Unless you’re a hardcore Broadway fan, you’ve probably never heard of Working, the musicalization of Studs Terkel’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. I don’t think it gets many productions, since the original production closed after 25 performances.
We saw it at Bowling Green State University. A good production — better than you’d expect for $12 general seating tickets in a small theater on a college campus. Spare scenery and props, which were appropriate for the style of show; a four-piece band, and a capable cast.
This is a show where the book is more interesting than the music. The songs are by Stephen Schwartz (the original adapter and director), Mary Rodgers, James Taylor, and three others. The songs are listenable late 70s soft rock; nothing too remarkable. That being the case, I have to wonder why this show is a musical. The vignettes hold together without the songs. The music may add some emotion, but not cohesion.
The book is a collection of vignettes about working people, from the managerial to the menial. They are by turns poignant or humorous; Terkel’s original title exactly sums them up. Despite the show’s short initial run in 1978, it had enough of a following to gain a PBS production in 1982. That production added several new songs and added/deleted some vignettes reflecting the changing workforce. For example, the stories include cubicle drones and a telephone solicitor, while deleting the paperboy and typewriter. The car-park attendant, the program pamphlet added, has been in and out of various productions; at Bowling Green he was in. Some stories seem even more current than 1982 — notably the young college graduate who is super-keen on making a quick buck in financial markets (and to hell with the rest of the world). There was also a post 9/11 solider that was clearly a recent addition; not sure if the addition was Schwartz’s or added locally.
The ironworker who opens and closes the show was a standout. A Joe Lunchbox character with a surprisingly strong voice — brought to mind the surprising Stevedore with the operatic voice at the start of On the Town.
Working brings to mind one other musical: Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock. Both include vignettes of the lives of ordinary, if archetypical, working people. The difference is that Blitzstein’s show came with a pointed political message.
A widowed retiree is depicted as a man with a shallow and empty existence. Somewhat stereotypical; I guess you can justify the depiction on the grounds that once you’re retired, this is what you can become if you don’t make an effort to be active and involved. I have to think this character led a similarly shallow life before retirement, though. In any case, his dramatic role is to say, “You think your job is awful? Look at the alternative!”
The jobs portrayed in Bowling Green: CEO, school teacher, market checker, bagboy, migrant workers, meter man, housewife, prostitute, political fundraiser, mill worker, mason, trucker, operator, receptionist, phone solicitor, waitress (with a production number that was the best musical piece in the show), retiree, fireman, soldier, cleaning woman.
Voltaire’s conclusion at the end of Candide was “Work then without disputing … it is the only way to render life supportable.” Another famous conclusion holds that Arbeit Macht Frei. The Terkel/Schwartz musical leans toward that conclusion, recognizing work as an inevitable reality. The character that’s missing is Scrooge McDuck.
I recently spent a couple days in Washington, DC, attending two concurrent conferences. That kept me pretty busy, between workshops, receptions, and meetings on the Hill. But there’s always worthwhile sightseeing to do; the Smithsonian, which is endless, if nothing else.
On Wednesday the 24th of February, I managed a brief tour of part of the new National Museum of the American Indian near Capitol Hill. Not my first choice, but my traveling companion was tired of walking, and everything at the Smithsonian is interesting. We had less than an hour before needing to go to the airport. We restricted ourselves to the 4th floor, which featured historical exhibits of many Native American peoples. The emphasis is telling the story of Indians — apparently “Native American” isn’t quite as politically correct as it once was — from their own point of view. Here I can conveniently drop back into my own detached Schleswig-Holstein heritage — my paternal grandfather didn't come to this continent until 1905 — and safely view the conflict between Europeans and Indians in the third person.
But what I wanted to talk about …
Was at the National Geographic Museum. About eight blocks from the hotel, there was no way I could pass up the exhibit of Terra Cotta Warriors from the Qin dynasty. I’ll refer you to the website for details, but you may recall that thousands of life-sized terra cotta statues were unearthed in the 1970s near the tomb of an early Chinese emperor. To date, the whole site has not been excavated.
The exhibit was not large, consisting of perhaps 20 diverse and well-selected statues. The exhibit took about 90 minutes. Recognizing that most of us Americans know little of Chinese history or culture, much of the exhibit provided background, details, and artifacts of the period. Well worth seeing. It’s just the sort of thing to remind you why we have a capital city. Exhibits like this never get anywhere near Toledo.
In the gift shop: I passed up the $50 coffee table exhibit book for a thin picture book that covered pretty much the entire exhibit, with additional text. And also: a British Museum handbook and timeline on the Chinese dynasties — for one who doesn’t know Ming from Han.
The National Geographic website has a good video about the exhibit: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/terrac