Studs Terkel's Working

This year’s spring musical at Weston High School is the little-known Working, based closely on Studs Terkel’s great book of the same name. Although I say “closely,” the musical can of course include only a tiny fraction of the chapters of the book, which runs to almost 800 pages, and naturally there have to be songs added to the book. (Also, several characters have been updated, as a lot has happened since the original 1972 book.) The result is an unconventional but effective musical.

Usually when I review a high-school play I will single out certain performers for special recognition. But it’s nearly impossible to do that with this production, as it doesn’t really have leads or stars: it’s deliberately and consciously an ensemble effort, giving widespread opportunities for a very large cast and crew. So I want to recognize the entire Theater Company. As it was especially cool to see so many of my present and former students in it, I will organize my list that way. First we have the astonishing number of 31 present and former students of mine: Olivia Barrows, Lexie Burkus, Jessie Campo, Timmy Chiu-Lin, Josh Chopak, Margaret Crane, Clare Devlin, Katherine Donahue, Ben Doyle, Irene Droney, Katelin Engler, Katie Fitzgerald, Sarah Frank, Katie Graves, Jeremy Hagger, Ben Heath, Francesca Howe, Alyssa Iacono, Eve Jakubowski, Tara Kulas, Erica Kwiatkowski, Shane McBride, Max Mendelsohn, Colin Minigan, Maddie Roth, Matt Sanda, Jen Sieber, Aaron Sikes, Sarah Smith, Andrew Weinstock, and Theo Wolf. Then there are 13 more students whom I know even though I’ve never taught them (BTW, I only have anecdotal evidence for this, but I believe that a disproportionate number of the kids whom I know without having taught turn out to be in the Theater Company): Mikey Bullister, Matthew Chernick, Brian Cowe, Christen DiBiase, Molly Dillaway, Liza Greenberg, Reed Harder, Devin LaFrance, Annette Liao, Alex Michel, Nike Power, Kimmie Remis, and Claire Riedel. Finally, there are 20 students in the production who are unknown to me (except perhaps for my having met them briefly now and again or having seen some of them in previous shows): Erica Anastasi, Peter Birren, Brad Braunstein, Lee Condakes, Dalton Cowe, Eric Doyle, Andrew Feigenbaum, Diana Flanagan, Reid Gilbard, Erika Grob, Leif Harder, Lucy Hastings, Julia Kee, Laurel Kulow, Dara Levitan, Max Lurie, Cailin McCormack, Myles McMann, Mariah Minigan, Gabe Nelson, Molly Reid, Sam Weissman, and Margaret Wiss.

What makes this book and musical unusual is that the words were not written by Terkel or by any other professional writer: the words were written by the real people who were interviewed. So it’s one of the rare musicals that’s actually a documentary. In the original book, Terkel served as editor in the best sense of the word, organizing and selecting the words of his subjects but not writing them. As in any documentary — for example, the films of Frederick Wiseman — the very act of choosing can help create a work of art that might or might not fairly represent the subjects. In this case one could pick workers in particular occupations, pick those with particular points of view, or pick unrepresentative words from them. No one could accuse Terkel of being objective or unbiased, as the opening paragraph of his Introduction makes clear:

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence — to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.

This message comes through loud and clear in the musical version, even though a couple of the workers portrayed loved their jobs and found them consistently rewarding. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, these turned out to be those who worked with their hands and created products that they could look at at the end of the day, most notably a mason. The characters selected for the music from the large number in Terkel’s book are primarily blue-collar, and clearly Terkel had more respect for them than for white-collar workers. The money manager, teacher, and fundraiser in the musical are all portrayed in a negative light (well acted by Aaron Sikes, Diana Flanagan, and Katherine Donahue respectively). Naturally I was unhappy at the choice of the particular teacher, who does not strike me as representative, athough she is most certainly real: Rose Hoffman is something of a relic, having been teaching since 1937, and the decades have passed her by. She believes in rote learning and is overtly racist. For instance, she recalls teaching in the Depression:

My husband tells me I wash floors on my knees like a Polack. I was assigned to a fourth-grade class. The students were Polish primarily. We had two colored families, but they were sweet.

And then she talks about her current class:

I have eight-year-olds. Thirty-one in the class and there’s about 23 Spanish. I have maybe two Appalachians. The 23 Puerto Ricans are getting some kind of help. The two little Appalachians, they never have the special attention these other children get. Their names aren’t Spanish.

I loved the Polish people. They were hard-working…. These people they have no pride in anything, they destroy. Really I don’t understand them. They takes the shades. They take the poles. Steal everything… Yes, the neighborhood is changing and the type of child has been changing, too. They’re even spoiling a nice little Jewish boy who’s there.

There were middle- and upper-class people in this neighborhood when I first cam. They were very nice people and their children were wonderful.

And so forth. Now those quotations are from the book version, but the Rose Hoffman is presented in exactly that way in the musical as well. If you’re going to pick just one teacher, why her?

Anyway, I had no problems with any of the other characters, who ranged from proud to frustrated to bored to angry. A great many scenes were exceptionally well done, including one in a restaurant, one with workers in office cubicles, and single-character episodes involving a housewife and a firefighter. The music was uniformly of high quality, including both the instrumental performances from a small orchestra and the vocals performed by various actors. I particularly liked Maddie Roth’s rendition of James Taylor’s “Millwork,“ the only song that I had known prior to seeing the show.

OK, I promised not to single anyone out, but I seem to have done so already. So I can’t finish this post without mentioning the exceptional performances of Ben Heath as Mike Dillard, an ironworker, and Brian Cowe as Joe, a retired worker.

Categories: Books, Weston