REVIEW: City Center Encores! Off-Center presents “Working”
The first production of New York City Center’s annual Encores! Off-Center summer season featuring concert stagings of rarely-produced musicals is yet another newly revised version of composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz’s somewhat infamous 1978 flop “Working: A Musical”.
Following his breakout success with “Godspell” (1971), “Pippin” (1972), and “The Magic Show” (1974), Mr. Schwartz—then just 30 years old, having achieved the rare feat of scoring three new musicals playing simultaneously on Broadway—undertook the most formally ambitious musical theatre project of his career by adapting author, radio broadcaster, and oral historian Studs Terkel’s 1974 book, “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do”, into a musical.
Terkel’s bestselling book featured interviews with a cross-section of Americans (a farmer, a hooker, a bus driver, a dentist, a factory owner, etc.) ostensibly just talking about what they do every day, but the collection of stories speaks to larger themes about meaning and fulfillment, offering a worker’s view of American capitalism and the state of the American Dream.
Like the book, the stage musical has no plot, but takes its form as a series of monologues and songs presented by over 50 characters, each their own play—a study in comparative analysis and thematic arcs reflecting the patchwork quilt of the American experience.
With an aim to develop an original score echoing the diversity of folk and pop music of the moment as a way of capturing the diversity of the stories in Terkel’s book, Mr. Schwartz borrowed from the tradition of early vaudeville and revue shows and asked a group of contemporary songwriters to provide submissions.
This clever approach also had the twin-effect of creating a score that would be accessible to the “everyman”, as opposed to one expressly geared toward the musical theatre fan. Mr. Schwartz, himself, had already offered a departure from the sound of traditional musical theatre with his folk-infused scores.
After casting a wide net—songs from Billy Joel and Carole King were never delivered—the final score consists of songs by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, and James Taylor, in addition to compositions by Mr. Schwartz, and some lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. Nina Faso collaborated with Mr. Schwartz on the book.
The show in its original form ran a mere 24 performances on Broadway, but lives on through a thankfully-produced cast album. Despite being a flop, it was recorded as a 90-minute version for the PBS series “American Playhouse” in 1982, and remains a popular show for high school and community theatres given the large number of roles and opportunities for people of varying talent and physical attributes to contribute to a piece of theatre and participate in a conversation about working.
The chief virtue of the show is also the fact that it is highly malleable, a feature encouraged by Mr. Schwartz. Like the nature of any career (and many a problematic musical!), “Working” remains a work in progress more than forty years since its debut—the subject of endless rewrites and interpolation of additional material to reflect the ongoing evolution of the American workplace and remain in conversation with the zeitgeist.
Major revisions came in 1999 and 2012, the last licensed version including two new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, one about a delivery boy and the other featuring a health aide and a nanny . “Working” is meant to be a contemporary survey, so monologues and songs about now-defunct jobs have been edited or else cut over the years, like songs by the newspaper delivery boy and the supermarket checkout person who memorizes sku codes, and a monologue by a hotel switchboard operator.
Poignantly, standout songs like “Just a Housewife” (Craig Carnelia), “Cleanin’ Women” (Micki Grant), and “Nobody Tells Me How” (Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead)—about a schoolteacher struggling to keep up with changing pedagogy—remain relevant without a single edit. So, too, does Mr. Schwartz’s “It’s An Art”, about a waitress whose work is performance, which also has the benefit of being the best song in the show.
Encores Off-Center! Artistic Director Anne Kauffman dons her director’s hat for this latest iteration, which homes in on the malleability of the piece with a concept that makes “Working” site-specific by incorporating a series of new monologues based on interviews with facilities staff at New York City Center, from security to box office workers and ushers.
Much like the participants in Terkel’s original project, each City Center employee has a story to tell and a unique perspective on his or her work—proving the point of Terkel’s initial undertaking and Mr. Schwartz’s “everyman” musical.
