CD Review: WORKING: A MUSICAL (Original London Cast Recording on Ghostlight Records)

by Tony Frankel on March 6, 2018


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Was 2017 really the European premiere of this oft-produced musical? Yep. 40 years since the Broadway opening of Working, and we’re just getting the Original London Cast recording. Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso’s 1978 musical — adapted from Studs Terkel’s 1974 nonfiction book about working-class Americans – moves between monologues and songs by Schwartz, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, Susan Birkenhead, James Taylor, and — added to the mix in 2009 — Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Because of the way it’s constructed — with no central plot and so many songwriters — and because the show became dated in our politically correct, technologically fast-paced era, revisions have been and, no doubt, will continue to be made. In 1998, Schwartz updated the show with Terkel and Faso (with whom he worked on Godspell), and added a song for a supermarket checker, “I’m Just Movin'”; this revised version was recorded for L.A. Theatre Works with Crazy for You‘s Harry Groener, and is still available from LATW.

In 2009, with director Gordon Greenberg, Schwartz updated yet again for a production at The Old Globe in San Diego. With new interviews (but not by Terkel, who died in 2008 at 96) and two songs by Miranda, the ensemble was trimmed from 17 to 6 with the singer/monologists covering over 30 parts. This streamlined one-act saw the loss of four songs: “I’m Just Movin’,”  “Lovin’ Al” (a car valet), “Un Mejor Dia Vendra” (a migrant farmworker), and “Neat to Be a Newsboy” (you guessed it … a newsboy). That production, which played Chicago (where Working premiered in 1977) before moving — with a bit more tinkering — Off-Broadway in 2012, is the one that is currently licensed for use (the London revival at Southwark Playhouse added 6 drama school graduates who made their professional debut, but they were used as listeners and dancers).

It’s still not completely fixed, and this version lays the pathos on a little too thick and broad, but it rewards the listener with some great tunes and a melancholic, universal jolt of the American Experience.

For those who have never seen or heard Working, this new album, available from Ghostlight Records, may be something of a revelation: While this is by no means a brilliant musical, the collection of very decent songs manages to capture the spirit of a working nation with humor and poignancy. The subtitle of Terkel’s brilliant oral history is “People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.” That’s what the show is about, folks. It is a bits-and-pieces event, told in monologues and songs, which, because of its truncated nature and attempt to turn employment statistics into a two-act musical drama, had critics frothing at the mouth in 1978, so the show shuttered after 24 performances (the original cast had a pre-Evita Patti LuPone and Bob Gunton, among many other future stars).

Of the three Working recordings, this is unique because it’s the only one with Miranda’s added songs: Liam Tamne raps the delightful but rambling “Delivery” as a fast food worker, and later intones a gentle lullaby as an elder care worker (“A Very Good Day”). Joining him on that lovely duet as a nanny is Siubhan Harrison, who also does great justice to James Taylor’s heartrending “Millwork.”

The chameleonic actors for this post-Occupy Wall Street era adaptation perform a variety of careers. Krysten Cummings flips her personality from an upstanding mom (the plaintive “Just a Housewife”) to a ghetto-laced janitor (the gospel-laced “Cleanin’ Women”); Peter Paulycarpou beautifully interprets a retired old man (“Joe”) and a self-examining, rueful dad (the soulful “Fathers and Sons”); and Gillian Bevin goes from a bitter, overwrought schoolteacher (“Nobody Tells Me How”) to a proud waitress who compares her job to that of a performer (“It’s An Art,” still one of the show’s standout songs).

Dean Chisnall offers country strength to Taylor’s “Brother Trucker,” yet even with his tender tenor, Chisnall could have toned down the importance of the ballad “The Mason” — as could the actor presenting the dialogue of the Mason (could it also be Chisnall?), who sounds like a loud, down-home, winded, backwoods Chris Cooper doing a commercial for stonecutters.

Working does indeed wear its bleeding heart on its sleeve and has an inherent homeland hokiness based on the premise that people need to be heard. The Brits playing Americans really ratchet up the U.S dialects and that thumbs-in-the-armpits bravado with quavering-voiced emotion. It’s an intimate one-act musical now, but sometimes the actors seem to be playing in quaint, broad musical-comedy style when a cogitative, contemplative, confidential countenance is needed to tone down the pushy sentimentalism (ironic given that the Original Broadway Cast does just that at a time when presentationalism was the norm).

Fortunately, there’s enough that settles down for the OLC, especially the group numbers “All the Livelong Day” and “If I Could’ve Been,” which used to end Act I but now closes the show with “Something to Point To.” Also supporting an introspective air musically are Alex Lacamoire and Martin Higgins’ folksy orchestrations for six instruments (keyboard, drums, guitar, bass, violin and cello) that relieves us of Kirk Nurock’s outmoded, Fender-guitar-twanging, bopping 1970s sound.

Because it still manages to succinctly capture a day in the life of America — and in such a way that there is a sense of bittersweet enormity about what it takes for either fulfillment or just to put food on the table — this is a musical that keeps on working.

photos of the Southwark Playhouse production by Robert Workman

Working: A Musical
Original London Cast Recording
Ghostlight Records
1 disc | 14 tracks | 53:49
released March 2, 2018
available at Amazon and Ghostlight

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