WORKING, based on the book by Studs Terkel, adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso with additional contributions by Gordon Greenberg. Presented by the Royal Academy’s Musical Theatre Company and Orchestra, directed by Kimberley Sykes. Suzie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, Thursday 14th June, 7.00pm
Studs Terkel was a radio guy (his show ran in Chicago every weekday for an astonishing 45 years) when radio was the main medium, the waves that defined the wave, the story of the nation, broadcast incessantly back at itself. Studs, aside from interviewing the famous, gathered oral histories, stories from those who experienced the Great Depression and the Second World War, the defining events of his own life, and, in the Seventies, he asked people, in unremarkable jobs, to tell him about those jobs, their working life. This being the Twentieth Century, these jobs defined these people. They were these jobs, which they tended to accept though, in some cases, through gritted teeth. Most of these stories are pretty hard going in the sense that their lives were tough. Which is why it’s remarkable that Stephen Schwartz, of Godspell fame at the time and Wicked fame now, should have thought that they could be fashioned into a broadway musical.
The musical didn’t run for long on Broadway initially, just 24 performances back in 1978, but it’s had a long afterlife (Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame has contributed a couple of songs to later productions) and it’s interesting to wonder why? One reason is pretty obvious: Stephen Schwartz has the juice. He can put his finger on something that is relatable, and by lots of people. But he didn’t write all the songs himself. This was very much a collaborative project.
Another reason: oddly enough in today’s New York Times (Friday, 22 June) the columnist David Brooks talks about two story telling genres, myth and parable, which he relates historically to Athens (classical Greece) and Jerusalem (Christianity, the Bible). Working, the musical, is a small contribution to story-telling by parable. As David Brooks says in his article, parables have ordinary human characters and parables are meant to be relatable. Somewhere, in some corner of the firmament, in our age of myth, of heroes and villains, there is still an appetite for relatable stories about ordinary people.
And more remarkable still: the further we get from the Seventies, from the period of Studs Terkel’s original book, the more relatable these stories seem to become. One of Stud’s contributors makes the point: “any people that are suffering have to stick together, whether they like it or not”. Myth is about heroic individuals, individual agency; parable is about people sticking together, how people help each other through the suffering. Roughly around this same time, while Studs was gathering his oral histories, Andy Warhol was satirising the tendency toward a kind of universal myth-making: everyone was going to be famous for 15 minutes. Social networking has attempted to make this a reality: we are all the heroes of our own news feeds.
Nothing about all this is to say Working is an easy musical to make work, to be entertaining in a theatrical sense as well as relatable on an academic, bookish level. It’s an impossible wish, but I wish this production could have another life, that it could be seen by more people, because it was an absolute delight, completely beyond any and all expectations. And the finale, which connects the building of the new theatre to a lament that the contributions of ordinary people so often go un-noticed, unremarked, was very touching and totally in keeping with everything that had gone before.