of the world.
It was an era when many companies thought putting on a show with its employees would be fun. ILGWU’s Louis Schaffer, who wanted one for his organization, remembered that composer-lyricist whose impressive songs he’d witnessed at Green Mansions – not the tropical forest in that 1959 Audrey Hepburn movie, but a summer resort in the Adirondacks, nearly four hours north of the city. Young writers would provide new songs and sketches there as weekly entertainment.
Rome, a Yale graduate from the school of architecture, couldn’t get a job in his chosen field, so he took to writing songs at Green Mansions. After Pins and Needles, he spent a lifetime designing songs instead of buildings. (Remember that, those of you who are currently studying “something to fall back on” as well as theater because show-biz success seems too remote.)
Forty-four ILGWU workers rehearsed for eighteen months on an average of three times a week before they took to the stage. A quite illustrious stage it was: The Princess Theatre at 39th Street and Sixth Avenue, where Kern, Bolton and Wodehouse had given birth to the truly American musical about a quarter-century earlier.
Now, however, the theater would be rechristened The Labor Stage to reflect the workadays who’d perform on weekends starting on June 11, 1936. Because this was essentially community theater, none quit his day job – not right away, anyway. But Pins and Needles was deemed so fresh and innovative that the show went to a full eight-performance-a-week schedule on Nov. 27, 1937.
The title was an apt one, not merely because the cast worked with pins and needles forty hours a week, but also because the show would be sharp and pointed. Rome and six sketch-writers felt free to pin blame on management and needle the establishment.
Given that it was a topical revue, songs and sketches came and went during the first eighteen months. On April 20, 1939, the show was renamed Pins and Needles 1939, and was so successful that two months later it moved to the Windsor Theatre – almost three times as large -- at 157 West 48th.
Then in September, anticipating a run into the following year, it dared to call itself Pins and Needles 1940. Ironically, that title never saw 1940, although the show itself did. Only two months later, the powers-that-be decided on New Pins and Needles, the name it retained until June 22, 1940, when it closed after 1,108 performances.Today, that total makes Pins and Needles the sixty-ninth longest-running musical in Broadway history. But back then, that total was enough to make it the longest-running Broadway musical of all time. Many from the original cast did go into various recording studios to make singles from the score, but there was no original cast album because that product wouldn’t start in earnest until Oklahoma! in 1943. But in late 1961, musical theater historian Miles Kreuger had the idea to celebrate the show’s silver anniversary with a studio cast album.
He also had the perfect person in mind to do Millie Weitz’ show-stopping “Nobody Makes a Pass at Me,” in which a lass expresses frustration at her lack of success in finding love and marriage. She tells us that she uses every cosmetic, is culturally aware and has her finger on the contemporary pulse – yet “Nobody’s knocking at my front door; what do they think my knocker’s for?” in a lyric that was rather ribald for the late ‘30s. The reason for her lack of success? She’s hideous. Thus Kreuger thought of Streisand, whom he’d seen in clubs and on The Tonight Show. As Pete Hamill would later famously write about Streisand in a Saturday Evening Post feature, “What there is would hardly launch a thousand ships.” But, Kreuger reasoned, Streisand’s comic way with a song would serve this one well.
Note that this was before Streisand made a Broadway name for herself in Rome’s 1962 musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale. Once Streisand had been cast, he wrote a song for her very similar to “Nobody Makes a Pass at Me,” one that could be called its granddaughter: “Miss Marmelstein.” Once Streisand nailed it as solidly as Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of a Wittenberg church, the Pins and Needles studio cast album was on its way.
Streisand was then only twenty years old, but already in her prime as her six Pins and Needles songs display. She does three outright solos, two songs in which she’s supported by a bevy of singers and one in which she’s part of a chorus. The half-dozen selections show her immense versatility from down-to-earth comedienne to a hell-hath-no-fury jilted woman. But as mesmerizing as she is, let’s not forget that Rome gave her terrific material. The chorus number is “Four Little Angels of Peace.” The characters involved are Germany’s Adolf Hitler, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, England’s Anthony Eden and Japan’s – well, Rome never did get around to telling us who represented Japan. But in this rendition – in which we find that everyone’s claim of peace is quite conditional – Streisand plays the Japanese role. The “Ah, so!” approach isn’t politically correct for our times, but remember that this song has recently marked its seventy-eighth birthday. In the ‘30s, many a musical originated or celebrated a new dance that everyone just had to do, lest he or she be hopelessly out of fashion. Rome apparently took his lead from Good News’ “The Varsity Drag,” which demanded “Everybody down on the heels, up on the toes.” His "Doing the Reactionary" song mocked those well-to-dos who were “so safe, so fat, so comfortable” (to use John Adams’ words in 1776). Of course, while singing, Streisand couldn’t literally have a tongue in her cheek; if she had, she’d have sounded like Harry in “Hello, Waves” in Flora, the Red Menace. But her tone is definitely a jeering one when she urges, “Don’t go left, but be polite: move to the right.” Streisand also sang “All the best dictators do it; millionaires keep steppin' to it” in the years before she became a directorial dictator and a billionaire.
Rhyme set the tone for “Not Cricket to Picket.” Because “cricket” is a British word, Streisand starts out in a most refined manner as she endeavors to be a peacemaker between protesters and police. As time goes on, she finds the task increasingly arduous, which riles her. Not much time passes before she becomes, as another British idiom goes, “cheesed off.” “Sitting on Your Status Quo” has Streisand in the role of a history professor whose lesson plan involves The American Revolution. Like many a teacher who tries to make history palatable to a new generation by using up-to-date language, Streisand states that Paul Revere “sang to the farmers near and far ‘Here come the British beating eight to the bar’” in then-au courant terminology. Rome’s jaunty melody seems to have not a care in the world, but his lyric urged fighting those who want to impinge on your liberty: “If you don’t move forward, you move back.” Just from the title “What Good Is Love?” you know this song will never be mistaken for “(I’m in Love with) A Wonderful Guy.” Streisand plays a woman who’s been seriously burned by a beau, and while she starts off bitter, she winds up expressing wrath that’s akin to a four-alarm fire. That leaves nine other songs on the Pins and Needlesstudio cast album, which we’ll cover next Tuesday. After all, we’re not just celebrating National Sewing Week, but National Sewing Month this September. Listen to Pins and Needles on Spotify here.