Fort Worth — Nice timing, Jubilee Theatre. Every four years, politicians seem to rediscover the working class—and here you are, opening the company’s 36th season with Working: A Musical, a tuneful, poignant and spirit-lifting look at the jobs we do, and how they make (or sometimes break) our lives. Candidates, listen up.
Vibrantly directed by William (Bill) Earl Ray, this musical adaptation is crowded with characters and dialogue pulled from the pages of Studs Terkel’s fascinating 1974 book of the same name.
Studs Terkel (1912-2008): writer, actor, historian, political gadfly—and a Chicago broadcast icon for more than half a century. His populist-activist career (eat your heart out, Bernie) ran from the Federal Writers’ Project of the 1930s to a guest spot on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart not long before he died at the age of 96.
Terkel hosted one of television’s earliest talk shows, starred in a Cheers-style series called Stud’s Place, survived McCarthy and the blacklist, had a radio show for 46 years, and won a Pulitzer Prize. His many books (Division Street, Hard Times, The Good War) helped make oral history—people telling their own stories—a serious piece of our collective national memory.
Poet Walt Whitman heard America singing—but Studs listened to us talk: the waitress, the trucker, the cleaning woman, the ironworker, the grocery checker, the receptionist, the stonemason, the fireman, the housewife.
We meet them all in Working.
Jubilee’s production is a revised and updated version of the 1977 original by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, with memorable songs from multiple talents: Schwartz, James Taylor, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, and Susan Birkenhead. (Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton wrote two songs for a recent run, but they aren’t included here.)
The show still packs a simple, punchy message: that we don’t listen enough to the men and women whose work “All the Livelong Day” holds this country together. They have things to tell us: heart-breaking things, beautiful things—painful, honest, funny, important.
An ironworker (the magnetic Oris Phillips Jr.) speaks proudly of a city skyline crowded with “his” buildings. But he’s paid a price, and grieves over the time he’s missed with his boy in the touching “Fathers and Sons.”
A supermarket checker (bouncy Fatima Austin) finds ways to make the work day fun in “I’m Just Movin’.” Her bag boy Roberto (intense Fernando Hernández) remembers his migrant-worker childhood and dreams that “Un Mejor Dia Vendra/A Better Day Will Come.”
In “Brother Trucker,” a trio of long-distance drivers (Jeremy Davis, Hernández and Phillips) stare blearily at the highway ahead, remembering lonely runs when they passed close to home but couldn’t stop. A mother (Jenny Tucker in lovely voice) sings of her job as “Just a Housewife.” She knows her work is worth it, but wishes people wouldn’t assume she’s too dumb to do anything else.
We meet a dancing parking garage attendant (Davis)…a melodramatic waitress (Austin) who turns her job into dinner theater…and a comical, slightly creepy UPS guy (versatile Joshua Sherman), his eyes open for neighborhood dogs and sunbathing cuties.
We hear from a old-school stonemason (Eric Devlin, sweet-voiced and dignified) who’s proud to think his work will outlive him…a fireman (Davis in a compelling role) who comes to tears recalling the lives he’s saved and lost…and a “Cleanin’ Woman” (sensational singer Kyndal Robertson) who swears her daughter won’t follow in her footsteps.
Both Robertson and the rich-voiced Deon Q. Sanders are amazing in “Millwork,” describing in blistering detail their punishing days of work in a suitcase factory. (This James Taylor song is the show’s most famous number, covered by artists from Emmylou Harris to Bruce Springsteen.) Music director Kristin Spires has pulled fine singing from cast members who take on two, three or more roles, and she’s also on keyboard leading an agile group of musicians—Mark Howard on drums, Julia Milrod on bass and Russell Mirabelli on guitar.
Bryan Wofford’s spare, monochrome set design of silvered uprights and terraced steps allows characters to flow easily in and out of scenes, and lighting designer Nikki Deshea Smith makes the most of them to create interesting silhouettes and backlighting. Choreographer Ursula Hicks uses movement along with dance in this show—in particular for the hauntingly mechanical, dreamlike pantomime of the factory women. Barbara O’Donoghue’s costuming and David Lanza’s sound effects are precise and effective at drawing us into character and place.
“Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirits,” Studs Terkel once wrote.
Working brings that truth comes home to us, as one by one the characters onstage jump out of the limiting frames we’ve put around them: to tell us about their lives, to reveal the extraordinary inside the ordinary, to show us how much more they are than the work they can find or the pay they take home. The people of Working connect with us, make us think about what needs to change—and help us understand there are no “small” stories.
Meanwhile, back at the election, the candidates wonder: What do “they” want, these working folks? How can I get them to vote (for me)? Working: A Musical—if the candidates would sit still to watch it—has plenty of food for thought.
Nice timing, Jubilee.
A note: To hear some of Studs Terkel’s original interviews for the book, look for the series “Working: Then & Now” at www.radiodiaries.org.