Few authors or media personalities from the last half of the 20th century are more associated with the common people in America than Studs Terkel. So broad were his credentials that he was inducted both into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame and the African American Writers Hall of Fame, despite being the heterosexual son of Russian Jewish immigrants. Terkel’s hometown beat was a great laboring town, Chicago, the City of Broad Shoulders. From a lifetime of communing in his community and across the country, he produced powerful oral histories based on interviews, particularly “Working” (1974) and the Pulitzer Prize winning “The Good War” (1985).
Though the 1978 Broadway run by the musical based on “Working” was brief, a 2012 revision has enhanced its appeal to regional theater. Just imagine some of the changes in the workplace in those 34 years, such as the role of computer-based technology, outsourcing, employee mobility, evolving expectations for performance, and growing gap between haves and have-nots.
Although the music in “Working” isn’t memorable, it works. Lyrics are poignant and collectively build a balanced view of working life that hits the mark. With an ensemble cast of seven enthusiastic and convincing performers, Palo Alto Players offers a production that touches on all the right emotions – expressing and eliciting joy, sadness, pride, anger, and reflection on what our country is all about.
No plot line drives “Working,” rather it is episodic – a thematic musical revue with songs from several composers and limited dialog to enhance the vignettes. These are stories of people prosperous and poor that paint a picture of American society through the occupations of its denizens. Working people are honored, especially essential workers. Unmentioned in the musical, but evident to lovers of the arts, is that the performers and creative people behind these artistic endeavors are the essential workers of our national culture.
Typically, the first criteria in assessing a person is what work they do, which sadly leads an observer in the song “Millwork” who sees a book in a laborer’s pocket to ask with surprise “Oh, do you read?” One motif of work that is emphasized is the need for recognition and pride. This is often depicted as doing something that everyone can’t do or having results to show from your effort. You feel the self-esteem in “The Mason,” a song in which a stone worker boasts that what he builds will last forever. You understand the skyscraper structural steel worker taking pride and being known for the courage to work in high places and producing tangible results. You know that the firefighter possesses bravery and has tales to tell of saving people from fiery death.
At the other extreme are those who work in those “just” jobs like just a laborer. One number that will tug at the heartstrings is “Just a Housewife,” a lament about how boring the work is and about always being defined by relation to others – someone’s mother, someone’s wife. Worse yet is the denigration in the media that makes housewives feel small. But the script flips for being just a waitress in the funny, bouncy “It’s an Art.” This hash slinger has an attitude like Flo from “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” She views herself as a down-home philosopher and table-top artist who educates diners, considering her diners as spectators. So maybe it’s not such a bad occupation if you have the right skills and approach it in the right manner.
There are too many interesting stories to tell them all. But two countervailing themes can be sensed throughout. The sad side of opportunities lost is expressly addressed in the song “If I Could’ve Been.” But many workers who suffer menial jobs possess dignity and accept fate believing that the payoff from their labor will come in future generations as revealed in “Fathers and Sons.” A philosophical coda concerns the notion that workers deserve acknowledgement and that contributions to success come from many, not few. Wouldn’t it be fitting if every building publicly listed every person involved in its construction and every person who ever worked in it?
“Working” moves quickly and holds the attention from beginning to end. It contains great insights into the conditions of work and the psyches of workers. The production is well directed by Patrick Klein, and the visual elements from varied costumes (R. Dutch Fritz) to industrial set (Scott Ludwig) and dramatic lighting (Abby May) work well. One weakness is the sound system. On opening night, sound clarity suffered considerably in songs with multiple singers. In addition, artists lost sound in their microphones briefly several times. Acting is effective throughout, as the actors understand their roles and interact well with one another. Singing sometimes stands out but other times is a bit wanting.
“Working,” adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso from Studs Terkel’s non-fiction book “Working” with songs by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz, and James Taylor, is produced by Palo Alto Players and plays at Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA through October 3, 2021.
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association