In October 1938, rehearsals for the musical revue Sing for Your Supper had been dragging on for six months, with no end in sight. A production of the Federal Theatre Project, it was to be the program’s first big singing-and-dancing extravaganza to debut in New York City, home of the musical. It featured original skits about regular folks forging their way through troubled times, as well as satire, patriotic songs penned by FTP staffers, and a few rousing numbers lifted from Broadway. But the production was plagued with problems.
First, there was the cast: after enlisting over 100 actors from the WPA ranks, it was discovered that there were “no tap dancers, torch singers, or what-it-takes for a musical comedy among them,” according to a New York Times feature from that October detailing the troubled production. Then there was the rehearsal space: the cast could barely hear directions shouted over the sound of set-building and hammering. So they moved venues—three times. Speaking anonymously, one cast member told the Times that a “baker’s dozen” of the company had broken out in nervous shingles; two had suffered breakdowns. “Not over the plots of the sketches,” the writer noted with barely concealed glee, “but over the fate of the seemingly forgotten opus.”
These stories were devoured with gusto by critics of Hallie Flanagan, the director of the FTP. To theater elites, she was a nobody—an academic with little background in commercial productions, and a woman to boot. Flanagan had a bachelor’s from Grinnell College, a master’s from Radcliffe, and was hired by Vassar in 1925 to start an experimental-theater program. She was a year into her Vassar job when she became the first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, which she used to study theater in Europe. These accomplishments were enough to earn her the FTP appointment in 1935, but not enough to impress the male theater establishment. Who was this woman who had been entrusted with millions of federal dollars to organize and direct a national theater program? One 1935 headline told it bluntly: “Theatre Men Fear Effect of Mrs. Hallie Flanagan’s Proposal.”
From the minute the FTP began in 1935, New York theater heavyweights had voiced concerns that its shows wouldn’t match the quality of Broadway productions, and would even discourage the public from attending the theater. Their fear was founded, to some degree: the FTP produced an extremely wide range of projects, including puppet shows, foreign-language plays, radio shows, and “living newspapers,” dramatized news stories that conveyed information about everything from unionizing efforts to the threat of syphilis. But it also mounted complicated theatrical dramas and comedies, some with large casts on par with Broadway’s. By 1938, Flanagan felt the FTP was ready to mount a musical in New York.
Sing for Your Supper borrowed its eponymous opening song from the 1938 Richard Rodgers’s musical The Boys from Syracuse, a farcical romance about mistaken identities based on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. Perform a service and you’ll earn a reward, the song says, although it may just be a simple meal. Such a sentiment suited the production’s mission of speaking to an audience which had fallen on hard times. (The musical also featured the show-stopping original number “Papa’s Got a Job”—in which an evicted family celebrates when the father finds work—featuring most of the nearly 200 cast members.)
Sing for Your Supper finally opened at the Adelphi Theatre in New York on April 24, 1939, over a year after rehearsals began, to mixed reviews. Brooks Atkinson, the city’s reigning theater critic, gave the show a mixed review in the New York Times, praising “Papa's Got a Job” as “modern theatre at its best” but ultimately deciding that “much of the material is third-rate stuff with songs that are frequently lost in the tumult of a noisy orchestra and to lyrics that can hardly be heard.” The student reviewer sent by Columbia University was kinder, writing in the Columbia Daily Spectator that “Uncle Sam’s children have done right well by themselves in this sprightly [sic] musical. The tunes are good and most of the skits are funny … What they lack in finish, they make up in enthusiasm.”
Despite critical ambivalence, Sing for Your Supper “was playing to large audiences who got up every night and cheered,” as Flanagan wrote in her 1940 book Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre. Patriotic songs and crowds did little to protect Flanagan and the FTP, however: both were coming under increasing scrutiny from the House Un-American Activities Committee, convened by the US government to weed out alleged subversives in both public and private institutions. Flanagan and the FTP were accused of having Communist sympathies—and Sing for Your Supper, “sprightly” though it may have been, was offered up by HUAC members as an example of waste and mismanagement. The critics prevailed; Congress passed legislation that ended the program on June 30, 1939. Just two months after opening, Sing for Your Supper gave its last performance that night.
I have long been attracted to the socially and politically inspired work of the WPA’s Federal Art Project, in which artists were encouraged to address the “American scene” as their subject. My work often follows a similar path. When I first moved to Washington, D.C., in 2000, I visited the White House, where I saw portraits of the First Ladies. Since then, I have been painting self-portraits as these women—Mary Todd Lincoln, Betty Ford, Hillary Clinton, and, now, Melania Trump—while alluding to issues such as abortion, marriage equality, race, and sexual harassment.
For this particular project, my inspiration was a poster for the show Sing for Your Supper: A Topical Musical Revue that opened at the Adelphi Theatre in 1939. I had heard the song “Sing for Your Supper” many times before, but I’d never seen this poster or heard of the show. The poster shows a large Uncle Sam chef figure serving food to two small female figures, who sing and dance for their survival by entertaining him.
The lyrics of the title song imply the fundamental financial and sexual subservience of women in American society, whether they be fast-food workers, actresses, or vulnerable teenagers: regardless of position, women must, above all, be pleasant and cooperative.
