Adapted by Steven Schwartz and Nina Faso
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Produced by Broadway in Chicago
At the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, Chicago
This show, I’m afraid, is a case of great talent being squandered on wretched material. Everyone on stage is doing a good job; some are doing an exceptionally good job. But the show . . . the show is so bad.
Studs Terkel is an icon in America, particularly in Chicago, for his great detailing of American oral history. This musical, composed by a slew of songwriters from James Taylor to Lin-Manuel Miranda, but especially Steven Schwartz, uses Terkel’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do as source material. This book, published in 1974, details everyone from the powerbrokers to the working class, many in menial jobs; the title says the rest. It was a groundbreaking piece of journalism that highlighted what we call now (or used to call, rather) “the dignity of work” – other people may have looked down on the laborers, construction workers, waitresses, but they took pride in what they did. Which is essential for dignity (we forget what that word means, sometimes).
Now, the work does occasionally make grand statements that were popular sentiments at a time when people went around wearing Chinese Liberation Army hats with the Red Star and chanting “Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh!” – namely, that history is not made up of Great Men who caused Great Events, but rather of all the small people, all the workers: they are the ones that truly changed the world. This is still under debate in universities today, and, in fact, people tend to shy away a little bit from the Great Man version of history – but because it is more complex than that, not because the opposite of that theory is true. After all, even though in a way it was the serfs that made the Renaissance possible – by producing the food and labor that contributed to the great city-states – it was really very few people who created what we think of today as the Renaissance: only very few people could read. And although Pericles may not have been all that Thucydides makes him out to be, I can’t imagine him not being essential to Athenian – and therefore Western – history.
I suppose eventually we should get to the musical . . . if one can call it that. There is no plot, it’s more a motley of human experience. It consists of different people, each telling their story: the millworker, the trucker, the UPS man. Sometimes they sing. Sometimes they’re joined by other people and they all sing together – harmonize, even. Oftentimes, the songs try to be moving. They fall flat. The people on stage lift their voices, and the music fizzles out like an old street lamp. Schwartz’s tunes are dreadful. In fact, the only two listenable songs – listenable – are James Taylor’s. (“Hate to come on like a Nazi, but if I hear one more Jesus-walking-the-boys-and-girls-down-a-Carolina-path-while-the-dilemma-of-existence-crashes-like-a-slab-of-hod-on-J.T.’s-shoulders song, I will drop everything (I got nothing to do here in California but drink beer and watch TV anyway) and hop the first Greyhound to Carolina for the signal satisfaction of breaking off a bottle of Ripple (he deserves no better, and I wish I could think of worse, but they’re all local brands) and twisting it into James Taylor’s guts until he expires in a spasm of adenoidal poesy. EXTRA! TRAGEDY STRIKES ROCK! SUPERSTAR GORED BY DERANGED ROCK CRITIC!! ‘We made it,’ gasped Lester Bangs as he was led by police away from the bloody scene. ‘We won,’” was the way ole Lester put it in about 1971, and these are exactly the kinds of songs we have in this show.) And they’re only any good because they have a swung, country beat and Appalachian harmonies, plus a melody that’s worth a tap or two – something Schwartz is completely deficient in.
Beyond the total lack of tunes, the whole piece is downright patronizing. It’s what upper-middle-class whites want to see when they’re presented with the “working class:” blue-collar workers with dead-end jobs and no lives, but hopes for their children and the future. The Good Worker doing his job – knowing his place – and taking it, maybe even liking it. It’s a show glorifying the working class that no working class people will attend: it’s too expensive! With tickets starting at $67.50 – and sure it’d be a date night, so that’s at least $135, plus dinner, and if they get dinner anywhere near the theater it’ll be minimum $50 bucks between ‘em, then, say, add parking at $20 (or maybe they take the CTA and spare it) – it’s damn near $200 to see this show. Now, tell me, what mill worker is going to go to that? At the end of the day, this show is middle-class masturbation. Nothing more, nothing less. It allows the bourgeoisie to be happy they are where they are, and lets them know that the proletariat are just fine down below them, thankyouverymuch. They may not be upper-class, but at least they don’t have to work for a living. The whole thing’s insulting.
Even the cast is full of tokens: the Asian (Emjoy Gavino), the Black (E. Faye Butler – who has just an outstanding voice), the Ambiguously Dark Minority (Gabriel Ruiz, who plays an Indian and a hipster as well as a Puerto Rican stone-worker). That said, with only six cast members (Michael Mahler, Gene Weygandt and the veteran Barbara Robertson making up the other half), they each inhabit – and well – a plethora of roles. As I said before, it is not the cast that is lacking. It is the material they were given. There was not a missed note (although a couple of the voices were weaker than others), by the cast or the musicians (who all played excellently, but whose tone was generally so homogenized – “this is what a guitar in a musical should sound like,” “this song needs a single coil pickup, this one needs a humbucker, but for chrissake, don’t make the tone interesting, make it as bland as possible, something everybody’s heard a million times before” – it utterly lacked soul).
