A Dramaturgical Study
The barista who pours you a cup of coffee. The custodian who keeps your workplace clean. The retail worker who helps you find that item. The telemarketer who calls monthly. The garbage collector who removes your trash weekly. The steelworker who builds the infrastructure. The caretaker who nurtures the weak. The teacher who instructs the young. All these people, who affect and aid our lives daily, often work unnoticed or unappreciated.
In Working, Stephen Schwartz’ and Nina Faso’s stage-adaptation of Studs Terkel’s collection of interviews published in 1974 under the title Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, unsung everyday heroes are given the chance to find their personal voices. Listening to their stories and confessions, we recognize our own voices in this world as well. This show is about you, it is about me, and, most importantly, it is about us.
Working is based on the words of real people, who Terkel interviewed in the Midwest during the early 1970s. Schwartz was inspired to write a musical on Terkel’s book after reading the interview with Heather, a telemarketer. Says Schwartz in his biography Defying Gravity: the Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked: “I was somebody who tended to be abusive to operators. They were just some disembodied voice. I would be like the guy in the show who curses the phone company, and I would complain about it being a monopoly. Suddenly, I realized that there was a person sitting in some location that I’d never pictured in my mind, he or she had a whole life and series of dreams and disappointments and expectations and weariness that I had never thought about, and that I was connected to this person through this transaction.”
Hailed by Schwartz and the original publicity team as “the everyman’s A Chorus Line,” Working is a postmodern musical lacking a narrative structure, owning the right to be self-reflective, and aware of its theatricality. The original production in December 1977 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, which introduced the stories of over forty-two people, spanned over three hours. Today’s popularized and licensable Working is a one-act, featuring twenty-five professionals played by a cast of six. Much like its non-narrative predecessor A Chorus Line, it is as a devised musical, meaning that Schwartz and Faso fostered the production concept, but it would be the collective work of actors and singer-songwriters that would complete and materialize the production. The original musical features songs by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz, and James Taylor, and the one-act also includes two songs by Lin Manuel Miranda, the talented creator of the Broadway hit Hamilton. As a contemporary artwork, Working places itself among other notable and even revolutionary short musicals, such as Fun Home and Come From Away.
Tonight, as you take part in this celebration of the American Everyman, we ask that you reconsider how we define “working” in the United States, what drives us to take particular jobs, and why we assume that some occupations are to remain unnoticed. We also ask you to think about the issues raised by Studs Terkel in the beginning of his collection: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.” Working inspires us to prevent these invisible “violences” and help each other not just survive the day but succeed in finding “something to point to?”
In the production notes Stephen Schwartz states, “WORKING is not a ‘book musical,’ of course in that there is no narrative thread carrying the action forward. But neither is it a revue, with the separate scenes occurring haphazardly and interchangeably” (iii). Working is about several characters, each of whom has their own story, internal conflict, and need much like in other musicals of the 1970s that lack a linear and/or unified plot line, such as Stephen Sondheim’s Company and Michael Bennet and Marvin Hamlisch’s A Chorus Line.
Because the show lacks a typical narrative structure, the heart of the piece is the characters and their stories.In discussing how they feel about what they do, they reveal something important they are fighting for or against. As a result, I find that an interesting, unusual protagonist-antagonist relationship begins to form. The protagonist (main character) seems to be each character, and we, the audience which they face directly and address, appear to be their antagonist, their adversary, as we represent the society the characters struggle against and often oppose. When you enter the theatre, and especially in this production, be prepared to be a “scene partner” to the actors onstage!you will be watching the struggle of twenty-five characters to assert their role and prove their worth, their existence.
