Tough economic times perfect for fresh look at ‘Working’
by Hedy Weiss Theater Critichweiss@suntimes.com February 24, 2011 8:00PM
When: Opens March 2; open run
Where: Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut
Information: (800) 775-2000; broadwayinchicago.com
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
At a time when so many people have lost their jobs, when others fear they might lose theirs at any moment, and when some worry they might never find employment again, the timing could not be more ideal for a reinvention of “Working,” the musical based on Studs Terkel’s exemplary 1974 oral history.
The subject of Terkel’s best-selling book was neatly summed up in its subtitle: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. A compendium of deftly edited and organized interviews with Americans from all walks of life — minimum-wage earners, blue-collar laborers, executive types and more — Working captured the essence of the activity that not only keeps us fed, clothed and sheltered, but that in many ways defines our sense of self, helps shape our emotional well-being and gives us a sense of purpose.
It took only three years for Terkel’s tome to be reinvented as a musical — with a book by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, and songs by Schwartz, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, James Taylor and Susan Birkenhead. Such a rapid metamorphosis was not surprising, really, for Terkel himself was ever the master at pairing music with talk on his radio shows.
The musical debuted at the Goodman Theatre in 1977 (with Patti LuPone and Joe Mantegna among the cast) and it subsequently made a misguided move to Broadway, where it ran for barely a month. Yet in the intervening years, with several revisions along the way, the show has received countless productions in regional theaters and beyond.
Ironically enough, it was three years ago — just before the great recession reared its ugly head in this country — that Schwartz and a young director, Gordon Greenberg, decided to revisit “Working,” with “developmental productions” to follow at Florida’s Asolo Repertory Theatre and the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Schwartz, of course, was already hotter than hot thanks to the mega-success of his musical “Wicked.” And he approached a sizzling young Broadway talent, Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”), to contribute two new songs.
It is this new version of the show , now in previews at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, that will have its formal debut here March 2, with a cast of six that includes veteran Chicago actors Barbara Robertson, E. Faye Butler and Gene Weygandt. Here is what some of the creative “workers” on the show have to say about it:
Stephen Schwartz, book and score
“I first heard about Studs’ book when I got a notice about its publication from the old Book of the Month Club. It included excerpts of his interview with a telephone operator. And there was something that struck me about how this person who you easily would take for granted, yet were happy to get on the line, was struggling through her own day. It made me aware of our invisible connection to the people we often interact with, and as I went on to read the complete book, I was increasingly moved. Almost immediately, I thought it would be great to give all these people a theatrical voice, to have them sing.
“I contacted Studs, who initially thought I was insane, though once I explained my idea to him he was enthusiastic and supportive. And because I wanted to have the most authentic voices possible for these people, I came up with the idea of having multiple collaborators write the songs.
“Studs was still alive when we decided to revisit the show and he made all the original, unedited tapes of his interviews available to us. Hearing the accents and tone of voice of his subjects was especially fascinating.
“Looking back, it was not a great time economically when Studs was putting his book together in the early to mid-1970s, near the end of the Nixon presidency, though it wasn’t as bad as today. And then when President Ford came into office, there were those ‘Whip Inflation Now’ buttons. Our idea for this new edition of ‘Working’ was not to update things, but just to attempt to keep the show from feeling dated and to have some connection to the contemporary workplace.
“What has remained constant is the whole sense of the meaning of work, the aspirations and frustrations and pride involved, and the yearning for recognition. It was Gordon [Greenberg, the director], who decided to pare the cast down to six actors who could do multiple transformations, in effect showing us what their job is all about. I think that’s a concept Studs would have loved, though of course it is my great disappointment that he is not here to see it all.
“I confess I have never had an ‘honest’ job aside from a paper route, working as a camp counselor and spending some time in a box office when I was young. That may be why this show has always been so eye-opening for me.”
Gordon Greenberg, director
“I first did ‘Working’ as a kid at camp, and I longed to look at it again. When I began talking to Stephen about it almost eight years ago, I told him I was thinking a lot about musicals and about how there often is more going on backstage in those shows than in the show itself. I wanted to show the inner workings of all that, even having the stage manager who calls the cues for the show visible. And I wanted all those backstage people joining the actors and musicians for curtain calls.
“Although I never got to meet Studs, from day one it was my dream, and Stephen’s, too, to bring this production to Chicago. And while I don’t want to give anything away, Studs does play an important part in the show.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, songwriter
“Although I was familiar with a couple of songs from ‘Working,’ I really came to the show with a fresh set of ears and eyes. When Stephen and Gordon asked me what I might contribute, I thought, ‘something with a Latin feel, and probably something about my own very first job.’ In the summer between eighth and ninth grades, I was a delivery boy for a McDonald’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and I was above the minimum wage with tips. So that’s a song. And then I thought about my grandmother, who now is surrounded by a network of caregivers at a senior center that really serves as a kind of surrogate family. So I wrote another song about two illegal immigrants — one who works in a nursing home for the elderly and another who is a nanny.”
Barbara Robertson, actor
“I play a waitress, a schoolteacher, a fund-raiser, a woman in a cubicle, and like all the actors in this show, I’m part of other scenes, too. I actually worked as a waitress in Berwyn, just after graduating college, and I got fired. My boss said: ‘I don’t think this is a good job for you.’ And I had an office job at the Teamsters union. But mostly, I’ve been an actress and a teacher. I now teach acting at Columbia College, and I connect with my character’s desire for people to learn and also with the frustrations you can sometimes face in the classroom.
“I do think of acting as a job, as a career and as an amazing form of artistic expression. It is how I make my living. And when I’m not doing it, there is something missing in my life. But this show gives value to people whose value we sometimes forget, and that has nothing to do with the amount you are paid. As an actress, I’ve taken 98-percent pay cuts to do certain shows. But if I feel what I’m doing is important and respected, it’s worth it.”
E. Faye Butler, actor
“In the show, I play a suburban housewife, a project manager in an office, a prostitute and a cleaning woman, and I haven’t done any of those jobs in real life. But my grandmother, who taught herself to read, worked as a domestic and was proud that she made it possible for my mother and me never to have to do that kind of work. I saw how exhausted she was when she came home. I also saw the positives, because she worked in affluent homes and would bring things home to us, like pate, that we’d never have been exposed to otherwise.
“Aside from being an actress, I’ve worked as an aesthetician and makeup artist, which means you deal with women’s skin problems — as well as their husband problems. I met many great people that way, including Oprah. And yes, I do see acting as a job, too, with the work of it less what you do onstage than offstage. It is so crucial to do your research and also to keep up your health and your appearance in this business. No matter what character you might be playing, people who come to the theater want to see someone special up there.”
Gene Weygandt, actor
“I play an ironworker, a hedge fund manager, a publicist and a retired Chicago factory worker in the show. My dad worked in a glass factory, but I guess the closest I ever came to any of those jobs was working on a surveying crew as a young man, when I had to drive stakes into the ground with a sledgehammer in some pretty rough weather. I also worked as a high school teacher.
“I think it’s the song about fathers and sons in the show that really gets to me most. It’s just stunningly beautiful, and a sheer joy to perform, though very tough emotionally. I have a 12-year-old son who is my hero, and so much of this show is about parents and children. I also wish my dad, who passed away 16 years ago, could have seen this production. He would have loved it. Studs just got to the truth of the human heart and what really counts in life.”