Photo by Don Kellogg

Saturday, February 26, 2011


Currently back on stage in Chicago at the Broadway Playhouse is the 1970's not-so-big-a-hit, Working, adapted by Stephen Schwartz from the Studs Terkel book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.  I did a bit of research after seeing this one to understand what its first incarnation was like.  Originally on Broadway in 1978, the show only played 12 previews and about 2 dozen regular performances.  It came along just after the smash hit, A Chorus Line, and was seemingly presented in the same manner - a pastiche of stories told by "the average, everyday, working-Joe".  The stories highlighted the cultural, racial, and ethnic struggles, work ethics, career choices (or lack thereof) - and most importantly how hopes and dreams can be blind to all of these factors. 

It now seems Mr. Schwartz, after about 30 years of coaxing, has updated the book and score to be more culturally relevant in 2010 by including references to email, blackberries, computers, and the Internet as well as the outsourcing of jobs to India and the stock market on Wall Street.  He's also broadened the originally strictly blue-collar feel to now include a more diverse service worker element.  The cast has been trimmed down from 17 to 6 people who now play multiple roles.  The musical score, already boasting a potpourri of songsters including Mr. Schwartz, Craig Carnelia, and James Taylor, now also includes two fresh numbers by Lin-Manuel Miranda - an obvious nod to the modern Latino commercial and cultural influences both on and off Broadway.

One of the updates I especially enjoyed was the overt inclusion of the behind the scenes workers (non-actors) in the landscape.  On the generic and open two story steel-beam looking set that is constantly transformed by video projections he exposes the actual stage crew, make up artists, dressers, and stage hands doing their jobs.  The stage manager is also visibly lit in one of the house's boxes transformed into her working area (we hear her queue the lights and curtain at the start).  

The ensemble cast idea seems to have paid off - too many actors sometimes is overwhelming and you don't get to see individual talents as you do when a smaller cast plays multiple roles.  Every one of them here had a stand out performance at one point or another during the show - Emjoy Gavino, E. Faye Butler, Barbara Robertson, Michael Mahler (please come to Broadway, Michael!), Gabrial Ruiz, and Gene Waygandt.  By the names alone - you can tell this is quite an appropriately diverse cast and all earned their hearty applause from the audience throughout the show.

Does it need a bit more work? Probably.  Can this one make it to the Great White Way?  The verdict is out, but I'll tell you after this season of 11 new musicals - some of which are bound to flop - perhaps this could be our 2011 or spring 2012 stand-out revival.  Are three Stephen Schwartz musicals on Broadway at one time a bit much?  Move over Wicked and Godspell - something Working this way comes.