Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Music from the Ashes

I wrote this news piece for the March issue of American Theatre magazine.

When Elizabeth Swados was commissioned to write the music for a show to commemorate the 100th anniversary of New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, she didn’t expect to feel a personal connection to the tragedy that killed 146 people, most of them Italian and Jewish immigrant girls in their teens who had been locked in a garment factory near Washington Square.

But when she learned more about the workplace tragedy—the deadliest in New York’s history prior to the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center—“I flipped out,” Swados recalls. “I knew about it, but I had no idea of its importance to my Jewishness.”

In addition to composing the music for Triangle: From the Fire, Swados shares credit for the lyrics with Cecilia Rubino, the show’s book writer/director. Poet Paula Finn also contributed four poems for Swados to set to music. Some characters are fictional, while others are modeled after real-life victims, survivors and witnesses of the events of March 25, 1911.

The story unfolds in a nonlinear fashion, moving between scenes of life in New York at the time of the fire—especially in the tenements where most of the victims lived—and the ripples caused by what became known as the fire that changed America. The Triangle tragedy inspired the formation of unions to protect workers’ safety, and propelled women’s suffrage and other social reforms. As Swados puts it: “Something so awful completely changed the workforce of the United States.”

More than 75 percent of the musical is sung oratorio, interspersed with bits of spoken text and short scenes. Using the voices of 10 lead singers, along with a chorus and instruments, Swados set out to capture the spirit of early-20th-century immigrants’ music, as well as the sounds of their work: machines humming, fabric ripping and cutting, women gossiping. Her greatest challenge, she says, lay in the question, “What does a devastating fire sound like?”

Ultimately, Swados says, the collaborators sought to infuse what might otherwise be an overwhelmingly sad story with strength and humor—to praise “the poor working spirit” as well as to depict injustice. “It will reflect a love for the women and what they went through,” she avows, “and be a tribute to what was accomplished in the name of the lost women.”

Triangle: From the Fire will be presented March 23–27 at Judson Memorial Church, two blocks from the site of the fire. For more information, visit www.trianglefromthefire.com and for other commemorations, visit www.rememberthetrianglefire.org.

(Photo, by Andrew Smrz, of Elizabeth Swados developing the piece with New School students.)

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