In Man 3's opening monologue as Mike Dillard, the main themes of the show are considered. He begins saying, "I'm a dying breed. A laborer" (6). This is important considering the decline in American industry within the past several decades. He also says, "My older brothers were ironworkers and my father was an ironworker, so it was a natural course of events. My father...my father was very disappointed I didn't go to college" (6). This idea is repeated throughout Studs Terkel's collection of interviews and a main theme of the production. Many parents work for their kids in the hopes that they will succeed in living a better life than the one in which they grew up. Next, he discusses, "That's what can get to you—the non-recognition by other people. To say a man is just a laborer, a woman is just a waitress. It bothers you sometimes" (6). Many workers deal with the problem of their work and their being going unnoticed and not appreciated. The world seems to be unaware of the marks we make on it. Mike finishes his opening monologue thinking of the business man sitting in his office and recognizes, "He's never gonna think about me. But yeah, I think about him sometimes" (6).
An exciting feature of the show is that six actors will be portraying all twenty-five characters: what an undertaking and a challenge! In the character breakdown below, you can get a general idea of what each man and woman represent and thematically bring to the production.
One should note that the character breakdown for this particular production is a little different than the one outlined in the script licensed by Musical Theatre International. In the original licensed version, Woman 3 normally plays the teacher, Rose Hoffman, who is possessive, strong in her own right (and who also shares with us her name); however, in UAB Theatre’s production, the music director/pianist steps out from behind the piano to portray the teacher. One of the ushers for the evening also steps into the production as Allen Epstein, the community organizer. This is notable because the production is commenting on the fact that anyone can do anything. What you do is a matter of choice. People can be whoever that chose to be. The woman who is the housewife can also be the prostitute. The man who is a truck driver could also be a fireman. The ironworker and the hedge fund manager could have the same body type but also the same mind.The pianist could be a third-grade teacher. We are not defined or limited by our jobs and, more importantly, we are interconnected by our professional occupations, just as the cast is in this production.
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"Working went on to become a very successful show all over the country in regional theaters. I came to grasp that, if I do my work well enough, there will be an audience somewhere. It may not hit on Broadway, but somewhere it will find an audience and have a life; that is why one does these things." - Stephen Schwartz (Kasha 265)
Cast, crew, and creatives attended a tour of US Pipe in Bessemer. The group witnessed the pipe manufacturing process and discussed working with some of the engineers.
The cast meets with Bart Maddox and Thomas Mathis, ironworkers from Local No. 92.
Working: The Musical Dramaturgy
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At twenty-six, Grammy award-winning and Tony nominated composer, Stephen Schwartz, known for his hit musicals Godspell, Pippin, and The Magic Show, opened a Book of the Month club flyer and was intrigued by an ad for Studs Terkel’s collection of interviews: Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. The flyer included an excerpt from an interview with a phone operator. After reading words of the phone operator, Heather, Schwartz had an epiphany, “I was someone who tended to be abusive to operators...Suddenly, I realized that there was a person sitting in some location that I’d never pictured in my mind, and he or she had a whole life and a series of dreams and disappointments and expectations and weariness that I had never thought about, and that I was connected to this person through this transaction...To me it was enormously compelling, and I wanted to write about it” (146). Three years later, after some mishaps and a lack of critical success with his show The Baker’s Wife, twenty-nine year old Stephen Schwartz began creating his new musical, Working. However, before he began crafting, he had to persuade Terkel to release the material for stage rights. Terkel said, “Something told me [Schwartz] had something. It was more than just a musical. It was a celebration of the “ordinary” people, whose daily lives are unsung. He would sing about them, the anonymous many, whose lives touch our everyday without our realizing it. ‘Go ahead,’ I said” (147).
Schwartz also realized that for this show he would need the help of his friend from Yale and director Nina Faso. After experiencing difficulties with directors on other projects, he ultimately decided that he would write and direct the show, but Faso would be a co-creator in the stage adaptation of the book.
Together, they decided to use the inspiration of other non-narrative and documentary-based musicals, such as The Me Nobody Knows and A Chorus Line. Schwartz loved what Michael Bennet and Marvin Hamlisch did with A Chorus Line: “extending literal truth into emotional truth on stage” (148). As a result, Schwartz and Faso devised the piece through workshops with other actor friends. Before the workshops began, they had to sift through the collection of interviews to find the best of them that would translate to songs or be theatricalized for the stage. Their goal was to feature fifty characters’ stories in a two or three hour show.
