Friday, April 22, 2011


I'm a big fan of musicals, and one I have been listening to recently is Working by Stephen Schwartz, based on the book of the same name by Studs Terkel.  I saw a campus production of Working in college, and immediately fell in love with the show.  A friend gave me a bootleg audiotape of the Broadway album and I listened to the music over and over.  The Broadway cast album did come out on CD, but seemingly only in a limited run; even used copies of the CD are pretty pricey.  I was finally able to find a used copy of the CD for a not-too-outrageous price, and I've had great fun reconnecting with the songs. 

Working appeals to me for many reasons.  It's based on Studs Terkel's interviews with American men and women about how they feel about their work, which he compiled into a best selling book.  There just aren't many sociological studies that get turned into musicals.  (Although Rachel Maines' captivating book on the history of the vibrator, The Technology of Orgasm was recently made into a play, In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) . . . so there may yet be hope for one of my scholarly works to be seen on Broadway.)

The musical represents a broad array of different types of work through the voices of twenty-six different workers, from the corporate executive to the parking lot attendant, from the trucker to the waitress.  The narrative is not limited to paid work, as there is a poignant song by a housewife, and it is not limited to adults, as the newsboy sings about his experience of delivering papers.

One of the themes of the musical is the desire to have our work recognized.  In "Something to Point To", each person sings about how their work has contributed to a particular building.  The building serves as a visible sign of our labor, the visual representation of our achievement. 

Everyone should have something to point to
Something to be proud of
Look what I did
See what I've done
I did the job
I was the one
Everyone should have something to point to
Some way to be tall in the crowd

When our work is not recognized, it can be a painfully invalidating experience, as the song "Just a Housewife" illustrates.

I don't mean to complain at all
But they make you feel like you're two feet tall
When you're just a wife
(Just a housewife) . . .

You're a "whiz" if you go to work
But you're just a jerk if you say you won't
(Just a housewife)
People say that they think it's fine
If the choice is mine
But you know they don't
What I do, what I choose to do
May be dumb to you
But it's not to me
The workers strive to make meaning of their labor, and most of them are proud of their work.  Even those who do work that might seem trivial or unskilled to others sing of the prowess and dedication they bring to their jobs.  "Lovin' Al", the car park attendant, brags about his smooth operation of the cars (Lovin' Al is a wizard), and the waitress sings about the artistry she brings to her work:

I tell everybody that I'm a waitress and I'm proud.
Somebody comes up to me and says, "Hey you're terrific.
How come you're just a waitress?" Ya know what I say to them?
I say, "Why? Don't you think you deserve to be served by me?"

It's an art

It's an art
To be a great waitress

To do without leisure or rest

So I zoom

Through the room

With a flair no one else has

An air no one else has

I swear no one else has
My lilt
When I say

"A la carte"

You can see it gives me a glow

Ev'rytime I prove I'm a pro

Maybe I'm not quite


But I'm not just a waitress

I'm a one woman show

At the same time, the musical doesn't shy away from the negative aspects of work, which can be boring, alienating, or oppressive.  In "Nobody Tells Me How", an older schoolteacher bemoans the changing standards of teaching:
The way I've been teaching for forty-some years
Is no longer "effective" or so it appears
Well, damn it!
It worked for me then, so what's wrong with it now?
They say I'm supposed to "keep up with the times"
But nobody ever tells me how....
One of my favorite songs, "Millwork" by James Taylor, powerfully expresses the dreary tedium of factory labor, and even hints at issues of social class that are rarely discussed in the United States:

Millwork ain't easy; mill-work ain't hard
Millwork, it ain't nothing but an awful boring job

 . . .
Yes, but it's my life has been wasted,
And I have been the fool
To let this manufacture use my body for a tool.
I can ride home in the evening,
Staring at my hands
Swearing by my sorrow that a young girl
Ought to stand a better chance

So may I work the mills

Just as long as I am able
And never meet the man whose
Name is on the label

It be me and my machine
For the rest of the morning
For the rest of the afternoon
And the rest of my life

Certainly no musical can represent the full range of work experiences, but I think Working does a good job of providing a snapshot of American labor.  We try to find meaning in our work and we want to have our efforts recognized and validated, even when the working conditions are difficult.  The musical challenges us to find ways to make work more humane and more fulfilling, an ongoing issue even today.  Having worked in various jobs over the years, including many years of food service work, I count myself fortunate to have challenging and engaging work that I find deeply meaningful.

In uniform for one of my first food service jobs (circa 1983)


  1. I think I went to see that production with you! Adore Sondheim, but that one didn't impress. I do remember the housewife's lament...I also remember you leaving for your dining hall job at 7 a.m. after a night of study, fueled by Diet Coke and Entenmann's chocolate chip cookies! Pretty sure you never slept.

  2. Ah. Just realized you said Schwartz, not Sondheim. Got confused because they collaborated on a different musical together (the name escapes me at the moment). And I forgot to mention that obviously the studying paid off. Of course, your straight A++ average was a huge clue that it would. ;-)

  3. Thanks for the comment, Karen! We might well have gone to that show together -- I just can't remember. All that lack of sleep probably impaired my memory process. ;-)

    I will say that Working is an odd musical, as it is composed of these individual narratives with no overarching storyline. The music is eclectic, too, as there are several different composers. It's not his best known show -- he's better known for Pippin or Godspell or Wicked (a fabulous show!). But I clearly find Working compelling, nonetheless, and the themes it explores continue to resonate with me.