There are times in history when working-class people feel so invisible, so disempowered that it becomes absurdly easy for the real power-brokers to turn them against one another on the basis of categories like race or religion. This is one of those times when such diversionary tactics seem to be succeeding very well — the sort of time when we most need the perspective of guys like Studs Terkel, who would have been 105 this spring.
The Pulitzer-winning writer and oral historian hosted a daily radio talk show in Chicago for an astonishing 45 years, and it wasn’t all about celebrities. Terkel was a champion of working people at every level of society, insisting that even the most menial or humdrum way of making one’s living is worthy of respect. One of his most successful books, a 1974 collection of excerpts from his interviews, was Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do.
In 1978, Working was made into a Broadway musical, adapted by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked) and Nina Faso. Some of the songs were written by Schwartz, others by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, James Taylor, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead. The show has been revised several times since then, to reflect contemporary changes in the kinds of jobs that Americans do. Schwartz’s 2008 adaptation added two new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
One of those new numbers, “Delivery,” will be performed by New Paltz High School junior Caleb Sheedy in the school Drama Club’s production of Working on the weekend of March 30 through April 1. His character, Freddy, a delivery boy for a fast-food restaurant, was added to the cast to replace a paperboy when that stopped being a common occupation, Sheedy explains. “It’s his first job ever. He doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life.” He called Freddy’s number “upbeat, with a lot of dancing.”
The action of the play “goes through the course of one workday,” says NPHS senior Caroline Schroer. “There are no main characters; it doesn’t focus on a specific person throughout…. Your character is mainly in your scene, and also appears in the background of others. There’s some interaction.” Schroer’s big musical number, “It’s an Art,” recounts the challenges of working as a waitress. She describes her character, Dolores, as “flamboyant” and “funny.”
Other numbers are more somber. In “Millwork” — one of the songs written by James Taylor — a widow named Grace, played by senior Klaire Branche, laments about how hard she works on an assembly line making suitcases. “It takes a lot out of you,” Branche says, explaining how the choreography for the scene emphasizes the tedious, repetitive motions of factory labor.
Carmen Chu, a junior, also plays a character trapped in a physically difficult and unrewarding profession: “Maggie, a cleaning woman from the South whose one goal is that her daughter doesn’t have to be a cleaning woman, like generations in the family have been…. Her daughter has so much potential to do something else.” Maggie’s song is titled “Cleanin’ Women.”
Working features opening and closing musical numbers involving the whole cast, but not all of the featured characters perform solo songs; “Some will just have a monologue,” according to Schroer. And in a new twist on the play added in the most recent revision, the audience gets glimpses of the behind-the-scenes work that it takes to make a stage play happen. “The crew members finally get the chance to get some recognition for putting the set together,” says Sheedy, noting that there are nearly 50 students involved in the NPHS spring musical, onstage and backstage. Drama Club advisor Nancy Owen directs the production.
The students in the cast seem excited to be participating in such a non-traditional piece of musical theater. Noting that the show will appeal even to people who don’t think they like musicals, Schroer says, “There are lots of different stories. It’s not theatrical…. It helps to be able to see your own story onstage.” “And the music is so good,” chimes in Branche. “Every song has a different feel,” Sheedy agrees.
Working will be performed in the Otto Grassel Auditorium at New Paltz High School beginning at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, March 30 and 31 and April 1. Admission to evening performances costs $12 for the general public, $10 for seniors and students. A special 2 p.m. matinée on Saturday, April 1 costs only $8 per person. To purchase tickets in advance, call the box office at (845) 256-4111.