After selecting the literary material, Schwartz called friends and colleagues saying, “I’m going to rent a space in New York two or three days a week and I’ll provide lunch there and pay your carfare. Will you come and play?” (150). About seventeen actors came, and play they did. They worked through material, monologues, and stories that sparked their interests. Schwartz was very enthusiastic and collaborative during the workshop process. He said, “Every idea anyone came up with had to be tried, no matter how dumb or impractical it sounded to the rest of us” (151). This is how the comedic telephone-operator scene, in which Woman 1 and Man 2 speak contrapuntally and simultaneously, came into fruition.
Schwartz also organized character explorations (field trips), in which the actors were able to apprentice and interview real workers. In fact, Stephen Schwartz met with a real fireman to understand how the fireman’s suit would impact his movement. He sought to achieve verisimilitude, and he did this by going out in the world and actively exploring the jobs he was planning to present on the stage.
After the two authors completed the script, it was Schwartz’s turn to begin writing the music. After he tried to write a bluesy musical number for the character of the parking lot attendant, he said to himself, “This is silly. Why am I sitting here trying to do a Micki Grant song? Why don’t I just ask Micki Grant” (152).
After securing Micki Grant as one of the composers, he also reached out to Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon. Unfortunately, they had too many commitments, but he was able to add James Taylor as well as Mary Rodgers, daughter of the famed musical composer Richard Rodgers, with Broadway lyricist Susan Birkenhead at her side. Others began hearing about Schwartz’s search for fellow composers, and writer, Craig Zadan, introduced Schwartz to Craig Carnelia at one of Carnelia’s cabaret concerts. Schwartz was impressed with Carnelia’s work and discussed Working with him after the show: “What Craig did, more vividly than other musical theatre composers I had heard, was to capture the essence of the character, not just in the lyric but in the music as well. The music was… a tonal portrait of the character’s soul and circumstance” (155).
After finding a team of songwriters, Schwartz sent them the interviews he wanted to musicalize, considering each composer for a particular line of work or genre of song. He never supervised the artists and never had a meeting as a group to discuss the show. This “independent approach” led to the “montage feeling” that the show possesses (154).
The first workshop performance of Working was slated for Chicago, the city in which Terkel conducted most of his interviews. Shirley Bernstein, Schwartz’s agent, brought in producers Irwin Meyer and Stephen R. Friedman to back the production, allowing the show to premiere at the Goodman Theatre. After securing this venue, Schwartz and Faso also coordinated another out-of-town production at Arena Stage in Washington D.C.
. Wanting to emulate the episodic and non-narrative nature of A Chorus Line based on dancers auditioning at a Broadway dance call, Schwartz and Faso recognized that Working still lacked a solid plotline and needed a character’s story to connect the different pieces together. Fred Ringley, a printing salesman whose interview appears towards the end of the book, and his family became the inspiration. Tired of the city and its pressures, his family decided to leave Chicago in order to move to Arkansas and start a restaurant. After lots of discussions and rewrites, the family’s story would become the “clothesline”, on which the authors would “hang all the characters on” (159).
The opening night at the Goodman arrived. Terkel’s interviewees were invited and able to meet the cast after the show. The Chicago critics enjoyed the production but also reflected that the structure of the show and its ability to connect forty-two characters needed some more work. Chicago Daily News said, “It’s a long evening (3 hours and 10 minutes) dotted with awkward bridges and dead spots and not yet sure of where it’s heading...but the musical has some genuinely wonderful scenes” (164). The Chicago Sun Times argued, “The most irritating difficulty at the moment is trying to connect 42 stories together...Schwartz’s technique to bind them [characters’ stories] into a whole is to use a family as connective tissue—a man and his wife and their little boy...is not a cohesive ploy. It divides. It interrupts. It bores” (164).
