“Sing Me a Song with Social Significance”: Harold Rome and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union

The following is a guest post from Archive Processing Technician Melissa Capozio Jones.

Before the Golden Age of the American musical theater with shows like Oklahoma! (1943) and Annie Get Your Gun (1946), there was a long-running musical revue with an unusual cast and a rather unassuming title: Pins and Needles. For those unfamiliar with the show, the name might evoke thoughts of an arm or leg “falling asleep” and the associated tingling sensation. But there has been no musical yet devoted entirely to one’s foot falling asleep. Instead, Pins and Needles derives its title from the unconventional circumstances of its creation by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU).

During the 1920s and ’30s the ILGWU, headquartered in New York City, utilized the Princess Theatre just off Sixth Avenue as its regular meeting hall. The union had a designated Cultural Division at the time, whose purpose was to provide lessons in singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, and other artistic pursuits to members of the union. The Princess Theatre, eventually renamed Labor Stage, became not only a meeting venue but later a recreation hall, providing a place for the Cultural Division to showcase the union members’ talents and new-found skills. Sensing a perfect opportunity, the director of the Cultural Division, Louis Schaffer, requested that the union board sponsor a low-budget musical revue at the theater. After extensive persuading, the board agreed, and Pins and Needles was born.

Pins and Needles program cover depicting “Four Little Angels of Peace” skit, 1938. Harold Rome Papers. Box 16, Folder 3.

Lyricist and songwriter Harold Rome (1908-1993) was hired by Louis Schaffer to write the show’s music; Pins and Needles would become Rome’s first Broadway score. Originally conceived as a small theatrical production, the revue began as entertainment for and by the union members. Unlike a show with professional actors and singers, work on Pins and Needles was restricted by the schedule of the factory and garment trade workers who made up the cast. Rehearsals were held at night, and the initial performances were given only on Friday and Saturday evenings. This ensured that the sewing machine operators, basters, and cutters could keep their jobs while continuing to participate in the revue. With the show’s eventual success, the cast left their factory jobs to rehearse and perform the show full-time, with performances expanded to eight shows a week. Pins and Needles saw a total of 1,108 performances over its three-year run from 1937 until 1940, and was hailed as a Broadway smash.

With a union sponsor and a cast of union workers, Rome’s revue was pro-union, topically relevant, and politically charged. It included a skit in which Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler explained their war time decisions in “Four Little Angels of Peace,” a song poking fun at Herbert Hoover titled “When I Grow Up (G-man Song),” and in keeping with the pro-union theme, a love song sweetly titled “One Big Union for Two.” Situational comedy was not restricted to the stage, however. Rome admitted that the revue’s hit song, “Sing Me a Song With Social Significance,” came to him while he was in the shower. He claims to have jumped out soaking wet to jot the tune down–before drying off and getting dressed.

“Sing Me a Song With Social Significance” by Harold Rome, undated. Harold Rome Papers. Box 7, Folder 15.

The songs and skits in the revue changed regularly throughout its three-year run in order to keep the social commentary topical, but the show never ran low on entertainment and satirical wit. Even with its surprising fame, the revue was not immune to criticism and concerns. When the show was set to open in Providence, Rhode Island, in late 1940, the Providence Bureau of Police and Fire banned the performance unless a scene that satirized a pro-fascist Catholic priest, a German-American Nazi organization leader, and a North Carolina senator was cut from the show. The scene was eventually removed, but not without protest from the cast and crew.

The timeless appeal of satirical social commentary and Rome’s score has ensured that this show has lived on in new productions. Pins and Needles saw its largest off-Broadway revival in 1978 and was performed for the first time in the United Kingdom in 2010. The show even received a slight update in 2011 when it was performed by the social justice organization FUREE (Families United For Racial and Economic Equality). In keeping with the tradition of the original production, the cast was made up entirely of organization members. They performed ten of Rome’s original numbers while also incorporating songs from two prominent Black singers and songwriters of the early 20th century, Josh White and Lead Belly. The addition of their music helped the revue explore the African American experience, which had not been part of the original production. The performance also included new numbers that dealt with current events such as the anti-union legislation that was signed into law in Wisconsin in early 2011.

The popularity of Pins and Needles made it one of Harold Rome’s longest running shows. He often said its success was due to the relatability of the cast; actual garment workers as the cast created a “rapport…[and] sense of identification” with audiences. One could easily say that without the entertaining and witty music and lyrics by Rome himself, the show might never have gotten off the ground long enough to gain an audience at all. Either way, Pins and Needles remains the only Broadway-hit musical revue ever produced by a labor union with a cast of union members singing about unions, and the longest-running show of the 1930s.

2 Comments

  1. Susan Garfinkel
    January 13, 2021 at 7:22 pm

    Thank you for this intriguing glimpse into _Pins and Needles_ in the Harold Rome Papers. My grandmother was a rank-and-file ILGWU member in New York City in the late 1930s, who was thrilled to have seen this production at the time–performed by her peers!

    My question is about two items online at the Library of Congress in the Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Collection, both by Fine, with ILGWU in the title. One is a set of lyrics titled “I.L.G.W.U.” at //www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200184870/ and the second is manuscript music, titled “ILGWU (Commencement Day),” at //www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200183840/. How do these, if at all, relate to _Pins and Needles_? I was able to find one _New York Times_ article (1975) that suggests she wrote these as (part of?) a parody of _Pins and Needles_ at Camp Tamiment early in her career, but am hoping the Music Division may have additional information.

  2. Chris Garlock
    January 26, 2021 at 7:09 am

    This is terrific; would love to feature this on the Labor History Today podcast! Can Melissa Capozio Jones contact us to discuss?

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