The Cast of Working: A Musical

Review of Encores! Off-Center's Working: A Musical at New York City Center

Donna Herman
Donna Herman

New York City Center has had great success with its Encores! and Encores! Off-Center programs where they present musicals in concert form. In the Encores! Off-Center program, they take ground-breaking musicals from the past and reimagine them for the present. I just wish they hadn't chosen the occasion of City Center's 75th Anniversary to reimagine Working: A Musical into a self-congratulatory ad for themselves. It feels a little self-serving which doesn't do justice to the good work that they do.

It's true that Working: A Musical (1977) based on the Studs Terkel book "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How Theay Feel About What They Do" (1974) has had several incarnations since it first opened to keep it relevant. The book was a series of interviews with people from different occupations and regions across the country talking about, well, what they do. The musical was adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso and features songs by a host of writers like Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, James Taylor, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, and now includes two 2012 additions by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The Encores! Off-Center production of Working: The Musical which opens their 2019 season and is directed by the program's Artistic Director, Anne Kauffman, features the stories of three sets of parents and children who work at New York City Center taken from recent interviews with staff. Only one set of the interviews, the Director of Security and his daughter, are really dynamic and interesting enough for the time devoted to them on stage. Including the others makes it feel self-serving. Which is a real shame because the rest of it is so engrossing and moving - and timeless. So many of the numbers and performances really make you look at the people behind the uniforms, counters and aprons and insist that you see them as human beings with feelings, needs, dreams and lives beyond what they are doing for you in that moment. It's actually a gift.

Mateo Ferro as a teenaged delivery boy singing "Delivery" by Lin-Manuel Miranda was a revelation. He was the essence of energy, longing and hope, with a healthy dose of determination and strength. If I were XX years younger, I'd be in love.

Christopher Jackson nailed every character and song, proving that a military uniform is not the only one he shines in. From Lovin' Al, the smoothest valet parker from the West Coast to the Pecos, to the firefighter, to the mason, he lit up the stage, stole our hearts, and we wore our palms out applauding him.

Tracie Thoms also moved us and made us think. First in her monologue and song "Millwork" by James Taylor where she recounts what it's like to work in a luggage factory in an 8x8 tank doing a 40 second repetitive task for 8 hours a day with two 10-minute breaks and a 20-minute break for lunch. Oh, and where it's 100 to 150 degrees all the time. One of the final stanzas of the song is "May I work this mill / Just as long as I am able / And never meet the man / Whose Name is on the label" And in "Cleanin' Women" she had the audience cheering as she sang a Micki Grant song about how she was the end of a long line of faceless cleaning women and her daughter was only going to get on her knees to pray.

I would be remiss not to mention Andrea Burns' star turn as a waitress in "It's an Art," Helen Hunt's moving rendition of "Just A Housewife," David Garrison's astonishing acting and singing job on "Joe" and the haunting "A Very Good Day" sung by Andrea Burns and Javier Muñoz (as well as his scarily accurate portrayal of money manager, Rex).

(Photo by Joan Marcus)

"Perhaps appropriately, Working remains a work in progress. Though its Broadway debut in 1978 — which featured Lynne Thigpen and a young Patti LuPone — closed after 24 performances, it quickly became a favorite among school and community theaters, and has been retooled for later productions to match the changing times and workscape. The current incarnation — an earlier version of which was presented by the Prospect Theater Company in 2012 — features additional written material by Gordon Greenberg and songs, if you please, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man who gave us Hamilton. But its parts have yet to cohere into a dynamic whole (a complaint made about Working even in its earliest forms)."
Ben Brantley for New York Times

"Working: A Musical is unique in its patchwork of monologues and songs that compel us to look at the person behind the job, but this 1978 documentary-theater experiment has always elicited more admiration than passion. Earnest, heartfelt and a tad sentimental, the show takes its cue from the subtitle of the oral history compiled by Studs Terkel on which it was based: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

Originally published on

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