‘Working’ sings the praises of ordinary folk

Stephen Schwartz.
Stephen Schwartz.(Ralf Ruhmeier/file)

This is a test. Please raise your hand if you've ever snapped at a waitress, growled at a sales clerk, or slammed the phone down on a telemarketer. Think about it. Be honest.

OK, everyone, you may put your hands down.

Chicago raconteur Studs Terkel was a champion of the common man, and he was aware that the people who scrub our toilets and care for our children are often invisible and unsung. He chronicled their stories in his landmark 1974 book, "Working," a 600-page oral history that treats ironworkers and fireman with dignity and grace.

Stephen Schwartz encountered the book in the 1970s when he was a young composer in his 20s and had already achieved success on Broadway with "Godspell," "Pippin," and "The Magic Show." He was intrigued by the material, particularly an interview with a phone operator who said he was always thankful when a caller bothered to ask if he was having a nice day. "I realized that I had never thought about the fact that the person on the other end of the line had feelings and problems of his or her own,'' Schwartz recalls. "I began to be aware of all these invisible connections with the people we encounter. That sort of increased my level of empathy, which is always a good thing."

The book resonated so deeply with Schwartz that he decided to write a musical based on Terkel's interviews. He recruited other composers (including James Taylor, Micki Grant, and Craig Carnelia) to contribute songs. "Working" opened in Chicago in 1977. When it moved to Broadway the next year, it ran for just 24 performances, but the show has continued to have a life and has been revised several times. A new version, with additional revisions by Gordon Greenberg, was a critical success in Chicago in 2011. That version begins performances Friday and runs through Feb. 1 at the Lyric Stage.


The workplace has changed dramatically since Terkel first used his reel-to-reel recorder to capture what he described as "the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people." Schwartz conducted new interviews a few years ago and invited composer Lin-Manuel Miranda ("In the Heights") to write two new songs. "It is an entirely different world because of computers and cubicles and the Internet, so the show required new material,'' Schwartz says. Some of the people in the show have become composites of several folks originally interviewed by Terkel and some roles have been updated. The gas meter reader is now a UPS man, and the operator has been outsourced to India. There are some new characters, including a hedge fund manager. The characters are not lifers who spend their entire career punching the clock for the same company; they know they could be laid off at any time.


"It is interesting how the more things change, the more they stay the same," Schwartz says. "We have the same issues with the invisibility of our workforce, and it's coming to the fore, with the attention on inequality and lack of social mobility." The firefighter in the show, who talks about saving lives, still brings Schwartz to tears. And the waitress, who views her job as a kind of theatrical performance, still inspires him.

Director Ilyse Robbins was a waitress herself for many years, and she has used the waitress's monologue as an audition piece. "It feels close to home,'' she says. "Everybody works for a living, and the characters are all individuals, yet they are also Everyman. We see a piece of ourselves in at least someone, if not several people, up there."


Robbins says she grew up with the book and goes back to it from time to time, but readily admits she hasn't read the 600-page tome cover to cover. "I'm not going to lie,'' she says. It strikes a chord for her personally. "I was a waitress for 10 or 12 years, so I have a different take on that kind of job,'' she says. "When I go out for a meal, I always ask my waiter's name. When you put a name to a face, it's a different relationship."

In the Lyric production, six actors play multiple characters, and they change their costumes onstage in order to indicate the interconnectedness among the various individuals. The transitions from one character to another are carefully crafted, yet Schwartz says almost all of the dialogue comes directly from Terkel's book. In one scene, for instance, a truck driver curses the telephone company when his call is cut off; the next scene depicts a technical support operator who laments that it's against company rules to conduct personal conversations with customers. "I'm a communications person, and I can't communicate," he says.

There is a sort of wistful quality to some of the characters, but both Robbins and Schwartz say the show aims to be uplifting. It's a celebration of ordinary people, not a pity party, they say. "I don't like to play the pathos," Robbins says. "I don't think that's interesting."


Ilyse Robbins (left, with Erica Spyres) is pictured choreographing “Avenue Q” in 2012 at the Lyric Stage, where she is now directing “Working.”
Ilyse Robbins (left, with Erica Spyres) is pictured choreographing “Avenue Q” in 2012 at the Lyric Stage, where she is now directing “Working.”(NERYS POWELL/file)

While most of the characters work low-paying, thankless jobs, they simply tell their stories as a matter of fact. "We have tried to be scrupulous in not being overly political or one-sided," Schwartz says. "We are just presenting characters and asking the audience to take a look at these people and add them to their consciousness. I don't mean to imply that the show is meant to be good for you, like taking medicine. It is moving and funny, and you shouldn't be afraid of it."

Nevertheless, Robbins says the actors have discussed how the characters' stories resonate in their own lives. "We have had discussions about dads who got laid off after 30 years of work and about how many of us have had to wait tables or work as the UPS man,'' she says. "We all have to work, and it is something that binds us."

Do Robbins and Schwartz like their work? Schwartz doesn't skip a beat. "I absolutely love what I do,'' he says. " Every morning, I remind myself to be grateful. I've been successful enough as a writer to put my kids through school and put food in the dog's bowl, so I feel very, very lucky."

Robbins is equally enthusiastic about her career in the theater. But can she make a living at it? Her response is immediate and to the point. "No."


"Let's just put that right out there," she says. "I do a lot. I direct. I act. I choreograph. I teach. I am very lucky that I have a husband who has a better-paying job." Even so, she adores her work. "I can't tell you how many times I have stood in rehearsal and said, 'Wow, this is my job.' I feel like I'm the luckiest person in Boston."

The gravel-voiced Terkel, who died in 2008 at 96, struck a universal chord when he first went around the country with his microphone and recorder. In his introduction to "Working," he noted that many of his subjects longed for immortality: "To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken."

And now, 40 years later, his subjects live on.

Patti Hartigan can be reached at