Review of “Working”

by J.A. Myerson

I’ve just seen the production of “Working” playing at 59 E. 59 theaters. The musical, first staged in 1978, is the product of a handful of composers, among them Stephen Schwartz, Mary Rogers and James Taylor, adapting Studs Terkel’s then-four-year-old oral history, in which, per Terkel’s subtitle, “People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.” My mother introduced me to the original Broadway cast recording when I was a child, and it has remained one of my favorite musicals since. I even got to perform in my high school’s production of it. This is the first live performance I have ever watched.

Terkel, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who died in 2008 at the age of 96, was, if not a card-carrying Communist, some hue of red, and was blacklisted for it during the McCarthyist red scare. As such, he held certain ideas about labor that he thought he could best put forth by tape-recording interviews with laborers – a strip miner, a receptionist, a realty broker, a bar pianist, &c. – and transcribing and publishing their words.

For one, wage labor is alienating. As Terkel puts it in the book’s introduction, “the automated pace of our daily jobs wipes out name and face – and, in many instances, feeling,” and yet, “No matter how demeaning the task, no matter how it dulls the senses and breaks the spirit, one must work. Or else.”

For another, labor is, as President Lincoln put it, “prior to, and independent of, capital” and is therefore “the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” That laborers are afforded much the lower consideration produces the chief grievances of the workers; “The most profound complaint,” Terkel writes, “aside from non-recognition and the nature of the job, is ‘being spied on.’”

The oral history, in other words, is a celebration of workers, an antagonistic interrogation of “work,” and an affirmation of the former’s widely shared attitudes toward the latter. This is a very different animal from a display of hardship for the purposes of provoking pity, a specialty of theater, particularly of the musical sort. Pity is a very liberal impulse; Terkel worked from solidarity. The production vacillates between honoring and avoiding the responsibility of perpetuating this legacy.

Clever staging highlights the socially necessary labor time unfolding in the moment of performance. As the audience comes in, the actors and stagehands are visible on stage preparing for the show. Ah, yes, we dutifully realize: we are consumers of a product which laborers will manufacture (for the material benefit, by way of the capture of surplus value, of, chiefly, the rentier interests who own the real estate whereon the midtown theater is expensively situated).

The play begins and the stage manager’s voice is not hidden behind a headset but amplified to the theater, calling video and sound cues, making them happen, producing value for our consumption. The costume changes are performed before us to the sounds of Terkel’s interview audio, the grace and timing of the stagehands delivering and picking up costumes allowing effortless motion for the actor and looking rather more like beautiful choreography than backstage tech.

The rest of the choreography, in which the performers dance to the songs in the musical, deftly renders the real activities of labor rhythmic – a trucker shifting gears, changing lanes and speaking into a CB radio; a mill worker’s 40-second looped routine which, when performed under industrial conditions non-stop hour after hour, yield, she tells us, severe health and safety risks.

“Millworker,” James Taylor’s masterpiece, is executed very movingly by Marie-France Arcilla, the show’s brightest talent. “And may I work this mill just as long as I am able,” she prays in the song’s bridge, “and never meet the man whose name is on the label.” Arcilla’s extremely lean performance strips the song down to its emotional core, allows us to hear it as a person’s reflections on her work, rather than feelings about it.

Such subtlety is not always the order of the production. At times, over-reliance on emotional gimmicks, acquired in the same musical theater training regime that has produced Glee, infects what could be an illuminating moment. What in Arcilla’s hands feels like actor-character solidarity, other times begins to feel like actor-character pity.

Perhaps there’s a mistrust of the stories’ ability to choke the audience up without actors signaling that desired response by pretending to get choked up themselves, and perhaps that has to do with the distance between these laborers – the people singing and acting and dancing – and those – the people Studs Terkel interviewed in the 1970’s.

Characters like the millworker feel anachronistic at the doorstep of 2013; a lot changes in over thirty-five years. In the 1970’s, American mills were producing textiles. Now, they sit abandoned on the banks of American rivers, either empty reminders of jobs bygone or else newly-fashionable restaurants. The textiles now come from China and Bangladesh, where industrial conditions resemble those here a century ago, when American textile workers were working with anarchist and socialist union organizers to bid up the price of their labor – and defeat the National Guard and Pinkertons.

