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A Second Look at Pins and Needles

A Second Look at Pins and Needles

By Peter Filichia   Last week, I used the excuse of “National Sewing Month” to introduce you to Pins and Needles.   Hey, whatever it takes. The 1962 studio cast album of Pins and Needles, which commemorated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the famous revue,is among the musical theater recordings that I most cherish.   Thus on August 26 -- in order to get you to listen -- I detailed the six selections that Barbra Streisand contributed in only her second-ever appearance in a professional recording studio.   That still leaves us with nine other songs from Harold Rome’s marvelous score. And they’d be worth hearing even if Woody Woodpecker or Charo were singing them.   (Luckily, they weren’t available for the spring, 1962 session.)   In case you weren’t around (or paying attention) last week, Pins and Needles was conceived in 1936 as an amateur revue for members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. The show turned out to be so successful that the following year it moved to Broadway where it stayed for nearly three years.   Because the revue opened before The Original Cast Album became a genre, Rome had to wait more than a quarter-century to hear fifteen of his songs in one collection. In truth, this recording should be called Pins and Needles' Greatest Hits, for the album encompasses nine songs from the original production and six that Rome inserted into the show as the run merrily continued.   The front cover proclaims “Recording supervised by Harold Rome,” but the composer-lyricist did more than that; he vocally participated in four songs. That’s a boon to the listener, for a song’s songwriter knows best where the laughs in each song are.   Rome is heard in one solo; two songs in which he’s backed by a chorus and one which he shares with three other singers. The last-named is “Four Little Angels of Peace,” which I mentioned last week because Streisand appears in it, too. Thus, you can hear the composer-lyricist and surprise star of the 1962 musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale in one cut.   The solo is “When I Grow Up,” which has an alternate title “G-Man.” Add the two together, and you get the gist of the song: Rome plays a little boy who wants to become a “government man” who can “bang, bang, bang, bang” his way through life. This was inspired by the 1933 capture of Machine Gun Kelly, who allegedly said when faced with quite a few gun-toting lawmen, “Don’t shoot, G-Men!”   Rome wasn’t 100% serious when either writing or singing “It’s Better with a Union Man.” It’s a pseudo-cautionary tale that has a player-piano sound of a turn-of-the-century waltz to sweeten its message: if a girl gets involved with someone who doesn’t belong to a workers’ union, she’ll get herself in the worst kind of trouble a woman could encounter in those pre-pill ‘30s. How Rome can manage to have his tongue in each of his cheeks and still sing is one of the album’s best delights.   “Mene, Mene, Tekel” takes its title from Chapter Five in the Old Testament’s Book of Daniel. Here Rome straightforwardly tells the story of Babylon’s King Belshazzar who was holding a banquet. His first mistake was putting wine in glasses that were actually holy vessels that had been stolen from a temple in Jerusalem. The story goes that suddenly the words "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin" magically showed up on a wall, thus giving birth to the expression “The handwriting is on the wall,” which can mean something nice, but usually doesn’t.   The prophet Daniel said the words meant that the end was nigh for the kingdom. He turned out to be right, for that very night, the Persian army attacked, killed Belshazzar and took the town.   And what, you may ask (with justification) is a Bible story doing in the middle of a topical revue? It’s a metaphor; Rome was warning that the walls could come tumbling down in any establishment if workers weren’t treated fairly.

This brings us to “Back to Work,” an uptempo celebration. A labor representative is able to tell his union members that the strike they’d started and endured is now over. The brisk pace of the song lets us see that the workers didn’t strike simply because they were lazy; they always wanted to work, but they demanded their fair share for their labors.   Singing that one (as well as the spritely “Sunday in the Park”) is Jack Carroll, the show-biz name that one Vincenzo Riccio chose for himself. During the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Carroll was called “King of the Demos” – meaning that he was often the first to record songs from upcoming musicals on “demonstration records” that would entice famous pop singers to cover them and convert into hits.   And who was “Queen of the Demos?” Why, Rose Marie Jun, who appears on this album, too. Pins and Needles gave these two the chance to emerge from behind the scenes and take center stage at the microphone.   Together they do “One Big Union for Two,” where they play lovers who couch their romance in workingman’s terms. (“I'm on a campaign to make you mine. I'll picket you until you sign,” sings Carroll; Jun responds with “We won't have sit-downs inside our gate. We'll never need to arbitrate.”) An irony: Carroll also mentions the AF of L (American Federation of Labor) and the CIO (Congress of Industrial Unions), which were bitter rivals then, but they would in 1955 merge to make one big union for millions.   Later Carroll and Jun do “I’ve Got the Nerve to Be in Love,” which stresses that even poor tailors, dressmakers, cutters and pressers are entitled to some happiness. Contemporary audiences may not get the reference in “We know that we're included in one third of a nation.” This one third of a nation (yes, all lower-case letters) was a Federal Theatre Project play in its “Living Newspaper” series that may well have originated the expression “ripped from the headlines.” This edition addressed the issue of how slums were lamentably increasingly in New York. While that doesn’t sound like a show that would be a box-office bonanza, the hard-hitting drama played most of 1938. What’s more, its home was the Adelphi, Broadway’s poor-relation theater on far-away 54th Street. But at 237 performances, one third of a nation was one of the house’s longest-running shows.   Jun also gets a song which, alas, hasn’t dated at all. Today’s recent college graduates will nod in sober recognition when hearing the plight of a young miss who spent a fortune on tuition, studied hard, got on the Dean’s List, was graduated with honors, found no job worthy of her education – and wound up behind a cash register in the bras-and-girdles department at Macy’s. Our lass makes light of the situation and shows a sunny disposish – well, at least most of the time – in “Chain Story Daisy.” Best line about her customers’ bodies: “I make the big things small, and the small things bigger.”   But the song most associated with Pins and Needles is Jun’s, too: “Sing Me a Song with Social Significance.” One lyric goes “I want a ditty with heat in it; appealing with feeling and meat in it.” Sounds like something Brecht and Weill might have written, no? And yet, Rome provides a jaunty melody to show that the singer has a sense of fun about her and isn’t all business.   While Pins and Needles’ original 1937 “orchestra” consisted of two pianos (one of which Rome himself played), the recording offers us a bit more: a piano, guitar, bass and drums. Special kudos to pianist Stan Freeman, who is so nimble and quick that he makes Jack in the nursery rhyme seem like The Snail with the Mail. And while Broadway musicals usually sound best with full orchestras (and no synthesizers), intimate revues lend themselves to this treatment. Having the modest band will allow you some nice late-night listening while you sip champ –   No, make that beer. Pins and Needles was and always will be a working man’s show.  

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at and at His books on musicals are available at