This month, Willamette University’s Theatre Department presents a world premiere musical based on the riveting true events of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 1911. The fire killed 145 workers – most of them teenage girls – in a New York City garment factory and was the deadliest industrial disaster in the city as well as one of most infamous industrial accidents in American history.
Wings of Fire was written to commemorate the 100thanniversary of the incident. Although it lasted only 18 minutes, the Shirtwaist Fire is remembered because the deaths were mostly preventable, caused by lack of safety precautions, by nonoperational elevators and by the management’s policy of locking factory doors from the outside. The factory was located on the 8th- 10thfloors of the Asch Building in New York’s Manhattan and victims died from burning, smoke inhalation or from jumping to their deaths.
Willamette Professor of Theatre Susan Coromel, the play’s director, says the project spoke to her “on many levels. It is a compelling story, with great music, and tells about a fascinating time in the history of our country.” In that era, “Women were on the verge of having the vote and it was the second waive of immigration where millions of people arrived, many as refugees fleeing Russia and Eastern Europe.”
The play features many principal roles for female performers; twelve women portray workers who were mostly recent Jewish and Italian immigrants. The play follows their sisterhood in laboring 12-hour days and a 52-hour workweek, with a musical score influenced by actual American popular music of the time. “The songs have entirely new melodies set to the original lyrics or entirely new lyrics with original compositions,” says Coromel. The goal is to bring period music into modern times. “In this way, the music is identifiable to the audience, drawing a closer connection between the victims of the Triangle and a contemporary audience,” she says.
Reflecting the resilience of the human spirit, Wings of Fire is about more than just a tragedy, Coromel says. “It is a story of immigrants, it is a story of family and of being young in a country full of possibilities.”
Less than two weeks after the fire, 80,000 people marched up New York’s Fifth Avenue to protest the dangerous conditions that led to the deaths.
Ellen Eisenberg is History Department Chair at Willamette University whose research centers on the history of American immigrant communities, particularly American Jewish communities. She notes the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is important because “it was a tragedy that advanced the fight for worker rights and protections. That it took place in an industry with a very high concentration of female, immigrant workers makes that all the more significant, because such workers are generally among those who have the least power and the fewest protections in the workplace.”
In 1911, Eisenberg notes, there was no minimum wage, no work safety laws, no maximum hours worked per week laws, no break laws – and if a worker was killed on the job, there was no compensation. “All of these things, we now take for granted,” she says, in part because of reforms prompted by the fire. “Safety features like push bars on the inside of factory doors are a legacy of this incident.”
“It’s also worth noting,” says Eisenberg, “that themes of workplace sexual harassment come up in the play,” making Wings of Fire timely in a MeToo era.
“Theatre is about ideas,” says Coromel. The Shirtwaist fire “was a watershed moment, where America said, ‘if this can happen here, what kind of society are we?’ I would like our audiences to think about what is at stake now and how our society has changed. What does it tell us about greed and work conditions? What does it tell us about the prospect of industrial deregulation in the work place?”
Workers-rights advocate Frances Perkins, who would later become Secretary of Labor for FDR, said the New Deal began on March 25 1911. “This play,” Coromel, “is one way to honor the sacrifices of the victims of the fire and support immigrant’s rights, workers rights and women’s rights.”
Wings of Fire: A World Premiere Musical
Book and Lyrics by Haley Green
Music by Austin Green
Directed by Susan Coromel
Through April 28
M. Lee Pelton Theatre
Willamette University campus