After mixed but generally positive reviews, the creative team began preparing the show for Broadway. They got rid of the family unit “clothesline” and opted for a revue format that would begin and end with a Steelworker. The authors believed that the audience would apply its own structural ideas to the show and trusted that each viewer would interpret the piece individually.
Schwartz’s producers Friedman and Meyer secured a Broadway theatre on the 46th Street Theatre. They recognized that the 1977-1978 Tony season would be weak and that Working could get the attention it deserved if they cut the Arena Stage production and went straight to Broadway. Schwartz believed the piece was not prepared for Broadway and fought the decision to bring the show that season but was forced to relent to his producers. It turns out that the script was not ready to be produced on The Great White Way. During previews, Faso recalls, “We took musical numbers out; we put numbers in. The actors and crew and the orchestra performed death-defying stunts every night” (167). In addition to that, the team, under the direction of Schwartz, kept delaying the opening. Irwin recollects, “Stephen wanted more time (to trim and polish). And we said okay. And then he wanted a little more time. And we said okay again, but then we got to the point where the critics said if you don’t open this show we’re just going to come in and review it, because you can’t run indefinitely for previews. You have to have an opening night” (168).
Opening night happened on May 14, 1978, and though some praised the work, critics were mostly mixed or negative. Clive Barnes said, “Ambivalence here we come,” and Martin Gottfried of the Saturday Review said working was an “intelligent musical” with “no dynamics or tension” (168). Schwartz, unhappy with his producers, said of the opening, “The truth is we were not ready to open when we opened. And we were forced to open, I think for the Tonys, but also because it turned out that those guys owned a theatre and there was another show that was trying to get into the theatre...kind of a betrayal” (169). The “other” show would be The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas which would run for three years. Unfortunately, Working would only last twelve previews and twenty-four performances. Despite of its short Broadway life, Working would revive! Paul Lazarus of Dartmouth College asked Schwartz permission to direct it. Lazarus mended the production a little, and the show did well. Others followed in producing Lazarus’s edited script of Working. Lazarus’s Working version was staged successfully several times, and Musical Theatre International decided to license it. However, The illustrious history of Working does not end here. In 1982, PBS ran a ninety minute telecast of the production, and in 1999, the production would be revised again by Broadway director Christopher Ashley at the Long Wharf theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. In 2008 and 2009, Working went through more development at Asolo Repertory Theatre and The Old Globe. This revised edition of Working would boast two new songs by upcoming Broadway composer Lin Manuel Miranda. Gordon Greenberg was the director of these developmental productions at Asolo and The Old Globe. While reworking Schwartz’s The Baker’s Wife, Greenberg and Schwartz also discussed a new production of Working. He said, “The initial idea was to update all the professions in favor of quirky uber-contemporary careers” (Jones 1). At first the creative team wanted to reduce the cast to four people. Greenberg hope that “by having fewer actors playing more roles, we could further underline the notion that we are all the same under the skin — that the urge to find meaning and transcendence through work is at the heart of every profession at every socioeconomic level” (1). However, as exhibited in today’s licensed production, the final cast consists of six actors and features more of theatre production “trappings,” such as the work of the stage manager and the dressers. Greenberg said, “Exposing the bones — or 'workings' — of the production became a key part of the excitement of this production. Watching actors transform in front of our eyes makes this a great platform for a group of six extraordinary actors and invites the audience into their process, watching on stage and backstage simultaneously” (1). In preparing this new version of Working, the team went to the Chicago Historical Museum to review Terkel’s original interview transcripts. Greenberg said about rewriting Working, “We added new characters and text from his notes and documents, edited out others — the show now runs just 90 minutes in one act — cut several songs and added two fantastic new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda” (1).
Greenberg’s Working is the latest licensed version of the musical used in our production. As you will see, the content, construct, and form of Working continues to mold and shift as the American workplace and society change. As you watch the UAB production, consider the incredible journey this musical has undergone, a history spanning the past forty years.
Director Valerie Accetta brought in research images from watercolor artist, Mary Whyte's, book Working South to inspire designers and actors. Several other images from this book are featured on this site.