This is not the only glaring anachronism. “Nobody Ever Tells Me How” is Mary Rogers’ ballad of an old-fashioned, hyper-conservative teacher coping with changing expectations. But her complaints by now are pat and obsolete. The new-style of teaching is, for her, English and a Second Language, classroom informality, and art therapy. But that is now the old style. Current teachers are negotiating and, when they and their students are lucky, coping with stifling testing regimes, the threat of merit pay, and facilities being overtaken by charter school co-location.

The housewife, too, is now largely a historical profession. The 1970’s saw a) important gains for the women’s liberation movement, and b) the dissolution of individual salaries sufficient to support a family, as real wages stagnated nationwide and costs increased. The movement of women into the labor market was changing economic conditions even as Terkel was conducting the interviews; the character here is stuck between these two forces, wanting to stay home, raise her children, and perform housework, but insecure about boring guests at a dinner party and belittled by images on television of women performing more “important” work.

Joe, a retiree, sings about the ways he keeps busy, but as today mainstream politicians propose on a bipartisan basis to cut social security benefits and raise the retirement age, and as pension funds evaporate and median incomes continue to diminish, Joe’s profession seems to trickle into the dustbin of history as well. A senior citizen held a memorable sign at Zuccotti Park – “Last generation retiree?”

The play confronts the anachronistic tension with varying degrees of success. In the best cases, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the talent behind “In the Heights,” has composed new material. Early on in the performance, a McDonald’s delivery guy sings an upbeat number that pays respectful homage to a very fun and nevertheless mercifully abandoned song about a newsboy in the original score.

Welcome as this change is, Miranda’s show-stopping contribution comes later in the show, in the form of a duet between a homecare worker and a live-in nanny. Theirs are two of the labor sectors in which employment is most precarious and conditions are most demanding, the positions often occupied by people who have immigrated since the 1970’s. This is the service sector proletariat, performing tasks needed in the post-industrial era, the era of prohibitive health care costs, the era of would-be caretaking parents (like our housewife) working jobs outside the home. The nanny points out that her job is to do whatever the child’s mother doesn’t, or, as a recent study on domestic work puts it, “the work that makes all other work possible.” The song’s tender composition and delivery – another shining moment for Arcilla – is the show’s finest moment.

Miranda was well-selected to augment the score to include these choices, but the net Spanish language material has decreased. As a person who has spent hundreds of hours in rehearsal rooms with Latin theater artists, I  hope you’ll believe it is not paranoia or a determination to be offended that makes me suspect the cutting of James Taylor’s affecting farm-worker ballad, “Un Mejor Dia Vendra,” as attributable to a satisfaction with the show’s quota of Latin material.

Less savvy than Manuel’s contributions is the attempted incorporation of Globalization, another element in the crucial post-1970 shift in capital. It is deployed only once, and artificially, at that. A monologue which I seem to recall was previously spoken by a generic customer service representative (a white woman, if memory serves, in my high school’s production) has been specified as a tech support worker in India. Perhaps this speaks to the difficulty of actually interviewing an Indian tech support worker for original, authentic material, and perhaps some acknowledgement of Globalization is better than none, but the monologue still sticks out like a sore thumb among the rest of the text. If she show continues to evolve, this will be a fruitful avenue of exploration to investigate.

Two of the best songs from earlier incarnations – “Lovin’ Al” (parking lot attendant) and “I’m Just Movin’” (supermarket check-out cashier) – have lamentably been cut from this version, despite the jobs’ ongoing practice in the 2012 economy. These, alongside “It’s An Art,” a waitress waltz performed capably by Donna Lynne Champlin, are expressions of workers who adore their work and take pride in the ways in which they individualize or excel at it.

Above all, the transition the musical is undergoing sets me to thinking about the future of labor. The legacy of the 1970’s is, in one sense, the relegation of labor to a position of surplus to production requirement, which is a problem very few thinkers (outside of Jacobin Magazine) are working on. If we are to find any hope of a future in which it is easy to survive outside the labor market, or in which capital does not employ labor but the working class democratically controls the country’s capital stock, it will come from new joy brought to an old piece of text by a quite recent turn of history: the hedge fund manager got laughs, which he didn’t in 2003. Thanks, Occupy.