Last night, the Department of Theater and Dance opened “The Pajama Game,” their first musical theater production in three years.
The musical, adapted from the novel “Seven and A Half Cents” by Richard Bissell, examines life inside the fictional Sleep Tite Pajama Factory. While the workers fight for fair pay, romance blooms between the factory’s superintendent and a the head of the grievance committee petitioning him for higher wages.
“It’s about workers’ rights and fighting for a raise,” said Davis Robinson, the musical’s director and professor of theater at Bowdoin.
Written in the 1950s when unions were particularly strong, the story was originally meant as, “an absurd farce about the problems of a labor strike… sort of a light comedy where everything works out in the end,” Robinson said.
Musicals are an uncommon endeavor for Bowdoin’s theater department. Robinson said while he is “hesitant to plunge into musicals too often,” the form itself is very powerful because it allows music, dance, and theater to work in tandem.
According to Robinson, musicals are a rarity because the theater department is careful to rotate through a variety of genres, and they tend not to go too long without a Shakespeare production or a work by a female playwright.
In collaboration with his Ensemble Devising class, Robinson has updated and re-envisioned the show for a modern audience.
“It’s very corny humor in places and a very sugary treatment of very serious issues,” he said. “But the plot is strong enough that if you take away some of the sweet and make the stakes a little more realistic, [these serious issues come] into focus as…real and ongoing problem[s].”
Though lines adhere strictly to the original script due to copyright laws, Robinson says this has not inhibited the reinterpretation of the show.
As in the original production, the musical begins in 1950s Iowa, but then transitions to a factory in South Carolina. After intermission, the show moves overseas—first to 1990s China and then to Contemporary Bangladesh. As the locations shift, the actors playing the lead characters change as well. Costuming and video projections clarify and enhance these transitions.
Robinson said they are “tracking the history of the garment industry as [they] do the show… spreading it out across time and geography.”
The music has also been revamped in this weekend’s show. Songs originally played in basic polka structure have been made Latin, and the production also includes styles of Motown and Bollywood music.
The play’s musical director is Molly Ridley ’14. Though she brought no previous experience in theater production, she did have knowledge of jazz, which Robinson knew when he asked her to be “The Pajama Game’s” musical director last spring.
Ridley said she helped “incorporate a jazz touch to almost all of the songs that are being played” and arranged the music for a jazz quartet setting.
“Improvisation is a big theme in jazz so that takes place during a lot of the dance breaks,” she said.
During the show, the jazz quartet—of which she takes part—plays while on stage with the actors. From there, the musicians can see the actors as they perform and improvise accordingly.
While the tempo of some songs has been slowed down or sped up, other songs have been changed to a minor key; these modifications that help manipulate the mood of the production.
Also heavily involved in the development of the show are Robinson’s Ensemble Devising students—half of them are members of the cast.
Jared Littlejohn ’15, who plays the Charlie, an electrician, is one of these students. He spends about two hours working on the musical in class on Mondays and Wednesdays and also attends rehearsals Monday through Thursday. In total, he estimates that he’s spent about 180 hours working on the production.
This musical is particularly time consuming because it is a devised theater production—a method in which actors are heavily involved in the development of a show. This is another rarity in a theater production at Bowdoin.
“Through devising, we’ve been able to think about creative ways to bring complexity to the entire production,” Littlejohn said.
“I’ve been here fourteen years and I’ve never done a real major devised theater piece,” said Robinson.