When Stephen Schwartz (of “Godspell”, “Pippin” and, more recently, “Wicked” fame) decided to make a musical based on the 1974 book of oral histories by Studs Terkel, it was a bold and risky move. The source for the book of the musical (co-written by Nina Faso) was a daunting sociological work with the full title of “Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do”. Schwartz also directed the original 1978 production and wrote five songs, with other numbers composed by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rogers, and James Taylor, with lyrics by Carnelia, Grant, Taylor and Susan Birkenhead. Such an ambitious undertaking, with so many personal stories and so many creative contributors, inevitably resulted in a mixed bag of anecdotes, some very moving, some not so. In 2009 two songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”) were added to update the play, referencing jobs that had not been as common in 1978 as they are today.
Almost all of the vignettes that resulted from the earlier collaboration, as well as the revised version, come across as anything but desirable options presented by a guidance counselor, but as Terkel’s subtitle states, what people do in their jobs and what feelings, if any, they have about the work they do: “This book being about work, it is, by its very nature, about violence, to the spirit as well as to the body…about daily humiliations….about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor in short for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines….common attribute here: a meaning to their work well over and beyond the reward of the paycheck”. Heady stuff for a musical, it didn’t earn much critical praise or public popularity. Yet there remained the intriguing question which Terkel quoted from the work of Bertolt Brecht: “Who built the seven towers of Thebes? The books are filled with the names of kings. Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?…In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished where did the masons go?”
It was then, and remains now, a shame that this musical wasn’t better received. True, it has little comic relief and it’s often unpleasant to acknowledge the reality so many workers endure. It starts with a chorus of cacophony, but by the end, the cast of six are singing in unison about what they share in common. Along the way, there are some very involving moments, and some not too, which is probably inevitable when so many disparate voices are heard. The cast of the current production consists of six actors, some stronger than others, but all seemingly sincere in their various roles; they are Tiffany Chen, Merle Perkins, Shannon Lee Jones, Phil Tayler, Cheeyang Ng, and Christopher Chew. They are ably directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins, a local treasure, with Musical Direction by Jonathan Goldberg, Scenic Design by Anne Sherer, Costume Design by Rafeal Jaen and Lighting Design by John Malinowski. There is a five member band of very much alive, albeit unseen, musicians. The roles, some two dozen of them, include those of cleaning ladies, community organizer, elder care worker, fast food worker, fireman, flight attendant, fundraiser, hedge fund manager, housewife, trucker, ironworker, millworker, nanny, project manager, prostitute, publicist, receptionist, student, schoolteacher, stone mason, tech supporter, UPS delivery person, and waitperson. Ironically, the most memorable and moving moment is the portrayal of a retiree by Christopher Chew.
What emerges is the realization of how much these workers all have in common: non-recognition by other people and how that gets to them, the fact that most people identify themselves by their jobs, and that what you do is who you are, not to mention the poignant cry that they “could’ve been someone”. There are some comic elements, as in the songs “It’s an Art” (by Schwartz), and “Brother Trucker” (by Taylor), and the very topical number “A Very Good Day” (by Miranda) about those who do the jobs no one else wants to do. The workers share the belief that all should have “Something to Point To” (by Carnelia). How involved a theatergoer becomes in the course of the play might depend on one’s own life experiences; perhaps there should be a minimum age to appreciate fully what the message is. This is a courageous piece of theatre which should touch us all, as there’s a lot of life up on the stage as well as behind it, and a lot of talented people at work here.