ON THE RECORD: Working on 42nd Street

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Working on 42nd Street
WORKING Fynsworth Alley 302 062 1142
Every once in a while, somebody tells me that they saw (or did) a great production of the Stephen Schwartz musical Working somewhere or other and asks why the show failed so resoundingly on Broadway.

WORKING Fynsworth Alley 302 062 1142
Every once in a while, somebody tells me that they saw (or did) a great production of the Stephen Schwartz musical Working somewhere or other and asks why the show failed so resoundingly on Broadway.

Working opened in May 14, 1978 at the 46th Street Theatre — which the producers, flush with money from Annie, actually bought for the occasion. It was one of the first major musicals to open cold in New York, without a full-scale out of town tryout. (A preliminary version had been mounted at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.) With troublesome reports from rehearsals, poor word-of-mouth from previews, and public firings, the show had a hard time of it. Working received the same sort of press coverage as Seussical, if that gives you an idea. Working opened after eleven previews, received harsh reviews, and closed twenty-five performances later. After several years, the show began to work its way into the stock and amateur market, where — in a revised version — it has done far better than you'd expect under the circumstances. How to explain the discrepancy?

The answer, I suppose, had to do with the misguided original production. Studs Terkel's best-selling book, on which the musical was based, told of the lives and dreams of ordinary, everyday working people. In Terkel's hands, it made a compelling collection of stories. On the Broadway stage it became pretentious. Here you had poor millworkers and waitresses and migrant workers telling their tales; but they were standing on a stage that positively reeked of money. You got the feeling that they could have fed a whole out-of-work village in Appalachia for a year on what they spent for sets and costumes. Could it be that the big budget helped defeat the show?

I also seem to recall that the first twenty minutes or so were mighty weak. The opening number, "All the Livelong Day," came across as rather preachy. (Were they all wearing sparkling white jumpsuits for this, like a bunch of squeaky-clean workers at a family theme park?) They then had a fellow come out and sing a song, with a Motown beat, about parking luxury cars in a parking lot car; and then they had a kid come out and sing a truly obnoxious song about throwing newspapers into the bushes and watching the bushes go "boing." This kid went "boing" about ten times, and by the time he finished Working went "boing" as well. So much for the promise of an evening of compelling, true-life tales. (The newsboy and his song were cut from the licensed version of the show, which can only have helped matters.)

Columbia made an original cast recording, which quickly went out of print. Fynsworth Alley has now issued it on CD for the first time, rescuing some wonderful songs (and some strong performances). The strength of Working has always been its score. Schwartz, who directed the show, already had the scores of Godspell, Pippin, and The Magic Show to his credit. He tells us in the liner notes for the reissue that "there was such a variety of characters and ethnicities that if I were to write the entire score, a lot of what I was writing would be pastiche or imitations of other people's styles . . . [so] I decided it would be better to have a team of songwriters approach the characters." Thus, he invited at least eight other writers to contribute; five did. (Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon turned him down, he tells us.) Some of these songs are excellent; so much so that you might, indeed, ask how could this show have flopped so resoundingly? Schwartz's own contributions were uneven. "It's an Art," a song for a waitress, has bounce and flair (although it is less about the life of a waitress than about tricky rhymes). Lenora Nemetz does delightfully well with it. "Fathers and Sons" — one of the only songs which doesn't specifically deal with a worker on the job — is tender and heartfelt, sung by Bob Gunton (just before Evita). Schwartz's other two contributions, though, are the "Livelong Day" opener and that lethal "Boing" song. The most memorable part of the evening, for me, was the performance of Lynne Thigpen. Thigpen was wonderful — she always is, as far as I'm concerned — and her two big moments are happily preserved: "Cleaning Women" and "If I Could've Been." Both are good songs, written by Micki Grant (composer/lyricist of the long-running Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope). The score also includes "Nobody Tells Me How," a song for an elderly schoolteacher by Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead (sung by Bobo Lewis); and "Un Mejor Dia Vendra," an effective guitar ballad by James Taylor for migrant farm workers (sung by Matt Landers and Joe Mantegna). Graciela Daniele was fired as choreographer; in those days, when a show was in big trouble, they would automatically blame and fire the choreographer. Daniele gets a co-lyricist credit, though, for this song.

Craig Carnelia also made important contributions. "Joe" (sung by Arny Freeman) is a marvelous song, about a retiree wasting away his life dreaming of long-ago dances and chasing fires. (This song also has a very good orchestration by Kirk Nurock.) Carnelia also provided "Just a Housewife," in which the music reflects the monotony of the character's message — until it builds into something quite moving. (It is sung by Susan Bigelow, who replaced D'Jamin Bartlett during the rehearsal turmoil). Carnelia has a definite talent for theatre writing, but he has had a puzzlingly negligible Broadway career. So far, that is; maybe his luck will change with next season's Sweet Smell of Success. Six bonus tracks have been added to the CD, including "I'm Just Movin'" for a supermarket checkout girl, which Schwartz added to the show for a 1999 production. Most interesting are composer-sung demos of "Fathers and Sons" and "Joe."

Musical theatre fans have been searching for Working for twenty odd years, now. They should be pleased that it is finally available once more, and I don't think they'll be disappointed with their purchase.

42nd STREETQ Records 92953
The 2001 revival cast album of 42nd Street is almost as cracklingly energetic as the revival itself. I prefer this new production to the original, for a variety of reasons; I thus prefer the CD as well. It is overloaded with energetic tapping and twanging banjos, making for a lively rendition of the Harry Warren/Al Dubin score. Christine Ebersole (as Dorothy Brock) gives a grand comedy performance on stage, which comes across nicely on CD, especially in the "Shadow Waltz." Kate Levering (as Peggy Sawyer) sings — and taps — up a storm; David Elder (as Billy Lawlor) acts as sparkplug; and there are strong assists from Mary Testa, Jonathan Freeman, and Mylinda Hull. Michael Cumpsty (as Julian Marsh) isn't a match, vocally, for Jerry Orbach; still, he carries off his "Lullaby of Broadway" effectively. All in all, this is a fun CD, offering considerably more of the score than the 1980 cast album. Fun, yes, though not as exhilarating as 42nd Street onstage on 42nd Street.


Bruce Kimmel of Fynsworth Alley was wise to get the rights to the long-out-of-print Working, and he should be rewarded by strong sales. Now, it turns out, he has trumped himself — with Subways Are for Sleeping. (Yes, folks! Subways Are for Sleeping) Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green were at their professional best here, unfortunately hampered by a story that goes nowhere. Subways is a typical, flawed, B-level Broadway musical; but the cast album is one that you might well listen to far more often than far better scores. Look for it around Labor Day.

-- Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000" and "Show Tunes" (both from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.

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