By Warren Day
Stephen Schwartz has had an illustrious career as the composer of musicals for the stage (“Wicked,” “Pippin,” “Godspell”), and also for animated musicals produced by Walt Disney (he’s the winner of three Oscars for Best Song). The one musical that didn’t seem to work so well seems to have stuck in his craw, however. “Working” opened on Broadway in 1978, but closed after just 23 performances. After nearly 35 years, Schwartz has recently revamped the show, adding two new songs, cutting others, and updating the book. This new version is experiencing one of its first productions now through April 1 at the Caldwell Theater in Boca Raton. And as usual for this company, it’s a first-rate production.
Based on a non-fiction book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Studs Terkel, the musical tells–through a series of vignettes—stories about the everyday experiences of a variety of working people: a fireman, a cleaning lady, a teacher, a trucker, a housewife, a money manager, a receptionist, an iron worker, a fast food clerk, a prostitute, and even a retiree, whose time is spent talking about not working. Rather than a traditional book musical with a main storyline, it’s a kind of staged cantata devoted to the poignant, unexpected, and funny experiences of the workplace, providing insights into the dreams and disappointments of people who are often otherwise invisible to us.
The workplace has seldom been the focus of a musical. Offhand, I can think of only two others among the hundreds of musicals in the Broadway canon: “The Pajama Game” and “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.”
It’s strange that the workplace should be so ignored since we spend far more of our waking life at our labors than we do anyplace else. At least 70% of our time awake is spent either at work, or traveling to and from–much less preparing for or thinking about it. It’s estimated that the average American worker spends 100,000 hours of his lifespan in full or part-time jobs. (If that cold fact isn’t excuse for an instant mid-life crisis, what is?) So it’s refreshing when a musical finds the workplace as its rhyme and reason, particularly one that’s as well directed and well performed as this one. Clive Cholerton, the Artistic Director for the Caldwell Theater Company, has personally directed and given the production a creative and energetic flow that makes the evening pass quickly. The cast of six professional and highly talented actors play various roles, and succeed in making you both laugh and cry. Particular notice should be given to Laura Hodos, who sings a show-stopper of a song about what a waitress does to turn her job into art.
Schwartz is the creative force behind the show, but the songs are not only his alone: six others, including five-time Grammy winner and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer James Taylor, and Mary Rodgers, daughter of legendary “Great American Songbook” composer Richard Rogers, contribute to the libretto.
In the end, “Working” does what good theater has always done: help you see the life and choices of another person in a new and clearer light.
The Caldwell Theatre Company is located at 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton, FL 33487.
Performances at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Call 561-241-7432 or visit caldwelltheatre.com.