ON THE RECORD: Stephen Schwartz's Working

By Steven Suskin
12 Aug 2012

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.)