San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre is running a revival of Stephen Schwartz’ musical “Working.” The source material for the musical “Working” is unusual in that it draws it’s inspiration from real life as opposed to a novel, a non-musical play, or film. The material is based on a 1974 non-fiction book by Studs Terkel entitled, “Working People Talk About What They Do All Day And How They Feel About It.” The songs are written by a number of songwriters most notable of which are Stephen Schwartz and James Taylor.
This new revival combines original material with new interviews to help modernize the show for the twenty-first century. The show progresses like a music review as the cast trade costumes and personas to take on different careers to highlight. In some cases the costume changes are even done on stage to highlight how even acting is a job too. One such change by Danielle Lee Greaves transforms her from a housewife into a prostitute with the aid of a couple of backstage people, a wig, and the loss of the housewife costume that was already concealing the prostitute outfit.
Even the stage was designed to create a sense of working in that it looked like a large version of the Hollywood Square board with three levels and three rooms across creating a 3×3 grid. The center column set of rooms featured staircases to allow the actors to change levels. The orchestra was contained in the top left square and the show opens with the director taking his position in the upper right square and his orders to start the show and cut the houselights audible to the audience. The rooms in the remaining also doubled as dressing rooms and sets for the show.
The show is brought to life by a talented cast of six, three men and three women. Each of them took on the many different careers presented in the show. The various careers highlighted included ironworkers, office workers, fast food workers, delivery boys, hedge fund managers, teachers, flight attendants, truck drivers, call center workers, receptionists, housewives, UPS delivery guys, fundraisers, millworkers, community organizers, stone workers, publicists, waitresses, retirees, firemen, medical caregivers, janitors, students, and newsroom assistants. Some of the careers were covered in spoken monologues and were treated to songs.
I really wanted to like this show, I really did. In fact, the reason I did come to see the show was the program from “Continuous City” at the La Jolla Playhouse featured an ad to the Old Globe theatre for the show. The ad described the show as…
Stephen Schwartz, the man behind the curtain of the global sensation “Wicked,” has recreated his musical vision of the American dream for the 21st century. “Working” is an unforgettable musical that creates a vivid tapestry of how we work in America – woven from the funny and poignant stories of twenty-six everyday Americans – a fireman, a housewife, a publicist, a business executive, a stone mason, and more. Contains strong language.
It sounds like a fun show. Unfortunately, I found it to be rather forgettable instead of unforgettable and depressing more than vivid. Some of the highlighted careers were interesting. I could appreciate how times have changed for the teacher who used to have a small classroom size and respectful kids to today’s larger class sizes and seemingly uncontrollable children. The flight attendant’s story about an unruly passenger and his omelette while having to withhold information that might cause a panic on the flight was amusing. The juxtaposition between the stories of the prostitute and professional fundraiser begs the question of who is the bigger whore? The one who trades sex for money or the one who fleeces the rich for donations? Even the publicist who’s job it is to promote others accomplishments rarely has his own list of accomplishments to point at.
Of the performances showcased in song, I enjoyed the song about the truckers probably for the way “Brother Trucker” sounds so close to a more profane euphemism. The fast food worker who gets promoted to a delivery guy was the only worker who seemed to aspire to bigger and better things, unfortunately his plight was the first showcased following the opening song, so his desire to aspire is long forgotten by the end of the show. I could even appreciate the waitress who sings “It’s An Art” about her service to her patrons. She certainly had the right attitude.
The only song that addressed any aspirations was “If I Could’ve Been” which was the mindless daydreaming of people who wish they could be more than what they are, but aren’t willing to do anything about it. It’s like they were expecting a better life to be handed to them on a silver platter. The show closes with a song called “Something To Point To” which is noble in is desire for people to want to have something to point at for the sake of proving they did something in their lifetime, but discounts the fact that it is possible. If you work hard enough, build up the money to have some kind of monument to the work you did in your life, you can have something to point to.
Maybe it’s the entrepreneur in me, or just the fact I don’t view any of the jobs I’ve ever done as anything more than stepping stones on my path to success, but I just can’t relate to this celebration of the mundane that this show exemplifies. I agree that pride should be taken in every job and bringing best efforts to the job, but I refuse to define myself by my job. The characters in “Working” define themselves by the work they do as if their names and faces are what is disposable. Their highest aspirations seem to be the paycheck they trade their time and energy for. Is this really what the American Dream has become?
The show almost comes off as a complete mockery of the lowest ranks of workers. It seems to be more of an insult to them than a celebration of their contributions to the successes in America. The show cheapens the American Dream by focusing on those who are content to be low to middle class at best. The characters offer no compelling reason to want to celebrate them as anything more than cogs in the machines of the economy.
Even the brilliant efforts by the talented cast could offer little to help the mindless blending of the tales that make a ninety minute show feel more like a lifetime of miserable labor. The program to the show goes to great effort to point out that few musical shows are sourced from non-fiction works as if this work is cutting edge in doing so. After seeing “Working” it seems to me the reason why so few works are sourced from real life is because real life isn’t entertaining, in fact, it’s downright depressing.