The unheard voices of American workers have risen up in song at Wellesley College Theatre’s Working, A Musical, running at the Ruth Nagle Jones Theatre through November 19. The show plays like a collection of short stories, episodic yet joined together by the narrative thread and underlying theme of what it means to work in American. Each vignette, most musical, some not, explore in the worker’s voice what exactly it is they do all day while they’re on job, and what they think of what they do.
First staged in 1977 at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, from there it went on to Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre. It ran there in 1978 for 24 performances and 12 previews. Ever since, it’s been doing the rounds everywhere from regional theaters to high schools. Author Studs Terkel (who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Good War) brought the workers’ tales to life, and playwrights Nina Faso (one of the creators of Godspell) and Academy Award and Grammy winner Stephen Schwartz put it on stage, tweaking it here and there over the years.
The sold-out show starts out with the cast of eight Wellesley College students on the spare stage designed by Wellesley’s own David Towlun. They’re singing and smiling, looking for all the world like a bunch of cheerful students just there to entertain. Nothing subversive here, people. Just sit back and relax while we entertain you. Then they got into character, and the tone changed from happy trilling to something deeper. An invitation to a view of the real world was then extended to the audience, and there was no guarantee that it would be pretty.
At first a few of the actors rushed their lines, perhaps due to first-act jitters, but the Backstage Boss/Director Nora Hussey must have told them to breathe and slow down, because that didn’t continue. Off we were to the housewife’s home and the health-care worker’s facility, the waitress’ domain and the prostitute’s corner to hear their stories. You can almost hear the directive: “Don’t judge, don’t judge, don’t you dare judge..,” which itself became tiresome especially when it was preached, not practiced. In this show, the Working Class Hero is usually exactly that, while the Hedge Fund Manager is a caricature of himself, and the Socialite is a lightweight who may have just compared her “plight” to that of a homeless woman.
“Brother Trucker” (music and lyrics by James Taylor) was a standout song for me, sung by Briar Banerji, who also did an amazing job as the Mason, one of the few characters in love with his job, saying “All my dreams seems like they got a piece of rock mixed up in ’em.”
The housewife and mom, played by Juliette Bellacosa with resignation and a nod toward the boredom of the gilded cage perhaps struck closest to the Wellesley mom contingent when she said, “I have a lot of work to do, it’s just that sometimes you wish you had something more exciting to talk about at dinner parties.”