When did it become unfashionable for Americans to call ourselves “workers”? Certainly, it goes back way before 1978. That was when “Working” opened on Broadway, a musical co-conceived by the pre-Wicked Stephen Schwartz based on the book of the same name by Studs Terkel. Despite a score including the only songs James Taylor ever wrote for the stage and a 17-member cast including the pre-Evita Patti LuPone and the pre-Glengarry Joe Mantegna, “Working” closed on Broadway after just 12 previews and 24 regular performances.
Now it has returned at 59 East 59,th Street Theater, for a limited run even shorter than its tenure on Broadway. Well-acted, entertaining, funny and touching, it is worth catching, not the least because “Working” has been smartly updated, with wonderful new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In The Heights”), and new characters, based on new interviews, that reflect how dramatically the world of work has changed just in the past three decades.
You can’t be of a certain age without having a yellowing copy of “Working” somewhere on your bookshelf. The 1972 bestseller contained verbatim interviews by the beloved oral historian and radio journalist with some 150 Americans about their jobs, from farm workers to a film critic, from a baby nurse to a grave digger. Schwartz and Nina Faso put some three dozen of these real-life characters on stage, using their words both for monologues and for the lyrics of the songs, which were written by Schwartz and Taylor and several other popular songwriters, including Mary Rodgers (“Once Upon A Mattress”)
Whatever the reasons for its short life on Broadway, “Working” has never really gone away, reworked in various regional productions, and done frequently in schools and community theaters throughout the country. You can see why; it has a large cast of characters, so nobody gets excluded, and many of the performers would be portraying their own (or their parents’) occupations.
The Prospect Theater Company’s New York production of a newly revised “Working” can be considered an homage to Studs Terkel on what would have been his centennial – he died just four years ago, at the age of 96. But it also goes beyond him, to a new generation with more diversity in employment (and unemployment) and in the workforce itself.
“I’m a dying breed, a laborer,” says Mike the ironworker, played by Joe Cassidy, one of
six extraordinarily versatile actors portraying 26 characters. Mike comes closest to what people think of as “worker” now, from a family of workers; he is the brother and son of fellow ironworkers. But even he talks about how disappointed his father felt that Mike didn’t go to college, and he tells the story of a college student working one summer with him on a construction site who seemed amazed that Mike read books.
Many of the characters in “Working” were not in the original production of the musical – and indeed some of their occupations didn’t even exist then, or at least had little of today’s prominence. Now “Working” features a hedge fund manager, a UPS delivery man, a fundraiser, tech support customer service representative, a community organizer, and, among the most memorable, a fast food worker: “I’m making minimum wage/That’s pretty good for my age,” Freddy sings in Miranda’s song, “Delivery,” a character who is happiest when he’s sent on a delivery, because the customer might well say “Keep the change.” Freddy is played with heart and aplomb by Nehal Joshi, who portrays many of the newly-visible workers.
Not all the highlights are from the new material. “Brother Trucker” is James Taylor’s down-and-dirty blues number with its catchy “Roll, Roll, Roll” refrain. The long-distance trucker who leads the song is portrayed by Jay Armstrong Johnson, who was terrific in “Wild Animals You Should Know” Off-Broadway and is headed for stardom, if not in “Hands On A Hardbody” which opens on Broadway in a few months, then somewhere down the road. Another stand-out song is Micki Grant’s “Cleanin’ Lady” sung by Kenita R. Miller, whose splendid pipes you may have heard previously, on Broadway, in “The Color Purple” or “Xanadu.”
Now “Working,” like working, is not perfect. You can’t help wishing that projection designer Aaron Rhyne and scenic designer Beowulf Boritt had worked together as a team more effectively, so that the projections didn’t come off as muddied by the set, or vice-versa. Choreographer Josh Rhodes was probably given less work than he would have wanted. Despite an obvious effort to give a realistic edge to the world of working, there is still an overly-celebratory tone that pops up on occasion during the 90 minute show: Call it a Walt Whitman/Up With People/It’s A Small World/Joe Hill Never Died celebration that might right fit into a Labor Day parade, if anybody performed in a Labor Day parade the way they do during the Thanksgiving Day Parade — or if there even was a Labor Day parade on Labor Day anymore.
The death of Labor Day is not something to laugh at. Unless one is without an understanding of history, one can only lament that fewer than 12 percent of American workers were members of a union in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the figure keeps on falling. The nature of working may have changed, but the importance of working to Americans has not. And that’s one of the reasons why “Working” works.
WORKING The Musical From the book by Studs Terkel; adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso; songs by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz and James Taylor; dance music by Michele Brourman
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt, lighting design by Jeff Croiter, costume design by Mattie Ullrich, sound design by Jeremy J. Lee, projection design by Aaron Rhyne
Cast: Mari-France Arcilla, Joe Cassidy, Donna Lynne Champlin, Jay Amstrong Johnson, Nehal Joshi, Kenita R. Miller