While some aspects of working have of course changed since 1974 and 1978, many remain the same. Workers still settle for jobs that may not be as personally fulfilling in order to lay the foundation for their children to have a better future. That spirit of intergenerational sacrifice was always a key emotional element of the musical, and is once again brought into focus in this production that highlights so many family connections among the long-serving staff at New York City Center.
The musical has always culminated in a song, “Something to Point To” (Craig Carnelia), about the many unsung contributions that go into the construction and daily operation of an ordinary office building. For a show about the diversity of the work experience, I always found that closing a bit curious for its limited view of what a workplace can be, but by setting the show at City Center, and reorienting it to be anchored and punctuated by the stories of City Center employees, that finale becomes more powerful and appropriate than ever.
All that said, the payoff takes too long to achieve, and comes at the cost of undermining the central emotional thrust of “Working”. The strength of the show is how it illustrates the commonality of working through a series of intimate, though vaguely-situated individual portraits. Every audience member should see his or herself in one or more stories, even if they have never been a mason or a parking attendant.
At its most lofty, “Working” is an act of musical democracy where disparate voices are brought together, united only by an organizing form that allows for dialogue across cleavages of class and profession.
Ironically, though, in attempting to personalize the show to its venue, Ms. Kauffman and writer Gordon Greenburg close the circuit too tightly, robbing “Working” of its global scope in favor of a more parochial story.
Instead of being a collage of how different people work in different places, this reconceptualized and localized production becomes largely about how a specific group of people work in a specific place—more a documentary about New York City Center than a survey of American life.
Despite the noble ambition of the idea, it has the effect of cutting short the escalating emotional resonance of the piece, and is frustrated by a suite of uneven performances from the eleven member cast.
The highlights of the evening are Andréa Burns’ spirited rendition of the aforementioned “It’s An Art”, and David Garrison’s haunting performance of “Joe”, a song about a retiree reflecting on his days and his life. Ms. Burns and Academy Award winner Helen Hunt, making a rare stage appearance, also deliver notable scene work as a host of characters.
The balance of the cast includes Tracie Thoms, Javier Muñoz, Christopher Jackson, and newcomer Mateo Ferro. A quartet of Pilobolus-like “ensemble” members perform distracting and unnecessary choreography by Avihai Hahm, but mercifully disappear about half-way through the performance.
As talented an actress as Ms. Hunt is, her craft is just not trained enough to sustain the force of her capabilities when translated through song. Her two solos of the evening—“Nobody Tells Me How” and “Just a Housewife”—which should be among the most impactful of the entire show, barely register. Likewise, Ms. Thoms, who is a radiant performer, is muted, while Mr. Muñoz and Mr. Jackson, who shined in “Hamilton”, barely make an impression.
The failure of this production and these performers to make the mark they should might be better explained, though, as a problem of venue. While reminiscing about our favorite productions of “Working”, my seatmate and I both cited nonprofessional stagings—his a college production in California, mine from a local community theatre in Washington, D.C.
While nostalgia might have something to do with that coincidence, I suspect there is something to it. “Working” works best as the product of a scrappy, grassroots environment. On the big stage of New York City Center, an auditorium with over 2,000 seats, it falls flat—and a raft of sound mixing problems on the night I attended didn’t help, either.
“Working” is community theatre in the largest sense possible. It operates best on an intimate scale and deserves a venue that services the material. If nothing else, though, Ms. Kauffman’s admirable concept makes for a touching tribute to the unseen and under-appreciated women and men who labor behind the scenes at one of New York’s most venerable performing arts venues.
Bottom Line: the annual Encores! Off-Center summer season kicks off with a newly re-conceptualized, site-specific production of Stephen Schwartz’s 1978 flop “Working” that interpolates a series of new monologues based on interviews with facilities staff at New York City Center; an admirable concept that makes for a touching tribute to these workers, the effect blunts the power of the show and cuts short its escalating emotional resonance. A suite of uneven performances and an oversized venue also hamper the effort.