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little tin box

“Little Tin Box” is the title of a song in the 1959 musical, “Fiorello,” which told the story of one of New York City’s most famous mayors. Fiorello LaGuardia, a progressive politician who was a strong supporter of the New Deal, was mayor of New York for three terms, serving from 1933 to 1945.

LaGuardia was known for his pro-labor, anti-monopoly stance and for his reformist agenda. During his tenure as New York’s mayor, he created a new city charter, overhauled the city’s police and fire departments, expanded welfare services, and carried out programs aimed at revitalizing the slums. He was also known for public works, notably LaGuardia Airport.

LaGuardia was loved for his quirks, too. During a city-wide strike in which newspapers were not being delivered, the mayor complained that the city’s children were being deprived of their usual comic strips. So, he took to the radio and read each day’s “funnies” out loud.

The musical “Fiorello” won a Pulitzer prize for drama in 1960; it won a number of Tony awards in the same year, including Best Musical and Best Director of a Musical. The musical’s writers, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, are probably better known today for writing Fiddler on the Roof. Like “Fiddler,” “Fiorello” is concerned with the lives of ordinary people. The musical depicts LaGuardia as a tireless friend of the underdog, who rises from obscurity to become a Congressman, and then mayor of New York.

The Guide to Musical Theater sums it up this way:

Fiorello joins the workers of Nifty Shirtwaists, who are on strike, and convinces them to desert their picket lines and join him at his headquarters to discuss election tactics. There he gives a rousing lecture on the deplorable social conditions of the city among the working classes – sweat shop labour, tyrannical bosses, long hours, low wages, etc. He promises them legal backing should their protests result in arrest.

Running for office, LaGuardia pursues a vigorous campaign by going to all the different ethnic groups that make up the city. He speaks to them in their own language so they are left in no doubt of his resolve to better their conditions. He succeeds in creating an electoral upset when he becomes the first Republican the district has ever sent to Washington.

The best-known song in the musical is “Little Tin Box,” which skewers the corrupt politicians who dominated New York politics when LaGuardia was running for office. The setting is a trial, in which the politicians are depicted as corrupt, dishonest, and endlessly greedy, as the lyrics reveal.

The “little tin box” — like the deduct box — is the piggy bank where the corrupt politicians claim they have been saving their pennies so that they can buy luxuries:

Mr. X, may we ask you a question?
It’s amazing, is it not,
That the city pays you slightly less than fifty bucks a week,
Yet you’ve purchased a private yacht?”
“I am positive your Honor must be joking!
Any working man can do what I have done.
For a month or two I simply gave up smoking,
And I put my extra pennies one by one
“Into a little tin box,
A little tin box
That a little tin key unlocks.
There is nothing unorthodox
About a little tin box.

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