ON THE RECORD: Stephen Schwartz's Working

By Steven Suskin
12 Aug 2012

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.

Visit PlaybillStore.com to view theatre-related recordings for sale.