By Katie Devin Orenstein
As Labor Day approaches, when we acknowledge and honor organized labor’s contributions to this country, Broadway’s Best Shows is looking back at stories of the labor movement onstage, of which there are many. Perhaps it’s only natural that Broadway feature union stories, since so much of the industry is unionized – actors and stage managers, directors, designers, and stagehands each have their own unions. And what could be more dramatic than a union showdown? It’s ample fodder for storytelling, given its high stakes and everyman heroes.
“Now is the time to seize the day…” In 2012, Alan Menken turned his Disney movie about the newsboy’s strike of 1899 into a stage musical. Its young, energetic cast performed high-flying choreography from Christopher Gatelli, and it turned Jeremy Jordan into a star. It developed a passionate fanbase, which meant thousands of teenage girls now know about the union-busting tactics of William Randolph Hearst. The rousing songs, particularly “Seize the Day,” have even been sung on the picket lines for the 2023 Writer’s Guild strike.
Waiting for Lefty
A parable about workers on the verge of strike that captured the anger and anxiety of workers during the Depression, Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets is one of the most important plays of the 20th century. It had a ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy, as New Yorkers were still processing the 1934 taxicab drivers’ strike, the ensuing rioting, and Mayor LaGuardia’s staunchly pro-labor position. It premiered at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre in 1935. Odets directed the production, and performed in the role of Dr. Benjamin. While Odets’ other plays Awake and Sing, Golden Boy, and Country Girl have each been revived multiple times on Broadway, Waiting for Lefty was performed at hundreds of theaters across America during the Depression, but has not yet been revived for Broadway.
I Can Get It for You Wholesale
I Can Get It For You Wholesale is a fascinating text about intracommunity conflict and labor actions by garment workers in Depression era New York. The plot kicks off when protagonist Harry Bogen tries to scab around striking workers. Streisand stole the show as Harry’s overworked receptionist Miss Marmelstein. I Can Get It For You Wholesale will be produced in New York in fall 2023, directed by Trip Cullman downtown at Classic Stage Company and starring a stacked cast, including Santino Fontana, Judy Kuhn, Joy Woods, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Sarah Steele, and Adam Chanler Berat, with Julia Lester as Miss Marmelstein.
The Pajama Game
This classic Golden Age musical takes a lighthearted look at unionized garment workers in Iowa. Its central romance is two star-crossed lovers on opposite sides of a strike–the head of the Union Grievance Committee, Babe Williams, and Sid Sorokin, the new management. The show is notable for being Bob Fosse’s choreography debut. His legendary choreography for “Steam Heat” takes place at the Union rally!
Ahrens’ and Flaherty’s 1997 historical-fiction musical, with a book by Terrence McNally adapting E.L. Doctorow’s novel, touches on nearly every hot button issue in America–racism, sexism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant hatred, and religious tension–and through its sweeping scale, demonstrates how these different issues are connected, and how the political debates and social problems of 1900 connect to today. Audience members are often surprised by the world of 1900s New York the show portrays, especially the militant, mobilized, and very large labor union movement. Two of the show’s protagonists, wealthy Mother’s Younger Brother and impoverished Jewish immigrant Tateh, have their lives turned upside down by strikes and radical ideas, personified in the show by radical anarchist Emma Goldman.