Work Songs

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

That's "Brother Trucker," a song written by that other James Taylor, for the Broadway musical, Working. Based on a collection of interviews by Studs Terkel, Working is best described by the book's subtitle, People Talk About What They Do All Day And How They Feel About What They Do. So "Brother Trucker" tells us what it really feels like to be a truck driver, just as songs like "Just a Housewife" or "Cleanin' Women" describe the inner thoughts of stay-at-home-moms and janitors.

Stephen Schwartz, the composer now famous for Wicked, adapted Working (with the help of Nina Fiso) for the stage back in 1978, letting some of Terkel's interviews stand as monologues and turning some of them into songs. Schwartz wrote some of these numbers himself, farmed others out to songwriters — and the result was a pastiche of styles that apparently did not quite come together when it debuted in the 1970's. Despite the far more labor-friendly business climate of 30 years ago, Working closed after just 24 performances on Broadway.

The show has lived on though thanks to regional and high school productions, and this year The Old Globe Theater in San Diego has mounted a major revival that's being described as "Broadway Bound." For this production, Schwartz revised Working with the help of director Gordon Greenberg and added songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music to last year's Tony Award Winning Musical, In The Heights.

The revisions mainly amount to updates: replacing the newspaper delivery boy with a fast-food delivery guy, sprinkling in references to e-mail and cell-phones, plus adding a hedge fund manager who might as well be twirling a handlebar moustache when he pooh-poohs regulators and assures us the "market will regulate itself."

The most telling update however is the size of the show. When it first appeared on Broadway, Working featured 17 actors, whereas this version has been downsized to only 6 actors. Often having fewer actors play multiple roles can make a production feel cheap and amateurish, but the six performers at The Old Globe are so convincing in the different parts, that the intended impact of Working is not diminished.

This production also benefits from the directorial choice to show the people "working" behinds the scenes: we see and hear the stage manager's lighting cues at the top of the show, quick costume changes occasionally take place on stage (showing the audience how much work goes into a mundane task) and in a nice, pro-labor touch, all of the backstage crew joins the cast for a bow at the end.

What this production can't fix is the fact that the musical numbers still fall short of the poetry and poignancy of the spoken sections. The immediacy of Terkel's real life interviews not only feel more real and captivating, they're also usually more humorous and fun than the songs. Most of the numbers are easy on the ear and clever, but the lyrics rarely mine new emotional depths and the music's 70's disco idiom doesn't age well as underscore to earnest social realism.

Terkel's book has a timeless quality because the long, first person narratives slowly reveal details about America and our national character. The musical, with its quick vignettes and ballads, is well meaning; but it's stuck somewhere between activism and entertainment -- call it Agit Pop.

Working's feel-good, power-to-the-workers message arrives interesting time. The day I saw the show it was announced that almost 750,000 American lost their jobs in the previous month. Working was written as a call to make people aware of how hard life was for the working class; today it almost plays as nostalgia for a time when toiling away at gritty but steady blue-collar jobs was something Americans could take for granted.

Working continues through April 12 at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: (L-R) Marie France Arcilla, Adam Monley, Nehal Joshi and Danielle Lee Greaves in The Old Globe's production of Working. Photo by Craig Schwartz