ON THE RECORD: Stephen Schwartz's Working

By Steven Suskin
August 12, 2012

This week's column discusses the CD release of Stephen Schwartz's 1978 musical, Working, with contributions from multiple songwriters.



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Working [Masterworks Broadway].

It is impossible to discuss the travails of Working — arguably Broadway's most spectacular failure of the late 1970s — without first talking about Stephen Schwartz, who spearheaded the enterprise. "Spearheaded" meaning that he adapted the non-fiction book by Studs Terkel and directed, in addition to writing a significant portion of the score.

Current-day audiences know Schwartz, mostly, as composer/lyricist of Wicked. The show, which has been drawing them in since 2003, did not much please the critics or the awards-voters, no; but that slight turns out not to have hurt the enterprise all that much. Yes, the creators and producers and investors of The Producers, Hairspray, Avenue Q, and Spring Awakening can all proudly point to their sterling reviews and their sterling Tony Awards, and I don't imagine one of them would care to trade shows. Still, I suppose there comes an occasional dreary and drab morning when they wake up and think, "Wicked grossed $2 million last week, how long before I can get a Broadway revival of my show? And how much is 2 percent of two million a week, anyway?"

Stephen Schwartz
photo by Jeremy Daniel

But that's the Stephen Schwartz of the 21st century. He first appeared — as a 23-year-old hotshot out of Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon) — with the 1971 Off-Broadway hit Godspell. At a time when few theatre composers wrote contemporary music, Schwartz clearly had the touch as demonstrated by "Day by Day." The following year he put his stamp on Broadway with Pippin. This was a hit, sizable though not phenomenal, with Schwartz's score again speaking to and attracting younger audiences.

But Pippin was creatively problematic; the general consensus — if you don't mind generalities — was that the book and score were nowhere near as good as Bob Fosse's staging. What's more, word got around that Schwartz had fought Fosse every step of the way, or many steps of the way; that Fosse had, not unsurprisingly, prevailed; and that — fairly or not — it was Fosse who elevated the so-so material into a hit.

Next came The Magic Show, as empty a musical as any that ever ran over 1,900 performances. The show's gimmick — magic from Doug Henning, who was briefly a celebrity magician — didn't call for much in the way of songs or story, and that's what the authors successfully provided. When the long-running Godspell moved to Broadway in 1976, Schwartz suddenly had three hit musicals running simultaneously. (What would have been the fourth didn't make it: The Baker's Wife underwent a long and vitriolic pre-Broadway tryout before folding ignominiously just before Godspell moved to the Broadhurst.)

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Craig Carnelia
With all those people buying all those tickets to Pippin and the others, Schwartz was in a position where he could do just about anything he wanted. And thus it was that he took "Working" — Studs Terkel's 1974 best-seller derived from interviews with everyday Americans talking about their work — and turned it into a new-style musical. No outsiders, like Fosse, necessary; Schwartz was going to do it himself.

And so he did, by undertaking to turn the material into a script and direct. As he realized that the disparate characters in the interviews called for different song styles, he solicited songs from Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, James Taylor, and the team of Mary Rodgers & Susan Birkenhead. Which did, ultimately, help matters; but Working was nevertheless an unwieldy mess.

A musical featuring a group of disparate characters telling their hopes and dreams was not exactly novel; the biggest thing to hit town in years was just then playing over at the Shubert, namely A Chorus Line. But Working was something like A Chorus Line without Michael Bennett. Without Bennett as director/producer, whipping the material (and his writers) into shape — but also without Bennett as a character within the show. Zach is, of course, Bennett; the characters are telling their stories within the framework of the audition for Zach. Working had no framework to speak of; lots of characters with lots of stories — some compellingly told — but there was nothing that they were trying to actively "get" (like a job in a musical).

In Working, you had a bunch of actors come on singing the opening number, and then — what? One song or speech after another, coming from one character after another. Compounding the problem was the doubling; everybody played several roles, which meant that you couldn't latch onto Sheila — say — and follow her through the process of the show. It didn't take long for the audience to realize, oh, there's nothing goin' on. There wasn't.

Studs Terkel

Working opened after an especially tortured preview period, with almost daily reports of disaster. We have become used to this sort of thing in the Internet age, but back then it was done on phones, Times Square street corners, and at Charlie's. (That was the restaurant across from the Royale, later called Sam's and now a pile of dust. Or rather, a vacant lot.) Back in the days when virtually every major musical embarked on a pre-Broadway tryout, Working opened cold due to the massive and unnecessary set. (A smaller version of the show had been presented regionally in 1977, at the Goodman in Chicago.) The show finally opened on May 14, 1978, and closed three weeks later.

Enough of that. We now have the original Broadway cast album, from Masterworks Broadway. (An out-of-print version of the CD, with some variable additional material, was briefly released by Fynsworth Alley back in 2001.) The score received especially rough handling: Clive Barnes in the Post called the songs feeble and complained of "the bland sound of Muzak," while the head Times critic at the time — anyone remember Richard Eder? — found them trite, sentimental, banal and deadly.

The cast recording, released long after the closing, demonstrates that this is an unfair assessment. Within the show, many of the "characters" related their stories in dialogue alone; there were only 15 songs amidst lots of talking, and this in itself made the score seem insubstantial. Most critically, the first song (following the opening number) was poor; the second thoughtful-but-mild; and the next was one of those cutesy, synthetic items — about a newsboy whose papers go "boing" in the bushes — that aim to be showstoppers but fall way short. When the show finally got around to several strong numbers, the improvement was like momentary lightning flashes in a dull, dry evening.

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Lynne Thigpen
Talk of the five strong numbers brings me back to that night at the 46th Street when I was jolted out of my boredom just before intermission. One of those cases were a barely-familiar performer was so electrifying that I immediately knew that (a) I'd eagerly attend everything she did henceforth, and (b) that she would never, ever, let me down. And, no, this wasn't Patti LuPone. Lynne Thigpen was the name, leading the cast in a rousing song called "If I Could've Been." (The CD tracklist credits this to David Patrick Kelly, who's pretty good in his solo "The Mason" and whose current performance as the mandolin-playing Da ranks high among the many pleasures of Once. But it is not Kelly who leads this song.) Thigpen, who won a well-deserved Tony in 1997 and died in 2003 at the age of 54, came back late in the show as another character with another knockout and "true" number, "Cleaning Women."

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.

Lenora Nemetz

Which takes us to what was perhaps the most entertaining number, a song for the waitress character called "It's an Art." Most entertaining and most damaging, combined. This was a Broadway tour de force by Schwartz for Lenora Nemetz. Nemetz had earned high marks filling in for both Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera during the original run of Chicago, and she was dazzlingly good here. But this was a number. I suppose it started with an honest-enough interview with a real-life waitress who took pride in her work. The song builds, though, into a wild fantasy where the singer says no, she doesn't care about tips. (Show me a waitress who doesn't want and/or need tips.) Tips are important to "captains and barmen," she sings, only so that the lyricist can write "for them it's a tip, see; for me, I'm a gypsy, just toss me a coin and I suddenly feel like I'm Carmen." At which point Lenora did a little Carmen dance, and show biz stuff obliterated the reality of Terkel's book in which "people talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do." Lots of applause, at the expense of the integrity of the show.

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.)