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From the Fire, Change: An Oratorio Remembers Triangle

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This Friday marks the centennial anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire — a notorious symbol of abuse and exploitation of immigrant labor force and, until September 11, considered the most devastating workplace tragedy in New York City history. 

One hundred and forty-six garment workers — most of them young Jewish and Italian women who worked up to 14 hours a day — were trapped in a building with locked doors (to prevent worker theft) and inadequate fire escapes. Onlookers watched in horror as the building burnt out of control, and many victims jumped to their deaths.

Among a number of events commemorating the fire is a new dramatic work by Tony-nominated composer Elizabeth Swados. The work, "Triangle: From the Fire" she said is "a dramatic oratorio" and that it offered her "a beautiful opportunity to do what I think composers ought to do, among other things, which is to celebrate and memorialize at the same time."

The project was brought to Swados by director Cecilia Rubino, who wrote a simple but powerful libretto drawing on published histories and interviews with relatives of victims and survivors. 

The story of Triangle ends in a conflagration that seared its way into the American consciousness, but Rubino and Swados focus as much on the vibrant lives of the women and how they acted as a catalyst for change. Five months before the fire, they were among thousands of workers who went on strike demanding better wages and working conditions.

Rubino believes this may be the first recorded strike by working women in recorded history.  And their deaths were not in vain.  Although the factory owners were acquitted in a subsequent trial, Rubino said the city "felt responsible" and passed 38 laws in the three years after the fire "that then became the template for the New Deal."

Set designer Bonnie Roche-Bronfman agreed, noting that in the context of industry "this was one of the first recognitions of human life and individuals being more important than the product they produced."

Swados and Rubino were wary of sentimentalizing the story, and the oratorio structure allows for a balance between individual stories and a sense of collective destiny. 

"I think the music gives them depth," Swados said, "so they don’t come off as clichés. I was worried about clichés."

She was also inspired by the context of the story — the bustle and energy of the Lower East Side tenements where many of the women lived, and the propulsive sound of the factory.  "I love noise," she said.

Telling individual details help to sharply define the characters. Rubino said they were particularly struck by one witness' account of a girl standing at the window of the factory, then throwing her hat and her newly collected coins (it was pay day) out the window before jumping herself. 

"And of course her body hits the ground long before the hat and the coins," Rubino said. "It's that notion of you can’t take anything with you, that life is important, each individual life is important."

Jeanna Phillips plays one of the doomed workers, Sadie. 

"I think the key is to absolutely try 1000 percent to be certain that you're going to get everything you want at the end," Phillips said.  "It's like Shakespeare — the tragedies are only tragedies if everyone thinks that they're going to be happy."

The cast of "From the Fire" includes nine professional singers, many of whom have worked with Swados before, and 23 students from Eugene Lang College/The New School, which is co-producing the project. 

On the day I watched a rehearsal (with Rubino and choreographer Eric Jackson Bradley) at Lang's Wollman Hall, it was mostly students, some standing in for the professional actors.

But it was still possible to get a sense of the production's simple but compelling architecture — the action takes place around a set of long tables that are meant to represent the sewing tables at which the women spent so much of their lives.  

Swados said she's particularly excited about the impact of the production on the Lang students: "I really hope that they come away with a sense of how possible it is for them to become symbols — or, I guess, weapons — of remembering."

"A hundred years from now, they will be remembered," the singers intone in the closing chorus of "From the Fire." "It's not to romanticize tragedy," Rubino said. "It's not maudlin. It's a moment when you can actually see the gears of history shift."

Swados added, "I believe that to remember is a responsibility."

On Friday, it is one the whole city can share.

"From the Fire" will be performed at Judson Memorial Church (only blocks away from the site of the original fire) Wednesday, March 23 through Saturday March 26, 2011 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday March 27 at 6 p.m.

To listen to an interview with Elizabeth Swados, Cecilia Rubino, and Bonnie Roche-Bronfman, click on the link above.