Musical Theater

Images of Labor from American Musical Theater:  Songs and Narration about Workers and Unions

A project of the Wisconsin Labor History Society and the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO

There was a time when the arts and popular culture gave strength and courage to the labor movement and to working people in this country. We consider this production, a musical show with thoroughly professional presentation and explicitly pro-worker politics, to be in that tradition.

While American musical theater is noted for its light-hearted and romantic themes, a few musical shows, little known and rarely performed, portray working people, their lives and their struggles, their hopes and their dreams. Some of this music is amusing and delightful, but some is deadly serious, militant and powerful, and Images of Labor from American Musical Theater demonstrates that range over the course of the concert. With songs from a selection of musical shows from the 1930s up to the 1980s and a narration, written by Kathleen McElroy, which knit together the various songs into a coherent program, the audience comes to understand the historical context and background of how this music served the needs of working people then and how it can do so now and in the future.

The Images of Labor project began in February 1990 when an overflow crowd of nearly 1000 packed a concert hall on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a free concert of theater music about workers and unions with an accompanying narration explaining the context and background to the songs. Eighteen local musicians and a large chorus made up of rank-and-file union members donated their talents that night to this unique production, with professional actor David Cecsarini from Milwaukee as the show’s narrator. The audience responded emotionally and with great appreciation for the chance to hear music of real musical and political substance. This initial concert was sponsored by the UW-Madison School of Music and the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO and produced by the respected UW-Madison opera professor, Karlos Moser. The concert was intended as a complement to “Symbols and Images of American Labor”, a traveling history exhibit from the National Museum of American history (an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution), which was then being shown in Madison at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. (For more information about the traveling exhibit, see the exhibit review by David Zonderman in the _Journal of American History_ (v.76 (1989), no. 3) and the two-part article by Harry Rubenstein in _Labor’s Heritage_ (v. 1 (1989), nos. 2 & 3) which described the collection of objects on which the exhibit was based.)

Based on the enthusiastic reception given the initial performance of the Images of Labor musical show, the Wisconsin Labor History Society and the Wisconsin AFL-CIO sponsored a statewide tour of the show during 1990-1992 and performances were given in Oshkosh, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Janesville, Stevens Point, La Crosse, Kaukauna, Superior and Eau Claire. The largely working-class audiences welcomed the show’s powerful music and message and responded with cheering and standing ovations. Each show was ended with the cast and audience joining in the singing of the classic labor song, “Solidarity Forever”.

The show used professional cast and crew (although we retained the special feature of adding a rank-and-file union member chorus for the show’s closing musical number). The total tour budget was $60,000 and we had to use a variety of sources to raise those funds, including: two community fundraisers (one a “variety show” and the other a concert featuring folk and gospel music); donations from local unions, union members and friends; government, foundation and corporate grants; ticket sales; and pass-the-hat collections following the performances. There are no current plans to format Images of Labor for rental by other performing organizations.


A project of the Wisconsin Labor History Society and the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO

Esperanza is a two-act opera based on the blacklisted 1954 pro-union film, Salt of the Earth. This is a beautiful and distinctive story, centering on the role of Latino working class women in the life and work of a New Mexico mining community–and on the women’s action to take over a strike at the mine, action which is transforming and liberating for the community as a whole.

Labor in Wisconsin linked forces with opera in the commission and production of this new musical work at the invitation of University of Wisconsin-Madison opera professor Karlos Moser (now retired), a member of Musicians’ Local 166. Esperanza brings operatic fire to issues that matter to working people–issues of race, class and gender equality. The opera, with music by David Bishop and libretto by Carlos Morton, is tuneful, entertaining and educational. “Esperanza” is both the name of the principal person in the story and the Spanish word which means “hope”. This opera’s story is one of hope for all working people. Esperanza premiered in Madison, Wisconsin, in August 2000 to rousing ovations and positive reviews. It is now being revised for future productions. Beginning in 2002, it will be available for rental by other performing organizations.

Creating and presenting an opera which addresses timeless issues of social and economic justice is a major undertaking. But opera, well-done, does have incomparable musical, emotional and theatrical power–a power appropriate to the great issues of equality and fairness that continue to concern us all.


“The Esperanza Project”, a multi-faceted arts and humanities project centered around the new opera “Esperanza”, has been awarded the Governor’s Award for Public Humanities Programming. “Esperanza” premiered in Madison in August of 2000.

“The Esperanza Project” was notable for its innovative link between a variety of arts and humanities resources in Wisconsin, for its focus on Mexican-American history and culture, and for the unique alliance of Wisconsin labor unions and opera devotees which brought a lively new American opera into the operatic literature.

Karlos Moser, Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and leader of the project, says of this award: “It is gratifying to see this particular project receive such significant reception. The Esperanza project, including as it did the new opera and the many important humanities events which enriched it, reflected and embodied many of my life-long interests. I accept this award with humility, in the name of the many talented workers who helped actually bring it to life. This is an important and distinctive endeavor, linking opera, film, history, politics, labor unions, and our Mexican-American community.”

Moser accepted the Governor’s Award on behalf of the project at a reception on October 12, 2001, hosted by the Wisconsin Humanities Council. “The Esperanza Project” was a Labor Arts Project of the Wisconsin Labor History Society and the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO.

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