Magazine article The New Yorker


Magazine article The New Yorker


Article excerpt

"From the Fire," a choral work created by Elizabeth Swados and Cecilia Rubino, is one of many forms of remembrance--films, plays, lectures, symposia--planned for the hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which falls on March 25th. Why, of all the spectacular and deadly fires that New York has seen, does this particular blaze continue to burn so brightly in the city's collective memory? The other day, shortly before a rehearsal at Judson Memorial Church, on Washington Square, where "From the Fire" will open on March 23rd, the work's creators were discussing that question.

Rubino offered that the fire, in which a hundred and forty-six mostly female Jewish and Italian immigrants died, was "the single most important event in the history of American reform," because it led to rules about workplace safety, fortified the labor movement, helped usher in universal suffrage, and created a broader awareness of the conditions faced by immigrants. "You could argue that the New Deal started on the day of the fire," she added.

Paula Finn, who wrote some of the work's lyrics, noted that the response to the Triangle fire stood in contrast to the aftermath of the larger workplace disaster of 9/11.

"There you got the Patriot Act," she said.

"And two wars," Rubino added.

"And, instead of embracing immigrants, people became afraid of immigrants," the show's set designer, an architect named Bonnie Roche-Bronfman, said.

Swados, who made her name with "Runaways," which debuted at the Public Theatre in 1978, and whose more recent works include "Missionaries," about the four Catholic women who were murdered in El Salvador during its civil war, is no stranger to setting bleak material to music. In composing "From the Fire," she explained, she was determined that the score would be neither gloomy nor portentous, because so many positive social changes came out of the disaster: "In writing the music, I was thinking of crowd noises, the noise of family, the tenements, and the noise of the factory itself--everyone was packed so closely together--and then the sounds of the fire and the panic it caused. …

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