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Working: Broadway Theatre Archive

A theme hammering throughout Working, the musical revue based on Studs Terkel's bestselling 1974 book of oral history, is the deadening effect of jobs "too small for the spirit" of the jobholder. That's not a bad metaphor for this televised version of the show. This production aspires to be a populist social commentary ("the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people"), but while its ambitious spirit is certainly worthy, its realization falls way short. The fault lies less in the material (though that does contribute) than in the way this 1982 PBS American Playhouse adaptation was ill-conceived from the start. Working is an example of American musical theater after the era of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Built on a string of monologues and solo numbers, it eschews traditional narrative and boy-gets-girl storytelling to present a pop-tuned fanfare for the common man (and woman), the American worker whose blue-collar, white-collar, or no-collar profession too often wears down one's personal dignity and defines one's sense of worth in the world. Originally staged Off Broadway in 1978 with a cast that included Patti LuPone and Joe Mantegna, Working came to PBS in an adaptation helmed by its creator, Stephen Schwartz, whose other stage musicals include Godspell and Pippin, and who more recently was the tunemeister behind the animated features Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Prince of Egypt.

Schwartz musicalized Terkel's book by fashioning a handful of vignettes from the hundreds of intimate and penetrating first-person accounts Terkel recorded. In Schwartz's stage vision, each man and woman (and kid) we meet is an Everyman expressing the little satisfactions and soul-shaping pains familiar to workers everywhere. When transferred to television, Working acquired a new all-star cast that sported Barry Bostwick as the Steel Worker, Barbara Hershey as the Call Girl, Eileen Brennan as the Mill Worker, and other familiar faces playing characters who, in the words of Terkel's subtitle, talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.

Standouts include Scatman Crothers as "Lovin' Al" the parking attendant who after 42 years still strives to be the best at what he does. Rita Moreno (West Side Story) belts it out as a waitress who creates and discovers art in her work. Charles Durning plays the retired man whose solo number, "Joe," may be the most pleasantly surprising of them all. Eileen Brennan embodies the soul-crushing monotony of a factory job that has beaten down her body and spirit over the years. Grammy winner Patti LaBelle's "Cleaning Woman" kicks things up a bit, and there's James Taylor as the Trucker, whose "Brother Trucker" is an ode to self-determination. David Patrick Kelly (K-Pax) is the ex-copyboy who fantasizes about taking a machine gun and rat-a-tat-a-tatting his co-workers. Fausto Barajas is almost moving as the migrant worker — and therein lies this presentation's best descriptor. It's almost successful. It approaches poignancy. Skirts the edges of engaging. It's almost memorable.

As a musical, Working always was a mixed bag. Schwartz's team of composers and lyricists, which included himself and James Taylor, delivered a hodge-podge of American contemporary styles from pop to jazzy-bluesy to folk to then-hip Top-40ish sounds. Depending on personal tastes, there's a little something for just about everyone here. But the score takes no risks, pushes no boundaries. Add the inevitable dating of that certain '70s blandness found in, say, Godspell or Pippin, and this boils down to a score that's functionally adequate and inoffensively all-purpose — and therefore it's trite, banal, and unremarkable. Although Working's original staging at New York's 46th Street Theatre closed after only 24 performances, it has continued to garner a fan following and often plays in smaller community or regional theaters that are more its spiritual home than a vast New York stage could be. An updated version opened in Los Angeles in 1999.

So, what's the big problem here? Co-directors Schwartz and Kirk Browning reconstructed Working as if the show had originated as a generic television program, not on the stage. By removing its theatricality and casting "a galaxy of stars," they bled away any hope for the show's essential intimacy and immediacy. In the entire Broadway Theatre Archive series you're unlikely to find a show that more cries out to be filmed on a simple stage, live, with unknown crackshot performers before a real theater audience. Instead, here it's overproduced, overdirected, unfocused, and starved for the energy feedback loop a live audience generates. Even at only 89 minutes the pacing is sometimes achingly slow. Some of the original songs are edited, some are sung via pre-recorded voice-overs, and one ("The Mason") is removed altogether. The addition of the great man himself, Studs Terkel, who appears as a sort of narrator, should be a point of pride here. Instead, his presence is strained and unnecessary. Worse, it contributes to the production's irritating pride in its own Importance. As the show's script says, "everyone should have something to point to." Fans of the original Working, and of musical theater in general, can point to this particular "re-imagining" as a missed opportunity.

*          *          *

All that said, on a technical level this DVD is another fine entry in the Broadway Theatre Archive catalog. The 1982 videotape is preserved in fine condition — clean as a whistle other than a wee bit of speckling a time or two, with quite good color, contrast, and definition. The audio comes through in PCM Stereo, so it displays somewhat greater range than other BTA releases — although, granted, this musical's score will never tax even the most average home audio system. A few fidelity drop-offs and some barely audible audio ghosting pop up late in the proceedings, artifacts from the original master. As with others in the BTA catalog, Working offers up stage/film résumés for its key performers, a slipsheet of production info, almost an hour's worth of previews for other titles (a mixed assortment put together from existing materials), and a series-complementing keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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