If there is one word to describe Working, running at Ridgefield’s A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) of Connecticut Feb. 14 through March 10, it would have to be authenticity. And groundbreaking … but that’s two words.
Stephen Schwartz wrote and directed this musical, which made its Broadway debut in 1978, and has been mounted in revised form several times over the years. Schwartz based it on a book by Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, for which he interviewed workers from various regions and jobs.
Schwartz is a renowned lyricist and composer (Wicked, Pippin and Godspell, to name a few) and certainly knows how to turn a phrase but to tell the stories of about a dozen different characters from all walks of life, Schwartz knew he needed to stay true to their authentic voices.
“At first, my intention was to write the score but as I continued to develop it … I began to realize that some of the characters in order for me to write songs for them, I was essentially going to be imitating other styles. For instance, in the original show there was an African-American parking lot attendant, and I thought … I’m going to be imitating someone else, why don’t I actually get someone who writes this way?” he told a rapt crowd at the Ridgefield Library that gathered there in mid-January to hear a conversation with Schwartz and ACT of CT’s artistic director Daniel C. Levine.
“If what we want to do here is really be authentic to the voices of characters who are going to be singing, why not find people who write in that genre rather than try to fake the genre?” Schwartz said.
Among the people who contributed music to Working over the years are Lin Manuel-Miranda, James Taylor, Micki Grant, Craig Carnelia, Susan Birkenhead and Mary Rodgers.
Levine has long been a fan of this show. “This is one of those Broadway scores that got me interested in musical theater when I was a kid. I listened to it a million times, didn’t really know what I was processing but something spoke to me,” he said.
After he immersed himself in the original score and source material in preparation for bringing Working to Ridgefield, he felt a critical component was lacking. He conducted a dozen of his own interviews, as Studs Terkel did in the early ’70s, but with Ridgefield workers — from a pharmacy worker to the person who made his breakfast sandwich every day.
“When we decided to do Working at ACT, I had to figure a way to get into these characters. I’ve never been a housewife or delivery boy or a factory worker…,” he said, citing some of the jobs featured in the show.
He talked to people at first, then went back and taped interviews with them, which became incorporated into the show in an innovative way. Describing his thought process at the time, Levine said he knew “these voices should somehow be in the show, and I didn’t quite know how. I just had this thought that it would be cool not to have actors play the Ridgefield workers but to somehow really have them in the show.”
These Ridgefielders will be woven into Working in the score as the actors sing their stories, but they will make their own stage debut by appearing in a high-tech media display that is part of the production, which Schwartz himself dubbed a “a unique theater experience.” Levine and Schwartz, who is ACT’s artistic adviser and sits on its board, worked closely together to mount this recreated version of Working.
The genre of documentary musical is in itself unusual. While there are a few precedents, most famously, A Chorus Line, this show blends storytelling and technology in a groundbreaking way. “Working has an unusual form — the way it is put together, which has proven [to be] exciting to audiences. What Daniel has done is unique in the true sense of the word, but if it turns out to be successful then it won’t remain unique for long, The Ridgefield one will remain unique but with any luck there will be other communities and their own unique versions,” Schwartz said.
Working focuses on the “unsung heroes” whose work largely goes unnoticed or unrecognized in one’s daily life and Levine said the biggest takeaway for him was the pride the interviewees took in their jobs. The show looks at the hopes, aspirations and struggles of these oft-overlooked workers and in doing so, reveals common truths universally shared.
“It’s interesting right now we are in a situation where we have an entire political party not thinking of workers as people,” Schwartz added.
For more information, visit actofct.org.