Review: Theatre on the Square’s ‘Working’

While there are more polished tuners and more accomplished productions around, there are few musicals as good for the soul as"Working."

If you've ever worked a day in your life, try to get to it at Theatre on the Square before it closes Oct. 29.

The show has gone through many permutations since it opened—and tanked—on Broadway back in 1979. Then and now, it’s anchored in Studs Terkel’s book, in which the legendary Chicago writer gave voice to a wide range of working people. From the construction worker to the prostitute and the firefighter to the newspaper delivery boy, Terkel patiently interviewed and then respectfully transcribed and edited these voices into a sympathetic, complicated, page-turning mosaic built from the jobs we do and the reasons why we do them.

The musical version honchoed by Stephen Schwartz, mixes monologues and character songs, wisely avoiding a narrative through-line in favor of a theatrical variation on the style that worked so well in the book. Then and now, “Working” is a parade of sketches, some funny, some insightful, some painful.

By nature, the results have always been hit and miss. But quality control isn’t the only reason for revision. Since work life changes through the years, “Working” could easily turn into a period piece. Do any hotels still have switchboard operators?  

Some of the changes in the most recent version, though, seem more about thrift. In an unintentional parallel to many a workforce, “Working” has been downsized through the years. What was originally staged with a company of 17 (including Joe Montegna and a non-singing Patti LuPone) now is down to six, which may make it more manageable for small theaters but takes away some of its authenticity.

Theatre on the Square’s production is strongest when the actors aren’t overtly playing characters different from themselves. And the material is strongest when it’s not trying to be cutesy.

For instance, even though I come from a long line of restaurant workers, the “It’s an Art” waitress song never worked for me in any production (and is particularly awkward here). But when it comes to the somber “Millworker” song (penned by James Taylor and beautifully staged here) or the melancholy anthem for all compromisers “If I Could’ve Been,” the show becomes deeply moving.

Fans of “Working” may miss the cut Lovin’ Al and his parking prowess, or the migrant worker song “Un Mejor Dia Vendra,” but plenty of the original material still plays. I’m glad I had the chance to reacquaint myself with Joe the retiree as he outlines his day, celebrate the determination and Aretha Franklin-like sound of the cleaning women, and, once again, have my heart shaken by the here’s-why-we-do-this song “Fathers and Sons.”

In those moments, “Working” isn’t just entertaining and effecting. It feels almost essential. And well worth revising…and revivals. For more details click here.

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