“Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirits” is an oft-quoted phrase from historian Studs Terkel’s 1974 nonfiction book, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. It’s still an apt sentiment.
Working the musical was first seen onstage at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in the late 1970s. It had a brief Broadway run in 1978 (with Patti LuPone and Joe Mantegna in the cast) and was nominated for five Tony awards. The Alliance Theatre’s five-actor telling is part of its outdoor Under the Tent series. It opened April 22, lost a performance to rain, then went on hiatus while a film crew used the Woodruff Arts Center campus. It runs through June 6.
Many of Working’s original 18 songs were written by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked), but what feels like an earnest attempt to bring the show into the new millennium makes it feel wildly out of touch with workers today.
We meet characters like Lovin’ Al, an effervescent parking valet, and Dolores, a saucy waitress, distinct and enjoyable figures taken from Terkel’s original reporting. Their stories, as delightful as they are, are time capsules from another era.
Indeed, the 1970s’ working world that Terkel documented isn’t just another era, it’s a bygone one. In the past 50 years, minimum wage has only gone up $5.25.
From 1979 to 2015, the Economic Policy Institute reported that the top 1 percent of U.S. workers saw their income grow by 229 percent, while income for the bottom 90 percent grew only 46 percent.
None of these troubling facts make their way into Working in any substantive way. The closest we get are occasional excerpts from interviews the Alliance did with Atlanta workers, but those are so brief and surface level, they hardly convey how folks struggle today.
There’s an Alliance-specific song about community organizing (more on that later) and two 2012 songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which feel surprisingly out of touch. One of them, “Delivery,” is a catchy up-tempo tune about a young man working at a fast-food restaurant. In Miranda’s words, the young man bemoans the monotony of his job but maintains that the drudgery is a steppingstone to more extraordinary things.
The song ends with a line about how one day he’ll look back and say, “Thank God for delivery.” It may well speak to some people’s experiences, but that “working-my-way-up” narrative about fast-food service is as trite as it is near-mythological in the real world — an idealized gloss on an industry that employs thousands of people, not all of whom are 18-year-olds planning to move onto something better.
The song waxes poetic about how making deliveries means feeling free and unencumbered for a moment — “No one’s watching me,” he sings. It does not speak to the reality of the essential pandemic-era workers delivering food for Uber Eats, DoorDash, Postmates, etc. On those apps, workers’ every move is monitored with cold, unforgiving efficiency.
In more imaginative hands, this updated Working might have yielded a darkly comedic or satirical tone, taking to task the Jeff Bezos of the world, for example. Instead, the songs too often focus on easy targets like “kids these days.”
A teacher named Rose laments the lack of respect she gets from her students, but the song has been updated to focus primarily on young people and their cellphone apps. “Who needs to spell when you’re texting all day?” is one cringe-inducing line that nonetheless got a laugh from patrons, who skewed older. Again, the issue isn’t the topic but the approach.
Who exactly is this show for? That overarching question hangs over Working, which has tickets range from $65 (two-person pod) to more than $200 (four-person pod). Seeing this show isn’t cheap, and it’s likely that the income bracket of the characters onstage is nowhere near that of those in the audience.
The songs that hold up best come from James Taylor. His “Brother Trucker” is a smooth, bluesy riff that keeps things simple; the heartbreaking “Millwork,” about a woman stuck in a manufacturing job, is a hauntingly beautiful tune about broken aspirations. Lines like “it’s me and my machine, for the rest of the morning, for the rest of the afternoon, for the rest of my life” are eternal.
Atlanta native Kristian Bush of the pop-country band Sugarland wrote “5 Things” especially for this production. It takes a stab at encapsulating modern-day organizing. A highlight is the firsthand account of Deborah Scott, executive director of STAND-UP, which describes itself as a “think and act tank for working families.” Instead of getting a solo though, she’s one of many voices in the only piece that tries to make Working feel more contemporary.
On the plus side, the cast is stellar. Jewl Carney and Brad Raymond are standouts, but the entire ensemble — Courtenay Collins, Rob Lawhon, Tawana Montgomery, Eddy Rioseco — sings, acts and dances (as much as it can from designated spots onstage) with joy. Too bad they don’t have more with which to work.