Years of going to see many different musicals has shown me that there is absolutely nothing you could not potentially write a successful musical about. Still, the 1977 musical Working, based on the book of the same name by Studs Terkel about the lives of America’s workers, is a tough sell. Originally composed by Wicked composer Stephen Schwarz with a book by Nina Faso, what really attracted me to the show was the additional songs by none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame (as well as other acclaimed composers such as James Taylor). The fact that it was programmed at Southwark Playhouse was a big plus too, as this venue puts on some of the best musicals on the fringe.
There’s no storyline as such. Instead, the cast sing about their different jobs: teacher, homemaker, doctor, nanny, construction worker. One of my favourite songs was a joyous celebration of pizza delivery (one of Miranda’s contributions). The show weaves in actual quotations from the book – and thus from real Americans – in a way that seems totally natural.
The cast is a mix of well-known theatre performers and newcomers, and this works really well. Standouts include Peter Polycarpou, whose song about his son is one of the most moving moments of the show, as well as Gillian Bevan, Siubhan Harrison and Dean Chisnall.
The conclusion is a triumph, bringing together all that has gone before and questioning the legacy of millions of anonymous workers. Writers and artists can point to something concrete they have achieved, they sing, but what about office workers, manual labourers? The show is a hymn to ordinary people, their hopes, dreams and achievements, and is deeply moving.
Working is certainly an odd concept for a musical, but it, well, works. One of the best things I’ve seen this year.