If writer Studs Terkel were alive today, Shirley Serotsky thinks he would have been in McPherson Square, or perhaps on Wall Street, rallying to the cause of the Everyman right along with the Occupiers.
“He’s a guy that for the past century has been giving voice to the underrepresented,” says Serotsky, who is directing the musical “Working,” based on Terkel’s 1974 book “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do,” at Keegan Theatre.
“I’ve been reading a lot about what [unemployment] does to the psyche of a person who is dealing with not being able to work,” Serotsky says. “So it was interesting to look at a show that deals with what we do, and how we do it, mentally and emotionally.”
The book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author is a collection of interviews with mostly blue-collar workers. Stephen Schwartz helmed the writing of the first adaptation for the stage in the ’70s. Since then, it has been revised to reflect the changing landscape of labor in the United States. Keegan’s production is based on the most recent incarnation, from 2009, which Serotsky says speaks to a more diverse workforce, giving the audience a peek at the ups, downs and daily mundanities of life as a firefighter, an ironworker, a delivery boy, a receptionist, a community organizer . . . the list goes on.
“Working” takes us to an often comedic, yet earnest place. The characters are believable and their stories familiar: the fellow obsessed with decorating his cubicle; the joy of venturing outside to see daylight during the workday; wishing you could hide from your boss. The show’s music is rock- and funk-inspired, with plenty of feel-good ensemble numbers that work with, rather than overshadow, the acting.
“Our mission at Keegan is this very raw peeling back [of] the layers of acting and really being real, as real as you could possibly be to connect to an audience,” says Keegan founder Mark Rhea. “We feel very passionately that [musicals] have to have that same element as our non-musical shows.”
The relatively small troupe has mounted an increasing number of musicals in the wake of its 2009 breakout production of “Rent,” which won two Helen Hayes Awards. “We batted with the big boys there and came out swinging and did all right,” Rhea says. Another musical – “Spring Awakening” – is on deck after “Working.”