The times they have a-change-ed. Working, Studs Terkel’s remarkable collection of interviews, was published in 1974. Subtitled “People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do,” the book’s an oral report on the American worker. In particular, Terkel says in the introduction, it’s about “daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.” In the book, workers give vent to dreams and dehumanization. When Stephen Schwartz/Nina Faso’s musical based on the book premiered in 1978, however, people who could afford Broadway tickets didn’t want to hear about people who couldn’t, those who felt “caged” or machine-like. The show closed in less than a month.
Schwartz is currently remaking the original at the Old Globe Theatre. He’s added new material, but what was once the white- and blue-collar blues comes off as a soft-sell, occasionally whiney show, the latter because the times have changed. Conditions in many workplaces are just as miserable as they were 31 years ago. But as businesses go under — and CEOs waft on aureate parachutes — just having a job has a different meaning these days. Schwartz should have considered a sequel: I Wish I Was (or Thank Heaven I’m Still) Working.
Terkel was in touch with what Carl Sandburg called “the shoulders of America.” He spent three years listening to workers’ “ambiguity of attitude toward The Job.” His subjects felt free to open up about conditions in the workplace without fear of reprisals. The remade musical feels more in touch with Broadway than real-world nine-to-fivers. Unadorned, confessional voices in the book become production numbers. The emphasis is less on what they have to say than on innocuous entertainment. It’s as if they’re performing for their bosses.
To remake Working in San Diego invites inevitable, but instructive, comparisons. In 1981, the Rep resurrected the musical from the ashes with a breakthrough production for both. Director Sam Woodhouse and a local cast caught the spirit — the pride and the anger — in Terkel’s book. They created humble, character-driven vignettes (I can still see Biff Wiff’s fireman and hear him sing “Brother Trucker,” smiling as he threatened to utter a similar sounding, nasty phrase; and hear Julie Anne Simeone reply, when told she’s “just” a waitress, “Don’t you think you deserve to be served by me?”). Working ran for six months and preserved the Rep through a long, dark night of lost CITA-grant funding.
The original interviews had an audience of one, and Terkel encouraged his subjects to be forthcoming. The Rep had a one-on-one feel as well. The remade Working cast is backed by a white elephant of a set, infused with fussy Brechtian V-effects, and the director has encouraged his subjects to be endearing.
Compared to the Rep’s minimalism, the Old Globe version’s ornate. It’s not only about working, it’s also about the job of making theater. The upstage set’s a giant tic-tac-toe affair: nine boxes, in rows of three, joined by steel girders (the guy behind me said, “It’s The Hollywood Squares!”). Even when not in use and masked by drops, the set dwarfs the performers.
For the preshow, the boxes serve as dressing rooms. The cast and the band warm up, do parts of routines (in the lowest stage-right box, three women rehearse dance steps and laugh with more spirit than any during the 90-minute show). A stage manager calls out lighting cues, “down to half,” etc., and we watch the mechanics of the craft.
Director Gordon Greenberg has several costume changes take place onstage as well. People will remember one of them long after they’ve forgotten the songs. Danielle Lee Greaves metamorphoses from a housewife to a short-shorts streetwalker in seconds. Overall, however, the behind-the-scenes, meta-theatrical choices would be interesting, if new, but have become so timeworn they’re clichés that pull focus from the material.
The night I caught the show, several members of the audience stood and applauded. And some members of the versatile cast deserved the ovation. Marie-France Arcilla’s “Millworker,” about doing the same routine every 40 seconds, caught the grind of the job (“my body is a tool”), though the other actors, blandly miming the movements, could put their backs into them more. Danielle Lee Greaves’s “Just a Housewife” and “Cleanin’ Woman” enrich the evening. Newer bits, however, like Charlie Blossom (a potential serial killer whom Nehal Joshi made so bizarrely nonthreatening he evoked laughter) misfire.
The remake needs remaking: pare away the packaging, roll up its sleeves, and be unafraid to get its hands dirty. Right now, Working isn’t.
Working by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, based on the book by Studs Terkel
Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park
Directed by Gordon Greenberg; cast: Adam Monley, Nehal Joshi, Wayne Duvall, Marie-France Arcilla, Danielle Lee Greaves, Donna Lynne Champlin; scenic design, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Mattie Ullrich; lighting, Jeff Croiter; sound, Tony Smolenski IV; choreographer, Josh Rhodes; musical director, Mark Hartman
Playing through April 12; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.