nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
December 9, 2012
In 1974, Chicago writer and radio man Studs Terkel released Working, a book of interviews, showcasing the back stories and day to day experiences of mostly working class Americans. It remains a special effort, offering everyone from waitresses to truck drivers to hookers a rare opportunity to tell anyone willing to listen exactly what it's like to be them. The book highlighted the unique experience of each individual, while also reminding the reader of how commonplace most dreams and fears really are. This same spirit is captured nicely in Working: A Musical, even though it focuses too much on the feeling of regret as it’s expressed by some of the play’s subjects.
The musical has an interesting back story itself. First adapted by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked), Working was originally staged in Chicago in 1977. The next year, it transferred to Broadway, where it closed after 24 performances. In the last few years, Schwartz has returned to the play, rewriting parts and adding new songs. What plays today is a mixture of old and new, with songs from the original script by Micki Grant, James Taylor, and others placed alongside new numbers by In the Heights' Lin-Manuel Miranda. With the exception of the play’s opener, “All the Livelong Day,” the older songs work well with the modern ones, making Working seem younger than it’s 30 years would have you believe.
Working very hard in Working are six actors, who together play 36 different "characters" from the book. Thanks to on and off stage costume changes, director Gordon Greenberg's thoughtful staging, and Beowulf Bortitt's attractive and adaptive set, the constant movement is smooth, and never distracting. The talented cast works well as an ensemble, but they also shine in their solo numbers. Particularly moving are Kenita Miller's solo "Just a Housewife," Nehal Joshi and Marie-France Arcilla's "A Very Good Day," and Donna Lynne Champlin's "Nobody Tells Me How." It's in this last song, written by Rose Hoffman, about an ageing teacher struggling to adapt to changes in culture and demographics, that we best see the complexity and fascinating inner-dialogue that the book highlights so well. Here is Working: A Musical at its best.
Where the show misses is in the constant focus laid on the feelings of regret confessed by some of the interviewees. Terkel's interviews cover a lot of ground, but it's clear that Schwartz was mostly interested in the subject's laments over a life not lived. I expected some of this, but towards the end, it becomes overwhelming and, frankly, a bit depressing. "It's An Art," about a woman who loves being a waitress, is a welcomed exception, but one of the few. I also found the broad, cartoonish portrayals of the wealthier subjects to be out of the step with the rest of the play’s attempts at authenticity.
Working: A Musical, like the book, is provocative, forcing it’s audience to question why we so often allow “the job” to define “the person.” Terkel wanted his reader to see that most people were much more beyond “what do you do?” This play understands that, and is successful in reflecting this valuable idea. That it’s also done in such an entertaining way is, I imagine, about all Terkel could ask for.