Friday, 9 June 2017
From the book by Studs Terkel
Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso
With additional contributions by Gordon Greenberg
Songs by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz and James Taylor
Boom And Bust
There's an iconic photo of American blue-collar workers taken during the 20th century - aka The American Century. Iron workers are balancing precariously on a girder on one of the top floors of a skyscraper they are constructing high above New York City,
Surely skyscrapers are the pyramids of our times - except of course they weren't built by Jewish slaves but usually a diverse workforce as the vital cogs in the wheel of construction.
The fame of these American construction workers spread far and wide even infiltrating James Joyce's famously often inpenetrable masterpiece Finnegans Wake "Bygmester Finnegan ... freeman's maurer .... this man of hod, cement and edifices ... piled bildung supra bildung pon the banks ... rise in undress maisonry upstanded (joygrantit!) a waalworth of a skyerscape ..."
So it fits the bill when Peter Polycarpou's Mike Dillard with an apron filled with his iron worker's tools takes to the stage to echo 19th century poet Walt Whitman's iconic (yes, there's a lot of iconic here) poem, I Hear America Singing/All The Live Long Day (music and lyrics Stephen Schwartz)
But Mike also comes from a bygone age of trades passed on from father to son, as if standing on the shoulders of giants, a dynasty of manual workers who, by virtue of their fearlessness about heights, did a job that others couldn't do.
Working is based on a series of real-life interviews conducted by veteran Chicago journalist and social historian Studs Terkel, which he then carefully crafted by ordering them into a best-selling non-fiction 1974 book.
Stephen (Wicked, Godspell) Schwartz, inspired by the success of similar oral testimony-based The Me Nobody Knows and the semi-fictional A Chorus Line, decided to make a musical out it. He brought in his own collective of music and lyric writers including James (You've Got A Friend) Taylor and Mary (Once Upon A Mattress) Rodgers and selected a cross-section of workers' testimonies.
Working in some ways reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the published book and musical form. The narrative line is less a story than the turning of a page to pick up a fresh interview.
There are subtext twists and turns - the iron worker, the mason, the press agent and the fireman all serve as markers in ground, we felt - but TLT and her automotive product of British industry companion could feel the possibility of a different running order in a musical that never quite slots together.
Nevertheless the nuts and bolts are the performers and this is a fine production directed by Luke Sheppard with inventive and never over-fussy choreography in a compact space by Fabian Aloise.
Gillian Bevan in "Nobody Tells Me How" (lyrics Susan Birkenhead, music Mary Rodgers) is the elderly second generation American from an immigrant family teaching Elementary School and the waitress infected by showbusiness in "It's An Art".
Dean Chisnall is the stone mason in "The Mason" (lyrics and music Craig Carnelia) who notices any stone that's put in crooked, even if he can't change it, and the former bank worker who has willingly forsaken dealing with unreal digits for saving human lives as a fireman
There are obvious points made but also some deeper implicit realism and understanding about change. The two striking turns by Liam Tamne point this up - one more subtly than the other. The successful (presumably unpaid) community activist, in Tamne's and this production's interpretation, feels like a former trade unionist who has turned to communal matters and has the air of a business motivational speaker fitting in with our times.
Much more disturbingly there are the violent flip flops in manner of an ex-newspaper copyboy (given a pseudonym in Terkel's book) who - even if he never seems to have implemented his wildest threats - almost could have stepped out of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Assassins and also feels all too real in today's world.
At the same time, Working feels like an elegaic look at an industrial past and its decline which isn't quite flagged up enough as a period piece because it sets out to be a documentary musical. Even since 2012, when director Gordon Greenberg gave some updates along with songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda, the world of work, including work for women, and leisure has changed drastically.
Nevertheless the creatives obviously know this, introducing a polished chorus of current drama school graduates who also act as a wide-eyed, if somewhat unironic, audience for the Terkel interviews transformed into song.
It may be unfair but of course more current issues like zero-hours fake self-employment forced upon folks but presented as a choice are non-existent. Neither is there unpaid or under-paid work posing as "internships". Despite the 2012 updates, this is a piece more from the time long ago when interns only meant paid young doctors gaining hospital experience.
Another problem inherent in Working is that it is too easy to forget in this musical rendition that these are real interviews. The cast just sing and dance too well and there's a tendency towards the sentimental.
Of course there are many employment issues which were not foreseeable when the musical was first conceived. Things have moved and move so fast now - not least the shark-like possibility new media companies might become huge with the aim of having hardly any employees at all, however inept or dangerous it may be.
While it definitely does retain a resonance, events seem to have outpaced the framework of Working, making it both a glorious but grating musical for us, so it's an amber/green light.