This was originally intended as a double-bill with Pins & Needles which has just finished its run at the Cock Tavern and you can see why (though it would have made for a long evening). They may be the only two musicals with left-wing political content ever to grace Broadway until Billy Elliott!
This one is more serious and earnest than the other and is very Brechtian indeed. First staged in 1937, it’s opening is itself an extraordinary story. Directed by Orson Wells, the show was shut down on the day of its first performance because its public funders were concerned at being seen to be promoting such a left-wing show. Though another theatre was found for that evening, the show went on without set, props, costumes or indeed actors or musicians whose unions prohibited them from being on stage or in the orchestra pit. The composer was alone onstage at a piano and when their cues came, the actors stood up in the audience and delivered their songs defiantly from where they were. It’s an allegory of corruption and greed and its targets include a local businessman, his philanthropic wife, spoiled children, a faithless priest and artists who’ve sold out. It’s virtually sung-through and feels more like an opera than a musical. Because its over-riding purpose is to make its sociopolitical points, it’s light on story and characterisation and the music is quite difficult to get into on first hearing. It’s well staged here by Mehmet Ergen with a fine ensemble and pianist Bob Broad playing the whole score. I was particularly impressed by Chris Jenkins passionate performance as unionist Larry Foreman. It’s not a great show but, like Pins & Needles, it’s an important part of 20th century musical theatre history and I’m glad I saw it – but I wish I’d heard the score first. - Gareth James
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