There used to be a building

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which occurred 100 years ago today.

Yes, the tragedy was depicted in a musical – more on that in a moment – but the unnecessary death of so many innocent poor people is such an emotional subject, it fills me with outrage, about various matters.

But I promised myself, when I started this blog about six months ago, that I’d never write about politics.  There are certainly plenty of political blogs out there, and, much as I love political discussions, if I “go there” I risk alienating those who come here for discussions about musicals.

But the disaster’s a century old, so thoughts on it don’t have to be wildly controversial.  One block east of Washington Square stood a sweatshop where a lot of young women, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, worked very hard for very long hours for very low wages.  Like many factories of the time, Triangle Shirtwaist locked them in the room with the rows and rows of sewing machines.  And when fire broke out, the lack of exit led to many deaths; many women jumped from the ninth floor.

Out of the ashes, as it were, grew America’s labor movement.  After newspaper coverage, people were far more accepting of unions.  And historians agree this was a watershed moment: the whole relationship between industrialists and their work-force forever changed.  Before, bosses regularly mistreated employees.  There was no such thing as a minimum wage, or a limit to the number of hours in the work-week.  The friction between labor and employers is something we accept as a necessary evil of capitalism.  Those who run companies will always try to get the maximum amount of productivity for the least amount of pay.  It’s the way it goes.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen a number of companies who pride themselves on treating workers well.  But recently, there’s been a lot of anti-union sentiment expressed, and one of the dominant domestic news stories of 2011 involves someone seeking to do away with the collective-bargaining rights of teachers.  Oh, wait: I think I’ve just stepped over the line, gotten too political.  So, quick: let’s return to the thought that unions started, in large part, to protect workers from unsafe workplaces like Triangle Shirtwaist.

Today, if there was a workplace – perhaps one named for a casino – where five workers, within five months’ time, suffered five different serious injuries, any union worth its salt would raise holy hell.  Certain jobs are not supposed to be threatening to life and limb.  And it’s the moral obligation of a union to make sure that management recklessness isn’t putting its people in peril.

Way back during the depression, when jobs were scarce and workers barely got along on the wages they got, the union of clothing-makers decided to put on a show.  Pins and Needles was its rather perfect title, a fun revue featuring seamstresses, button-sewers and the like.  A songwriter (Harold Rome) was hired to create original songs, mostly funny ones.  The little talent show was so loved by audiences, it moved to Broadway and became one of the biggest hits of the decade.

Through family connections, I met Harold Rome when I was a child, and he was very nice to me.  Similarly, when Charles Strouse’s musical Rags, which depicts the Shirtwaist Factory Fire, was in previews, I got to see it, go backstage, and congratulate the composer.  I told him I was sure he had a hit on his hands. 

What I was thinking as I said that was “…If only they’d fix it.”  You see, Rags is a tuneful show that suffered from way too much ambition.  It tried to say so many things about the experience of turn-of-the-century immigrants.  The central character was a mother (of a fairly small boy) who was searching for her husband, who had come to America some years earlier.  Meanwhile, she falls for a passionate (and younger) union organizer.  And then there’s a character who’s gotten an idea about selling sound recording machines.  And I still haven’t mentioned the doomed factory girl.

All these multiple-plots in this time and place (and the title) may remind you of Ragtime, which is considered a much greater success.  I happen to like both shows a lot, but lose patience with Ragtime’s plot after racist thugs ruin a black character’s automobile.  It sets him on a quest for justice that includes seizing the Morgan Library and threatening to blow it up.  Songwriters Flaherty and Ahrens, who filled so much of the first act with wonderfully vibrant and unexpected numbers, eventually give way to sanctimony in a Big Ballad called “Make Them Hear You.”  The song reminds me of “Colors of the Wind” which happens to have lyrics by the man who wrote the lyrics to Rags, Stephen Schwartz. 

A side-by-side comparison can be made involving entrepreneurs making money off of recent inventions.  Ragtime’s “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.” doesn’t fill me with the same amount of joy as the sequence with the recording machine in Rags.  This may have to do with the fact that the former is a solo: One character explains, uninterrupted, how he made a fortune with motion pictures.  In Rags, you see the young man make a recording, you see how he formulates his sales pitch, and you see the emotional reaction of his customers.  It’s a more joyous number for the audience, too.

Rome, Charles Strouse/Stephen Schwartz, Flaherty & Ahrens are all at their best when they’re tapping in to the emotions of their characters, presenting feelings in an infectious way that leads the audiences to feel them, too.  And today’s a perfect day to experience Pins and Needles, Rags, and Ragtime.

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