A native of Buffalo, where the dominant early 20th-century tragedy in the city’s collective memory was the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley, Elizabeth Swados never learned about New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. A prominent composer and theater director, she hadn’t heard about the blaze that took the lives of 146 mostly Jewish and Italian sweatshop workers on March 25, 1911 in Greenwich Village, a few blocks from where she now lives.
A year ago, Swados learned — and the result is “From the Fire,” an oratorio that will have its premiere here next week to mark the disaster’s 100th anniversary.
Cecilia Rubino, a writer-director who teaches theater classes at the New School and NYU who had collaborated with Swados on the Broadway hit “Runaways,” came to Swados’ apartment last year. “There’s a project you have to do,” she told Swados. Rubino and poet Paula Finn had written the script, based on the stories of four victims’ families, for a dramatic presentation of the tragedy; she wanted Swados to compose the music.
“I said yes immediately,” said Swados, who has dramatized the stories of the Haggadah and Queen Esther. She says she felt drawn to the oratorio’s subject: women, Jews, the downtrodden.
“I was shocked that I [previously] didn’t hear about it,” she told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview, speaking of the tragedy. But she made up for lost time. “I bought every book that has been written on the subject.” About two dozen, she says. “I read every single one.”
And she made a pilgrimage to the site where the workers died on the top floors of the 10-story building or leapt to their deaths on the cobblestone street. She came away “shocked” that people were forced to choose suicide over a torturous death, “infuriated” over the working conditions that led to the tragedy.
Those, she says, are the feelings — “the hopelessness, the melancholy” — she tried to put in the oratorio’s score. She used Jewish and Italian melodies, incorporating different musical themes, fear-evoking rhythms and chords, for the production’s three dozens singers.
The human dimension of the tragedy, the spontaneous workers’ strike here that preceded the fire, the individual stories of “the girls” who died 100 years ago, lend themselves more fully to an oratorio’s combination of words and dance and music than a standard play would, Swados says.
The production is sponsored by The New School’s Eugene Lang College, with sets designed by architect-designer Bonnie Roche-Bronfman, and choreography by Eric Jackson Bradley.
Swados calls her works on the oratorio “a blessing,” a chance to tell the public a piece of history with contemporary significance about workers’ mistreatment, which she herself had not learned until recently. “The production,” she says, has a simple message: “Never forget the story.”
“From the Fire” will be staged March 23-27 at Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South, Manhattan. For information, call (212) 229-5488 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.