They’re bending the rules at City Center this week. Encores! launched their summer Off-Center series to revive and celebrate shows that began Off-Broadway and never reached the main stem in their original productions. But their current offering doesn’t fit this mold. Working, the 1977 musical based on the book by Studs Terkel, had its premiere on Broadway as a Frankenstein musical with seven different writers contributing to the book and/or score. That Working has found its way into the season of Off-Broadway revivals is probably due to the interpolation of a couple songs by a composer you may have heard of: Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda contributed two songs to a rework of the show in 2007, making him the eighth writer to contribute to the piece. This streamlined, 90-minute version has never been on Broadway, so with its pedigree from Broadway juggernaut Hamilton and its cast supported by three of Miranda’s frequent collaborators, Off-Center has made Working qualify as an Off-Broadway musical on the flimsiest of technicalities.
Terkel’s book is based on interviews he conducted with members of America’s workforce in the ‘70s. There’s a teacher who can’t keep up with the changing times, there’s a valet who loves to drive and loves to tell you how good he is at it, there’s a cleaning woman who works her ass off so her daughter never has to clean someone else’s floor. The musical then turns these interviews into monologues and songs that all drive home a similar point: it’s important to take pride in your work, no matter how menial it may seem to someone else.
This production adds to the already lengthy list of Working revisions by refashioning a substantial portion of the book to be about the security supervisors, bag inspectors, ushers, and box office ticket sellers who work at City Center. In Terkelian fashion, this company of actors has conducted interviews with the people around them who don’t get the spotlight and these characters recur throughout the evening. This Working is about the building in which it takes place. It may constitute a spoiler to say that the design by Donyale Werle features a sleek set of doors that reveals itself, at the last second, to be the doors you walked through to get to your seat.
The new material is by far the most captivating part of the production’s book. It’s fun to learn that many of the people we pass by have worked in the building for decades and have brought their relatives in to continue the legacy. But making an existing musical so much about a specific place and time that has nothing to do with how it was originally crafted gives Working even more of a shapelessness than it already has. Replacing most of the book with new material, but keeping the same songs and monologues that lead into the songs leaves the show with seams that director Anne Kauffman and the talented cast can’t fill. You can’t take most of the book away and expect to maintain the integrity of what was there before. I’m not someone who lives and dies for structure, but the result of centering this production around City Center has left a lot of the show feeling stapled together.
The score is already less than cohesive. The Spongebob Squarepants score was written by even more people than Working, but that music was integrated into the narrative and orchestrated into its own sonic landscape so it sounded like it belonged in Bikini Bottom. The problem with Alex Lacamoire’s intelligent and ear-catching orchestrations here is that there’s no distinct world for them to belong to. Working’s songs each sound like trunk numbers from their composers and don’t feel connected to the music around them. James Taylor’s songs, in particular, feel like B-side tracks. Miranda’s two numbers are closer to his In the Heights score than his Hamilton tunes and it’s refreshing to be reminded of his talent without it being overshadowed by his wild success. His duet near the end, “A Very Good Day”, offers the show’s most moving moment.
That duet is performed by Javier Muñoz and Andréa Burns. Burns, Helen Hunt, and Tracie Thoms walk away with the show from right under the noses of their male counterparts. In addition to her heartbreaking turn as a nanny who spends her time caring for someone else’s child instead of her own in “A Very Good Day”, Burns also has a show-stopping comedy number by Stephen Schwartz called “It’s An Act” where she compares waitressing to a performance. Oscar and Emmy-winning Hunt has a natural stage presence and a surprisingly lovely voice that we’ve never had the opportunity to hear her use before. She has an innate naturalism that allows her to play her many characters with a quick believability. (Do more theatre, Helen!) Thoms is a phenomenal singer and brings her soulful timbre to “Millwork” (by James Taylor) and “Cleanin’ Women” (by Micki Grant). She’s also subtly funny, with an ability to turn even tiny lines into laugh-grabbing moments.
Kauffman stages most of the show with the monologist or singer at center stage and there are few staging ideas otherwise. The choreography by Avihai Haham has the four person ensemble turning their arms into pretzels and the magically disconnecting them again, demonstrating the connectivity between America’s working class. Costume designer Clint Ramos gives the actors a separate article of clothing to differentiate between the myriad characters they are playing. These are mostly unobtrusive and the book and actors do most of the work in establishing that they are someone else. Ramos also deftly copies the City Center uniforms for the front of house staff.
All in all, this re-Working is not without its pleasures, it could just do with a little more finessing to smooth the transitions between the old and the new. It’s also, strangely, missing any kind of negativity. All the people interviewed seem to have a positivity about their work that, as someone with a nine-to-five, I understand on the good days, but not all days are good days. Aside from Burns’ half of “A Very Good Day”, there aren’t expressions of displeasure. Nobody feels unfulfilled in their work. It’s pretty optimistic.
That might be a testament to the time the show was written. Our economy was different in the 1970s. So were our job opportunities, so was our generational understanding of what it means to work hard. That’s even true of 2007, the time of the last revision. (There’s only a glancing, indirect reference to the recession.) But to hear the ushers and ticket sellers and security supervisors speak about City Center, it seems like Valhalla. Where do I submit a résumé?