Studs Terkel’s book of interviews with typical American workers (1974’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do) was turned into a Broadway musical in 1978. An American Playhouse production was later mounted for PBS which aired the show in 1982. This production is now available as part of an extensive series of theatrical presentations available on video and known as the Broadway Theatre Archive. Image Entertainment is making the Archive available on DVD and Working is one of its most recent releases in the series.
The stories of real people concerning the reality of their everyday work and how it relates to their hopes and dreams are presented in a loose narrative that combines the spoken word and songs. Job types include steelworker, waitress, fireman, secretary, parking attendant, teacher, and cleaning woman. Studs Terkel serves as narrator.
Studs Terkel’s original book was a very fine piece of social commentary and one could see how it might be dramatized for the stage quite effectively. Making a musical version out of it is something else, though. Not that there’s anything new about or wrong with producing musical adaptations of familiar books — one has only to think of the success of Les Miserables to know how well it can be done. The problem with Working lies not with the book it’s based on, but entirely with the music. Even in the current era of Andrew Lloyd Weber-induced musical numbness, the efforts in Working stand out due to their stultifying dullness, forced lyrics, and non-melodic tunes. With successful musicals, you come out of the theatre still humming some of the best bits. With Working, if there’s anything coming out of your mouth after it’s over, it’s probably grumbling over the time wasted. Hum the music? I defy you to remember a bar of any of it, five seconds after any piece is over.
Is it surprising that the so-called music was overseen by Stephen Schwartz, who regularly subjects us to “music” in animated features like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Prince Of Egypt? Put in that light, it’s not surprising. What is a surprise is the fact that the writing talents of James Taylor (plus a few other lesser-knowns) don’t help at all, but then we all have off days.
A rather impressive cast has been assembled for Working, including Rita Marino, Barbara Hershey, Barry Bostwick, Charles Durning, Eileen Brennan, Patti LaBelle, Beth Howland, Barbara Barrie, and Scatman Crothers. They all struggle valiantly with the material, but the only ones that manage to rise above it are Moreno as a waitress, Bostwick as a steelworker, Hershey as a prostitute, and Crothers as a car jockey.
Image Entertainment’s DVD is a good workmanlike job, presented full frame as originally broadcast. The image is clean and displays good contrast with fine shadow detail. Colours are faithfully rendered, if a shade muted. Skin tones appear accurate. Some minor edge enhancement can be noted. The sound is a Dolby Digital two-channel stereo mix that delivers a clear, distortion-free rendition of the soundtrack. It’s probably just as well the sound mix is not more elaborate. Having the music’s dullness delivered by a more enveloping surround mix would just magnify its shortcomings.
Supplements on the disc include historical liner notes; highlight lists of theatre and film credits for Barry Bostwick, Eileen Brennan, Charles Durning, and Rita Moreno; and previews for Working plus 12 other entries in the “Broadway Theatre Archive” series (e.g. King Lear, Ah Wilderness!, Mourning Becomes Electra, The Iceman Cometh, and The Seagull).
Several valiant performances and good source material are wasted in Working as a result of uninspiring music that’s about as entertaining as watching paint dry. Image’s DVD presentation is fine — probably better than the material deserves. This one’s clearly an opportunity to keep your hard-earned money in your pocket.