The 1970s docu-musical gets updated for the 21st century
Can a musical about jobs in the 1970s seem relevant today? Ask director Gordon Greenberg, who’s staging a new version of Working at 59E59.
Originally produced in 1977, the show is based on the book by Studs Terkel, which collects interviews with everyday Americans about their daily grind. As Greenberg quickly discovered, the emotions people experience in a workday haven’t changed much in 35 years.
To create the original version of Working, Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso adapted interviews from Terkel’s book into monologues and songs, which were composed by the likes of Schwartz, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, and James Taylor. Greenberg fell in love with the show at age 13, when he discovered it at the performing arts sleep away camp Stagedoor Manor.
Decades later, he approached Schwartz about expanding the show for the 21st century, conducting new interviews about professions that are unique to the modern age, such as toxic waste cleanup.
However, he quickly realized how unnecessary the interviews were and decided not to use them. “It became clear to me that the things that were most powerful in Working were those things that were timeless, and so rather than including all those newfangled professions, we jettisoned them and went back to the original stuff,” he says. “Once we stripped away the very specific 1970s references, we were left with these beautiful diamonds.”
Instead of starting from scratch, then, Greenberg recontextualized monologues already in the show. For example, a monologue by a woman working for Bell Telephone is now spoken by a man working at a tech support center in India. Only one or two words had to be changed. “It’s amazing how it rings true,” says Greenberg. He also added new characters from Terkel’s book, such as a press agent. “His whole job is about appearances, but how does he feel underneath it all? That was a fun person to hear from who you wouldn’t ordinarily.”
Greenberg also went back to Terkel’s book and tapes to expand characters. For instance, there is a trucker who sings “Brother Trucker” by James Taylor, and in the book, he speaks about making up fantasies while he’s on the road. That inspired Greenberg to add dancing “trucker babes” to the scene. “That was just something to give it theatricality and humor,” he says.
He also shortened the musical to 90 minutes with no intermission, which meant cutting a few numbers. “Because there are no continuing characters and there is no protagonist, ultimately the people you’re rooting for are the [six] actors who have a marathon of roles to do and a lot to get through in the night,” he says.
And while “newfangled professions” may not be in the show, there is still some fresh material. Greenberg and Schwartz recruited Lin-Manuel Miranda, best known for writing and starring in In the Heights, to write two new songs. Miranda’s first job was as a delivery boy for McDonald’s, and when he realized the show didn’t have a “first job moment,” he wrote the song “Delivery” to address that. Schwartz and Greenberg also wanted to explore the modern immigrant experience, and after Miranda conducted new interviews with elderly care workers, he wrote the duet “A Very Good Day” between an elderly care worker and a nanny.
When you hear the two songs, it is immediately apparent that they are Miranda’s contributions, but they also fit in with the rest of the show. Miranda says he didn’t listen to the rest of the score to make his songs sound like the others, but focused on being honest to the characters.
Greenberg also lets the audience see the creation of the production in front of them. Actors are visible as they get ready before the show, while stagehands and other technical crew are often on display. “I thought that if you understand that people have put their heart and soul on the line—and into their work—to tell you a story for your enjoyment, that there’s a great beauty to that,” Greenberg says. “It’s a metaphor for all of the work that we talk about in the show.”
Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci. She contributes to StageGrade and the theatre blog Pataphysical Science.
Photo by Richard Termine