In 1911, when a fire engulfed the ninth floor of a textile factory in New York's Lower East Side, people on the street below thought rolls of material were being thrown from the windows. They were, in fact, the burning bodies of some of the 146 people (mostly women under 20) who leapt from the building in an attempt to escape the flames.
The tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory took place 100 years ago, but as the fire at a similar business in Bangladesh in 2010 proved, workers toiling in poor conditions is sadly not a thing of the past. From the Fire, a powerful and touching new musical by composer Elizabeth Swados and writer Cecilia Rubino, opens with scenes from the Bangladeshi horror. Having made the point that their story is historic yet relevant, the 15-strong cast go on to re-live that fateful day in Manhattan, and the impact the deaths had on the social and political landscape.
Several of the women who perished are given a back-story - one came from Russia on her own, aged just 13. Others were trying to exact change by attending union meetings (a sackable offence if the Triangle bosses found out - along with being sick or refusing to work overtime without pay). These stories make it all the more moving when the inevitable denouement comes, especially when we learn that the fire was effectively caused by greed - the owners over-producing, with 300 sewing machines attached to one electrical source, and no fire escapes or hydrants.
The Triangle story and its aftermath (increased fervour amongst unionists and suffragettes ultimately led to changes in legislation) is one well worth telling. But more than that, this is a great piece of musical theatre. Mostly sung, with the odd bit of spoken word, the talented cast comes together beautifully with soaring harmonies and clever musical arrangements. The New York company are only here for one week, so grab your history lesson while you can.