Stephen Schwartz’ musical adaptation of Studs Terkel’s Working, a collection of verbatim interviews with a wide range of workers talking about what they do and how they feel about it, has been shape-shifting since it premiered in 1977. Its structure—a modular series of monologues and songs written by a group of authors that includes Schwartz, Nina Faso, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, James Taylor, and Susan Birkenhead—has allowed it to be seamlessly revised and updated many times through the years; A 2008 revision led by director Gordon Greenberg even added new songs by Tony- and Putlitzer-winning Hamilton writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Of course, Terkel likely couldn’t have even conceived of the rapidly changing face of the workplace in 2020: a global pandemic has made working remotely from home the norm for many people, countless workers remain furloughed as businesses struggle to remain afloat in a fragile economy, and the importance of workers like grocery store employees and nurses has never been more in focus.
Enter Peter Flynn, a pioneering director who has been at the forefront of theatre’s response to COVID-19 since Broadway shut down in March, both as a director of streaming plays with Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley’s Plays in the House series and as a theatre teacher working with students remotely through Montclair State University. We chatted with Flynn ahead of a Broadway Teaching Group workshop for theatre educators he’ll be leading in January (along with Schwartz as a special guest) that will cover his entire experience on Working, from pre-production and rehearsals to editing and streaming the final product.
Flynn originally chose Working to present at Montclair because its modular structure made it ideal for online performance, but once he began working on the production, his director wheels started turning.
“I suddenly realized that [the show] worked really well because we’re in a new culture of how people work,” shares Flynn. As for how to represent that new culture, Flynn didn’t have to look far: several of his students had family profoundly affected in their professional lives by COVID-19. “So I went to them and said, ‘if we were to interview your family, do you think they’d be up for it, and could we turn them into monologues?’” Once everyone was on board, Flynn reached out to Schwartz, who shepherded the original production as its director in addition to contributing material, to get his blessing, which he got—emphatically.
“We always talk about theatre living on because it’s live,” says Schwartz. “And we talk about that with so many shows, but I think Working, in terms of the material being updated, is almost like a living documentary of whatever time it’s being presented. I find it enormously exciting and theatrical.”
As various revisions have been made, Schwartz has been able to refine the purpose of the show.
“I think the emphasis in the show has changed a little bit over time. There were more white-collar workers in the show originally, and over time, we’ve realized that that’s represented very well in other shows and other media, so we tend to concentrate more on the unrecognized and unsung workers.”
“We interviewed six different people in all different jobs,” says Flynn. “Three were healthcare professionals, one was a pilot, one was a teacher, and one was a business owner—and they had all been affected by COVID. One was working in the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital when the epidemic first broke, and her stories were both riveting and harrowing. But then we had some other stories which were just as heartbreaking, like a business owner who had just opened a business 18 months before that was thriving, and now has closed. We interviewed a pilot who, at the time of the interview, was just on hold. When we reached back out to make sure he approved of the monologue, he’d been furloughed.”
And the chance to create this new material for the show was not only an interesting artistic choice. Ever the educator, Flynn found remarkable opportunity for his students in the project.
“As a director, I want to have my hands all over it, but as an educator, I thought ‘we can all grow from this.’ So, I went to my associate director—Chanel Johnson, a graduating senior—and asked her to lead the interviews with the actors cast as those characters. She led the interviews and the actor basically listened until Chanel had asked all of her questions. And then, because of those questions, the actor chimed in with more personal questions. The first interview was with one of our healthcare professionals, and she couldn’t have been more generous. She was actually grateful that somebody was listening—You could hear her sort of get lifted from her experience by having to put words to what she went through.”
Schwartz hopes to have a codified template for updates like Flynn’s, a project he’s working on with director Daniel C. Levine following a 2019 production at ACT of Connecticut that interpolated interviews with local workers, that could be part of licensing Working, freeing Schwartz from having to personally approve each request and ensuring that the show can continue to evolve and grow. The key to that, for Schwartz, is that theatres maintain the authenticity of Terkel’s original book.
“If someone wanted to, say, use a local waitress from their town rather than the interview with Dolores Dante that’s in the show, they would still have to do the interview and edit together what was said so that it’s a specific real worker and their real words. You can’t write your own monologue of what you think a waitress would say.”
Ultimately, Schwartz has watched the heart and the experience of the show stay the same, even through many changes over the years.
“I think [the updates] amplify the experience and make it maybe even stronger, but I don’t think it changes it. Working is about the unsung people who help us get through our lives and our connections to them, of which we’re not always conscious. It shines a light on people who generally don’t have that light shown on them, and that’s true of all these versions. Although the specifics change, which makes the show feel immediate and current, the show always remains the same—it’s the same experience. It’s wonderful to have a show that doesn’t date because it’s always current.”
Montclair State University’s production of Working will stream in 2021. Flynn and Schwartz’ workshop that will take theatre educators through their process of building the production from beginning to end will be held online January 17. For more information, visit BroadwayTeachingGroup.com.