Some of the characters were nice: you sort of rooted for them. They were alright people; a couple of them were even interesting, bless them; but a lot of them were small. There were a couple kids, sure, with their whole lives ahead of them: they had plans, aspirations, they were gonna do something with their lives. You could tell. But most of the people were middle-aged and hopeless. There was one character, a character created for this reworking, who’s a teacher; she’s been teaching for forty years, she says, and she was a good teacher once, but the times have passed her by, and the kids don’t listen anymore, don’t have any discipline, not like the old days, when the kids paid attention – well, you know, we had the paddle back then, taught you respect, taught you to look up to authority (and why is it we don’t want to question authority?) – but now she’s no good, a has-been, all washed-up, like a rock and roller who was supposed to die by 30 but accidentally lived to be 63 and is still on stage, geriatric and wrinkled; and, dangit, she wants to be better, and people tell her, her colleagues, they say, you should keep up with the times, but – choke – no one’s told her how! Well, let’s see . . . you’re a teacher, keep up with recent pedagogical practices! She was particularly infuriating (and disappointing, since she wasn’t in the original show – which bombed on Broadway. We were so close to not ever having to see her!). Oh, and contrasting the hooker and the political fundraiser is so clever and novel, Mr. Schwartz, and you do it so well . . . . Although there are a few stand-out characters (in one way or another), the vast majority of them sort of blend together into what would become, as James Earl Carter put it, a malaise. The malaise of the 70s.
Studs Terkel’s book was published while Watergate was roiling; there were energy and oil crises; Patty Hearst was kidnapped, and Ted Bundy was still on the loose; the Stooges broke up. KISS released their first album. It was dark times. Though not without their particular light: the Ramones played their first-ever gig, as well as their first show at CBGB’s – the anger and anguish of punk was just around the corner, ready to explode in a nitrogen blaze that would singe the eyebrows off America two years later and rocket across the pond a year after that, fueled by the indifference and despair of the era. And in all this, a little book comes out, talking about what it is to go to work, who workers are, from firefighters to baseball players. Some people are happy and some aren’t, and it doesn’t necessarily have too much to do with class.
And then almost four years later, at the height of the 70s Bowie/Bee Gee/Kenny Rogers debacle, Working appears. Now, the Clash had released their debut album at this point (real pro-working-class music), but I don’t think they influenced Stephen Schwartz much. President Jimmy Carter evacuated a New York neighborhood that was built on a toxic waste dump and signed a bill to stimulate employment; Mormons finally allowed blacks into the church; Ted Bundy was arrested. It is in this context, so remote from the national situation in 1974, that the musical is first produced. I’m trying to give a context as to why there’s so much focus on the lower class in Schwartz’s musical, as well as factor in the soundscape of the times to give him an excuse as to why the music is so bad.
But, really, there isn’t one. And there’s a reason Working only lasted 24 performances when it debuted in 1978: it simply isn’t very good. And it’s still not good. Thirty-two years later, we’re in another economic slump, worse even than the 70s (and where’s our punk now? Lady Gaga? Green Day? We’re so numb at this point, we don’t even rebel musically!), workers are underemployed – if they’re lucky – the pay is low, job satisfaction dreary . . . do we really need the crass commercialization of the working class right now? Do we need to commoditize them? And make no mistake, that’s exactly what this show is. It’s overproduced, overhyped, overpriced “theater” about how good the working poor should feel, watched only by those who can afford leisure. It’s threadbare. The 100 minutes dragged on for eons. Were it not for the talent on display, both on stage and in the pit, this show would have no redeeming qualities. And, honestly, I feel a little bad tearing this show apart like I am – because the actors deserve better. They deserve better material than this. They should all be doing wonderful things. Not this trashy masquerade. The work is sallow, gaunt, and disingenuous, and anyone who says otherwise is selling something. Because this is not good theater. It’s not even good.
Reviewed on 3.2.11
For full show information, check out the Working page at Theatre In Chicago.
At the Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St, Chicago; call 800-775-2000 or visit www.broadwayinchicago.com; tickets $67.50-$77.50; performances Tuesday-Sunday; running time 100 minutes without intermission; through May 8.
Editor’s Note: When I hired Will Fink I knew that I had a young gifted writer on my hands. He has shown that in the dozen or so reviews he has posted on this site. His honesty and integrity, along with his intelligence, are demonstrated in the above review. Will is an excellent writer and a keen observer of the performing arts and an astute music critic.
I agree completely with Will’s assessment of Working. I found it an ode to the common man as bland material for musical theatre. It is similar to asking Arthur Miller or Rodgers & Hammerstein to write an average musical or play. The average working man’s show amounts to a series of musical sketches with a pastiche of composers contributing forgettable tunes – all for $67.50 to $77.50 per ticket! I was embarrassed for the expert cast as they had to navigate through this mediocre material. Working bombed in 1978 lasting only 24 performances on Broadway yet most of the Chicago critics gave the show, here in Chicago, raves. I guess Will and me are a minority on this one. Please note that several young thespians and avid theatre patrons confided in Will and me they’re displeasure for Working just after the opening night performance. I’m quite proud of Will Fink for standing up for his convictions and having the guts to challenge the establishment about this show.