In 1974, Studs Terkel released a book of interviews he’d conducted with American workers. Terkel interviewed bankers, waitresses, construction workers, housewives and more. In the late 70s, Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell) and Nina Faso adapted it into a concept musical (sans a linear plot line) that featured songs by Schwartz, Mary Rodgers, Craig Carnelia, Susan Birkenhead, Micki Grant and James Taylor. This 2012 incarnation includes additional interviews conducted in 2008 (additional contributions are attributed to director Gordon Greenberg), as well as new tunes from Lin-Manuel Miranda (Bring It On).
As the title suggests, Working focuses on people at work. Mixing interviewees’ words with music, we are exposed to workers’ inner and honest thoughts about their work.
Embodying the 36 workers is a six-member ensemble featuring Marie-France Arcilla, Joe Cassidy, Donna Lynne Champlin, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Nehal Joshi and Kenita R. Miller. And they really do embody the characters, bringing to life 36 distinct people, often changing (costume and character) on stage.
In an interesting production choice, the scenic design, by Beowulf Boritt (If There Is..., Grace), banishes any artifice or opportunities to hide, showing us how the set works. Moreover, the show begins by letting the audience hear the stage manager call light and sound cues, essentially letting us hear her work. The crew also comes out for a bow at the end of the show.
With 36 characters and so many contributors, the results were bound to vary – and they do – but overall it’s an effective show. I certainly enjoyed some vignettes and performances more than others, but as the sum of its parts, Working is evocative and elicits empathy from the audience.
While in different working conditions, similarities and connections are evident among the workers. Many of the workers are hopeful about the future, whether theirs or their children’s; others are regretful for the road not taken. All of them are grateful to be working.
And by the end of the show we realize that we’re all working, just trying to get by. The show leaves you feeling renewed about the work you do (even if it’s not your dream job) and respectful and sympathetic toward workers in other industries. Particularly poignant are the final moments, the Carnelia song “Something to Point To,” in which the workers express hope of leaving a legacy.
For more information about Working, which runs at 59E59 Theaters through December 30, visit 59e59.org.