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Can an old concept of "Working" work for our times?

"Working," the Musical at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston


In the finale number, the entire cast points to a window in a high rise building backing up the construction worker, and sings: "Look what I did! I did the job!" Some white haired folk in the audience teared up and remembered a time when labor was honored and unions were respected. It was the time when Studs Terkel interviewed all sorts of workers on his radio show and teased out their personal descriptions of their work, how they felt about it, and how they lived their lives. As actor Cheeyang Ng said in the talk-back: "It's about what people did for a living, and how they lived their lives."

Tiffany Chen, Phil Tayler, Cheeyang Ng, Merle Perkins, Shannon Lee Jones, Christopher Chew of the nsemble cast of the musical "Working" plays multiple roles
Tiffany Chen, Phil Tayler, Cheeyang Ng, Merle Perkins, Shannon Lee Jones, Christopher Chew of the nsemble cast of the musical "Working" plays multiple roles
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston Mark Jacobs
Working, the musical presently has 30 productions opening this year
Working: Stephen Schwartz

Terkel wrote at a time when many workers held a job for a lifetime and were almost guaranteed a pension. Many of those jobs are fast disappearing. Numerous articles in Huffington Post (see: and Forbes (see: appear daily in print and online to testify to this historical economic change.

Many jobs in Terkel's 1978 book Working, which formed the basis of the musical now opening at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, are gone; the hope of holding a job for a lifetime is now as obsolete as the idea of company loyalty. The "bottom line" now drives the reliability of a pay check for the folks working under that assumption. In the 2011 update of Stephen Schwartz musical, the news delivery boy is replaced with a UPS-type delivery man, and a hedge fund manager is introduced. References to cell phones and the present American economic situation are included.

Schwartz describes the collaboration with other composers like James Taylor as a first in his career. (

Even with all the new contemporary inclusions, the idea behind this musical is the same. Originally described in the New York Times as a "review," Actor Ng calls this limited, because, according to him, the relationship between the workers demonstrate the interwoven nature of work as well as the relationships between the workers.

The ensemble, directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins, is the star because its poignant emotions hit universal nerves. Actually, the production was a docu-drama or docu-musical with a sweeping overview of present and past history through the lens of those who construct it.

Anne Sherer's spare scaffold set opens to the entry of a gaggle of workers, each reading from the Studs Terkel book itself, Working, People Talk About What They Do all Day and How They Feel About What They Do. This introduction included mundane facts, daily emotions, and some wisdom. Do did each song, setting to music and rhyme, the words that Studs Terkel recorded in his interviews on radio.

The actors wore layered clothing to demonstrate the relationship between work and its workers. For example, the construction work peels off his work suit to reveal the three-piece pin striped costume of a financial officer, disregarding the needs of workers. Juxtaposition is another director's device to show how the prostitute and the fund-raiser sell themselves for cash, only at different levels of the social register.

One of the most poignant moments was framed in the song called "If I Could've Been" recalling the Marlon Brando Line from the Tennessee Williams play, "I could have been a contender." Perhaps everyone at every level of pay and skill has this day-dream about an alternate life somewhere somehow.

Nina Zendejas as dialect coach deserves a shout-out for the speech pattern, for example, of an out-sourced customer service representative in India, and the grit of talk by the union organizer, both delivered by Cheeyang Ng. Christopher Chew even got the Yiddish "farcacta" right as the publicist with a cigar.

Each actor/singer demonstrated their special range even down to the body language. Note Phil Tayler when, first he adopted the wooden walk of a Polish immigrant to give the teacher an apple and then, thumb in belt, swaggered on stage as the trucker.

For this child of working-class parents, who remembers the hootenanies of another time featuring songs by Pete Seeger, the sentiments of the cleaning lady sung by Merle Perkins, working to give her kids a better life, recalled old memories. The audience was full of white haired folk who remembered these moments as well. Stephen Schwartz's song "Fathers and Sons" rendered by Christopher Chew capped this layer for many in the audience.

Adam Cohen, in his Foreword to Turkel's book describes the interviews as "a search, sometimes successful, sometimes not, 'for daily meaning as well as daily bread.'" In our present economy littered without the promise of meaningful work and no trace of loyalty to big business employers, this idea may not resonate with the millennials or even the baby boomers; they may find this review less exciting than the special affects of sci-fi movies; they may find what Cohen describes as "wistful dispatches from a distant era" repetitive, preachy, and without an exciting story arc. However, the audience had no such representatives at this matinee, which ended with a standing ovation.

To peruse other videos where Studs Terkel interviews working folk including singer Bob Dylan see:

and writer Anais Nin, go to:

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