By Steven Suskin
12 Aug 2012
These two songs are terrific, thanks both to Thigpen and composer/lyricist Micki Grant. Grant is almost unknown in theatre circles, aside from her long-running 1971 hit Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope. These numbers indicate that in a less color-conscious time she might have brought much more to Broadway. Grant is also remembered for her rousing performance as Ella Hammer, singing "Joe Worker" in the 1964 Jerry Orbach revival of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock.
Four of the songs — including two of the show's highlights — come from Craig Carnelia, another songwriter who has for some reason never gotten the break his talent deserves. (His two produced Broadway musicals were quick failures, Is There Life after High School? and Sweet Smell of Success.) "Just a Housewife" is a paean to the women who choose to stay home and raise kids, a simple-sounding anthem that turns into something thoroughly rousing. It is sung by Susan Bigelow; as I recall, she was a last-minute replacement — was it during previews? — for D'Jamin Bartlett.
Carnelia's other winner is perhaps the finest song in the show, dramatically. "Joe," it's called, taken from Terkel's interview with a retiree (played by 70-year-old Arny Freeman — who himself had discussed his career as an actor in Terkel's original book). The song seems to be almost an afterthought, some old guy sitting musing over his empty, unimportant life. But at several moments, enthusiasm over past memories bursts through — only to be instantly extinguished. Otherwise he remains sitting alone, watching the clock. In Carnelia's hands, you forget about the lyricist altogether; this is a real guy, talking about his real life, and giving us a true and honest portrait in the manner of Terkel's book. Whereas most of Working turned the real people into mere stage people.
Let us point out in passing that the oddest part of the evening in retrospect — and at the time to those of us who already knew Patti LuPone from her auspicious performance in the title role of Schwartz's The Baker's Wife — was her presence here without a song. LuPone's dialogue within the opening number is clearly identifiable on the CD — "one hundred dollars an hour, whatever you want," says the Hooker — and she is presumably adding vocal fuel to the ensemble numbers. But that's it for her. Readers in search of curiosities will note that the cast also includes Bob Gunton, who is given a poor song about being a dad (which doesn't seem to have much to do with working or Working). LuPone and Gunton would within the year be playing Ma and Pa Peron in another, more successful tuner. Also on hand, singing James Taylor's "Brother Trucker," is Joe Mantegna, who is better known for his dramatic work.
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(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)