Sing for your supper and you’ll get breakfast Songbirds always eat If their song is sweet to hear
The song has sexual implications, as stated in the intro:
Hawks and crows do lots of things But the canary only sings She is a courtesan on wings
This theme is developed in the chorus, where the lyrics take on a darker connotation:
I heard from a wise canary, “Trilling Makes a fellow willing,” So, little swallow, swallow now
I painted two series in response to the poster. The first is America Povera, which addresses the dichotomy of the promise and reality of America through the plight of underpaid, underappreciated workers. It includes portraits of myself as First Ladies in various low-paying jobs: Mary Todd Lincoln as a Popeye’s worker, Michelle Obama as a Walmart employee, and Hillary Clinton as a McDonald’s cashier.
The second series, The Pussy Paintings, includes my self-portraits as women who have recently come forward to publicly accuse powerful men of sexual abuse: Salma Hayek, Gwyneth Paltrow, and former Miss Utah Temple Taggart, who accused Donald Trump of kissing her without her consent while he was the GOP nominee.
These portraits are painted on cardboard, a cheap material consistent with the perceived worthlessness of women in our society, and mounted on patterned “wallpaper” that alludes to Picasso’s 1963 painting The Rape of the Sabine Women; the figures in the background are like a Greek chorus witnessing the horrors that these women have been subject to. Like “Sing for Your Supper,” these paintings remind the viewer that favors are expected as part of the job of being female and, in many cases, are still the only way to get ahead in this world.
Laura Elkins began painting as a child, taking lessons from several painters in her hometown, Oxford, Mississippi. She has received grants for her work from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. A monograph of her paintings, Summer in the City, was published in 2015.
Explore Federal Project no. 2
This Land Is Your Land
During the Depression, the federal government urged Americans to visit the country’s natural wonders.
Shelter in Place
The most iconic image from the Great Depression centers on rural poverty—but then, as now, the misery of homelessness was compounded in America’s cities.
Song of the Mississippi
Heartbreak defines the human experience. And nothing can break your heart like your own country.
Hole in One
Harnessing the power of the humble hole punch, to either create narratives or deflate them.
Back to the Music, Back to the Game
A visit to the juke joints in the Florida Everglades where migrant laborers could go to relax.
The Exquisite Catalog of a Crow Fair
Wendy Red Star brings illustrations from the Denver Art Museum’s card catalog to the Crow Nation’s annual gathering.
Public Service Announcements
Updating the iconic posters of the Works Progress Administration.
Proposals for a Monument
Public art has the power to show us what we want to see—or reveal what we deserve.
Portraits of Hard Living in America
The faces and places of a forgotten swath of American life.
The Afterlives of Slaves
Snapshots of a life after slavery, and an imagining of a world without bondage.
If You Build It, They Will Leave
During the New Deal, Southwest DC was razed to create a “model city” for federal workers. Now the area is being redeveloped again, this time into a gentrified urban playground.
The Health and Safety of the Mother
During the Depression, the government encouraged men to get back to work—and women to stay home.
Handmade dolls embodied marginalized workers’ desire for autonomy—and, now, the plight of children at the United States’ southern border.
A Room of One’s Own
A photograph of a home speaks volumes about the inhabitant, even when they’re not included in the shot.
A Queen Is Born
A local beauty pageant can be about more than just looks. It can also reveal how a community wants to be seen.
Stoop Life and Survival
Documenting a life of a neighborhood means covering street life in all of its joy and pain.
Conspicuous consumption plummeted during the Great Depression, but the fantasy of big spending remains a part of the American dream.
The Visible Man
Telling, and preserving, the stories that reveal what it’s really like to be black in America—from Ralph Ellison’s classic novel to now.
The People of the Land
Dust Bowl migrants had to pull up roots. Native Hawaiians are strengthening theirs.
After the Curtain Calls
Fulfilling the American dream of standing under bright lights while your friends and neighbors applaud.
The American Guide to the New Vermont
Shane Lavalette follows the refugees who have made their home in the whitest state in the nation.
The Measure of a Man
As Depression-era art centered on the heroic male figures rebuilding America, Paul Cadmus infused his public work with overt expressions of gay desire.
Letting Sleeping Children Lie
Leanne Shapton reconsiders motherhood after seeing a photograph of children asleep during a square dance.
When Art Is an Act of Protest
A summer of activism in Chicago reminds us that in order for history to be taught, it must first be recorded.
The Pioneer Women
For young women who grow up on the family farm, there comes a time to make a choice—should I stay or should I go?
The Shapes of Things to Come
Before many Americans had ever seen an abstract painting, the WPA commissioned artists to create large, avant-garde murals—for installation in a public housing project.
Signs of Boom and Bust
Mark Steinmetz drives the streets of the city’s fast-growing urban sprawl.
The Many Lives of McCarren Park Pool
Beloved, abandoned, then beloved once more, a Brooklyn pool transforms alongside its neighborhood.
On the Road in Search of Soul
The black Southerners who joined the Great Migration wanted to leave oppression behind—not their beloved family recipes. Their traditions would redefine American cooking.
She Works Hard for the Money
During the Depression, women were advised to “sing for their supper” as a way to survive hard times.
Wall to Wall
Public murals are contested spaces, where retellings of history and new visions of the future fight for prominence.
Life Beyond Bars
The Works Progress Administration funded the creation of public works like dams, bridges—and more than 30 prisons and jails.
The relentless churn of daily news can feel like a burden—especially for those who don’t see themselves represented in it.
The Cycle of a Woman’s Life
A 20th-century mural for a women’s prison meets 21st-century inequality.