When radio legend and oral historian Studs Terkel wrote the book “Working” in 1974, based on interviews he did with Americans of all social strata, it was hailed as a groundbreaking achievement, since it did what no popular study had done before. It celebrated America’s workers.
The book was turned into a musical in 1978 and had a short run on Broadway, but “Working — A Musical” is not often produced. Fortunately, Keegan Theatre is bringing it back in a rousing, updated version, one that highlights what a friend of working people Terkel was.
Stephen Schwartz, Nina Faso and Gordon Greenberg did the adaptation and seven musicians created the songs: Schwartz, Craig Carnelia, James Taylor, Susan Birkenhead, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The original music has folk/pop roots, and two excellent new songs by Miranda add new dimensions.
Rather than having a plot, “Working” travels from character to character, focusing on the trials, tribulations, joys and fears of each. Some people are proud of their work, like the mason who cherishes every home he has built. On the other hand, a secretary is bored with her job, and a prostitute is blase about hers. In one of the most touching numbers, a mother (Tina Ghandchilar) sings that she is “Just a Housewife,” implying that no one values her, even though she knows that her work is important.
The Keegan ensemble is strong under Shirley Serotsky’s careful direction.”
Sherry Berg excels as a high-energy waitress in “It’s An Art.” Jennifer Richter sensitively outlines life on an assembly line in “Millwork.” Tia-Cherie Dolet makes it clear she needs a better life for her daughter in “Cleanin’ Women.” RaMond Thomas and Priscilla Cuellar incisively witness social imbalance, singing of the jobs they do because no one else will do them.
Kurt Boehm’s choreography is smooth and effectively uses all available parts of Leon Weibers’ set, made of steel scaffolds. The four-piece orchestra, ably directed by Jake Null, sits atop that scaffolding.
By the end of the one-act show, people have let you into their homes, their hearts, their universes, expressing their feelings not only about work but also about how work colors their perceptions of life.
“Working” doesn’t seem at all dated, which may be a tribute to its good music and lyrics. Or it may be that the meat of the matter will never change: It’s impossible to talk about work without talking about workers and their aspirations, desires, sense of dignity and self-worth. Or maybe “Working” comes across with real immediacy because it owes its life to Studs Terkel’s presence of mind, to just turn a tape recorder on and find out some never-changing truths.