In 1972, Chicago radio personality Studs Terkel published his masterpiece, which he titled, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Its 589 pages were filled with interviews, often raw, sometimes stilly, sometimes noble, with people who talked about their work. The talk was many times plain but also oftentimes eloquent. Mr. Terkel found many people who hated their jobs but also some who found fulfillment and nobility even in simple tasks.
Six years later, a musical version of Working debuted on Broadway. Two acts long, with a cast of seventeen performing 40 of the stories, and featuring songs by six different composers and lyricists, it lasted for 12 preview and 24 regular performances. Yet, Working lived on in regional productions and underwent changes in structure and casting.
Now, Working is being welcomed back by audiences in a completely new incarnation. Two songs (Stephen Schwartz's "Neat To Be a Newsboy," and James Taylor's "Un Mejor Día Vendrá") have been dropped, and two more ("Delivery" and "A Very Good Day," both by Lin-Manuel Miranda) have been added. Stories have been rearranged, as have many of the original songs. The cast has been cut to six, three men and three women, and the 26-story show now runs a tight 97 minutes without intermission.
Most particularly, many of the stories have been updated, featuring interviews that have been collected from holders of contemporary iconic jobs, such as a hedge fund manager, a tech support employee, a flight attendant, a fast food worker and a caregiver. While Mr. Terkel interviewed many who had grown up during the Great Depression and survived World War II, the contemporary version of Working features those stories along side of those of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The contrast, in some cases, is a stark one.
San Diego's Old Globe Theatre is the current home (through April 12) of this revised production, and it has been given a first-class production. Director Gordon Greenberg's concept is to show the cast and crew as working people, so the dressing rooms are onstage on two levels, while the third level of the set contains the band and the stage manager (who is also shown calling the show). Dressers come onstage more than once to do quick costume changes with the cast, and all of the running crew get bows at the curtain call.
Under Mr. Greenberg's sensitive and detailed direction, each of the six-member cast performs admirably. I'm sure that each audience member will have favorite moments; mine were Marie-France Arcilla's terrified (and terrifying) flight attendant, Adam Mosley's arrogant hedge fund manager, Danielle Lee Greaves' innocent and knowing prostitute, and Wayne Duvall's poignant portrayal of Joe, the retired man. Nehal Joshi displays a lovely tenor in Mr. Miranda's sad but wise "A Very Good Day" (Mr. Joshi also sings Mr. Miranda's less effective "Delivery"). And Donna Lynne Champlin did magnificent work all evening, but her performance of the show's big number, Mr. Schwartz's "It's An Art," had star-making written all over it.
I do have some quibbles with the show as it stands. Aaron Rhyne's projection design features some effective moments, but many times it is more distracting than helpful. The adaptation, by Mr. Schwartz and Nina Faso, has aimed for and achieved many forms of diversity, but I wonder why all of the very young people being portrayed are either arrogant, clueless, or both. Many youth may live in a fantasy world when it comes to work, but it seems to me that at least one of the three stories featuring them should be a positive portrayal.
Finally, while Working plays big in the six hundred some odd seat Old Globe, I certainly would not want to see it on tour a couple of years from now playing the 3000-seat San Diego Civic Theatre. How it would connect with audiences in a 1000-plus-seat Broadway house is still up to speculation. Still, Working works, and we should all be so lucky.
Performances through April 12. Box Office: (619) 23-GLOBE, or The Old Globe's website.
Working. Based on the book by Studs Turkel; Adapted by Steven Schwartz and Nina Faso; Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, Craig Carnelia, Susan Birkenhead, Matt Landers and Graciela Daniele; Director: Gordon Greenberg; Choreographer: Joshua Rhodes; Musical Director: Mark Hartman; Orchestrator: Alex Lacamoire; Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt; Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter; Costume Design: Mattie Ullrich; Sound Design: Tony Smolenski IV; Projection Designer: Aaron Rhyne; Stage Manager: Dan Rosokoff.
With Adam Monley, Nehal Joshi, Wayne Duvall, Marie-France Arcilla, Danielle Lee Greaves, and Donna Lynne Champlin.