STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Working Works

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Working Works You may know my book, Let's Put on a Musical, which lists the assets and liabilities of producing over 200 musicals. What you'll need for a cast, costumes, choreography, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

You may know my book, Let's Put on a Musical, which lists the assets and liabilities of producing over 200 musicals. What you'll need for a cast, costumes, choreography, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

When I had the idea for the book, I knew I'd have to write a proposal to show prospective publishers what I had in mind. Now what musical would I use as a prototype?

Working, I immediately decided. It's a perfect show for community theatre.

For one thing, Working details the lives and careers of teachers, receptionists, waitresses -- people who just might be found at night doing community theater. Wouldn't it be great to have a teacher playing the teacher, the housewife portraying the housewife?

What's more, because each performer has one primary song or scene, (s)he could shine more brightly, because (s)he'd have that much more time to learn and perfect it. Last and hardly least: If you do Working you might just be able to sell more program ads than usual to local businesses, whose workers are represented in the show. Many of you may not know Working, because it closed after only 25 performances in 1978. While Columbia recorded an original cast album, the company has never transferred it to CD. How sad, for Working is one of the most ennobling musicals ever written. For those misguided souls who believe that a musical "doesn't have one redeeming feature," here's one that rebuts that ignorant opinion. Working brings dignity to the musical stage.

I'm glad Doug Hughes, artistic director of Long Wharf Theatre, agrees and has been offering a new production of Stephen Schwartz's show at his New Haven playhouse.

Back in the late '70s, after he'd had three smashes with Godspell, Pippin, and The Magic Show -- and had stretched his artistic boundaries with The Baker's Wife -- Schwartz read Studs Terkel's "Working: People Talk about What They Do and How They Feel about What They Do." Schwartz saw musical possibilities, and teamed with Nina Faso, who had directed many Godspell companies.

Instead of solely providing the score, Schwartz shared those duties with one old pro (Mary Rodgers of Once upon a Mattress), one new pro (Micki Grant of Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope), and two up-and coming writers -- Craig Carnelia and Susan Birkenhead, who, in a healthier theatrical climate, would be household names by now.

Then Schwartz, who's as intrigued by pop music as much as he is by show tunes, enlisted James ("You've Got a Friend") Taylor. Taylor's songs (about a millhand, migrant worker, and trucker) turned out to be the least theatrical of the bunch, but they did sport good melodies.

The other collaborators came through loud and strong. Rodgers and Birkenhead's "Nobody Tells Me How" had a teacher of 42 years rue the changes in her students. Carnelia's "Just a Housewife" showed a woman wanly relating how diminished she felt staying at home and being "like my mother" in a society that only values superachievers. Carnelia's "Joe" gave us an elderly man who no longer works -- he retired some months back -- and though he puts on a brave front, he tacitly reminds us how lucky we are to be working.

Then there was Grant's "If I Could've Been What I Could've Been, I Could've Been Something," which had all the workers state they still believe they would have made their marks if it weren't for a few bad breaks, fickle fates, and, sure, their own damn mistakes.

But the best song came from Schwartz. "It's an Art" showed us a waitress who is totally content with what she does. Totally. Schwartz's accomplishment is all the more astonishing when you read what waitress Dolores Dante actually said to Terkel, and how closely the composer lyricist adhered to it.

So why did the 1978 production die so quickly? As Schwartz has said many times while conducting his ASCAP Workshop, the worst part of doing a revue is that, no matter how wonderful the song or sketch is that the audience has just seen and heard, writers must start from scratch with the next piece. And Working, by its very nature, had to use the revue format.

Secondly, most musicals center either on big characters and/or big events, and Working would seem to have neither. But that's viewing the show too myopically. If you look at the big picture and collectively consider the characters as no less than the working force of the world, the show suddenly looms large. "Small" events -- laying bricks, cleaning offices, parking cars -- are finally given importance, as we're reminded of what wretched shape the world would be in if we didn't have workers to perform these tasks for us. We need to know that in a society where a national hero is an athlete who succeeds one out of every three times he steps to the plate, and then gets insulted by an offer of $5 million a year.

Though Working agrees that people want money for their work, it points out that they just as much want respect, so they can take pride in what they do. Al, who's parked cars for 32 years, proudly sings of how he can maneuver cars into tight spaces. The mason mentions how he goes by houses he completed long ago to see if he put in any stone crooked. A grocery store cashier gets great satisfaction in never having to look at the keys" on the register when ringing in a customer's products. And now here comes those automatic scanners where an item merely needs to be pulled over glass -- thus rendering her ace-trump skill obsolete.

In one of the show's most harrowing scenes, a luggage worker takes us through the process of gluing felt into suitcases. At Long Wharf, Pamela (The Life) Isaacs said her piece strongly, without self-pity, and with a good deal of dignity. Even her posture as she balanced the felt on her shoulder showed pride.

Eventually all the workers sing that "Everyone should have something to point to." Here's one thing for sure: The creators of Working have something they can point to with pride.

The workplace has dramatically changed in the last 21 years, and there were rewrites for this new production. Mergers, layoffs, cell-phones, "You've Got Mail" and "File Done" are all in evidence. So are those E-mail jokes that amuse us as well as assault us each day. More ominously, the teacher has a lyric that notes how kids must now leave their weapons and drugs at the door.

In this 90-minute intermissionless version, the program showed that "If I Could've Been," originally the first-act closer, would be the fourth song. But at the performance I caught, it wasn't there. I figured out why: After the program had been printed, the creators and director Christopher Ashley had wisely decided to use it as their curtain call. Alas, no -- but I do hope the staff considers that option for future productions, of which I hope there are plenty.

And what Long Wharf proved is that all future Workings should be done on small stages. Could that be the real reason for the 1978 failure? Working works best when its characters can intimately confide in an audience. The New Haven crowd responded much better than the three Broadway audiences I witnessed. There was much more applause here.

A few bars before the car parker finished his song, the audience was already applauding, for it couldn't wait to show its enthusiasm until the number was over. After Matthew Saldivar's speech and song about being a boxboy and migrant worker, Gavin DeGraw, playing a package deliverer, came on and gave his first line ("UPS!") as he'd been directed -- but the crowd was so moved by Saldivar that it wasn't going to let him think it didn't appreciate him, and applauded even though he had already left the stage. John Herrera, Alix Korey, Ken Prymus, Rex Robbins, and Emily Skinner all got thunderclaps after their big moments. And Ann Harada, as the telephone operator, got my favorite kind of applause -- the kind that begins, builds, starts to subside, until, all of a sudden, it gains in strength, and reaches a height that surpasses the original peak. Yes, Working had finally found its audience.

A final footnote: Once a publisher bought Let's Put on a Musical, I made a list of shows that I wanted to include, and then went scouring through the catalogues from the four major amateur licensers (Music Theatre International, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Samuel French, and Tams Witmark) to find who handled each of them. The big surprise was that none represented Godspell. Soon afterwards, I was walking down Broadway and ran into Stephen Schwartz. After the usual pleasantries, I decided to have him clear up my Godspell dilemma. "Listen, I'm writing this book on doing musicals in community theatre -- "

And before I could get out my question, Schwartz immediately said, "Gee, I'd love it if you put Working in there."

What a treat to tell him it was the first one chosen.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com