Alliance Theatre updates ‘Working’ musical for 2021

The cast of the Alliance Theatre's new Atlanta-centric production of the Stephen Schwartz musical "Working," includes (from the left) Rob Lawhon, Tawana Montgomery, Courtenay Collins, Brad Raymond, Jewl Carney and Eddy Rioseco. Photo illustration courtesy of Greg Mooney
The cast of the Alliance Theatre's new Atlanta-centric production of the Stephen Schwartz musical "Working," includes (from the left) Rob Lawhon, Tawana Montgomery, Courtenay Collins, Brad Raymond, Jewl Carney and Eddy Rioseco. Photo illustration courtesy of Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

Studs Terkel-based production will have a new song and Atlanta-centric story lines

This year America learned how much we depend on the working stiff.

The grocery story bagger, the restaurant dishwasher, the delivery driver, the practical nurse: These people put their lives on the line so that we could continue to live ours.

That’s why the time is right for a show like “Working: A Musical.”

Beginning April 22, the Alliance Theatre presents the Stephen Schwartz musical outdoors, under a tent on the Woodruff Arts Center campus, with strict COVID-19 precautions in place.

“Working” is based on a book by oral historian Studs Terkel, who was a genius at uncovering the heart of the country by simply listening deeply. Terkel interviewed white collar and blue, paying thoughtful attention to those whose jobs are often invisible, and his unadorned transcriptions of their struggles was a revelation for many.

His work inspired the musical that is framed around a series of monologues, with songs by a collection of different writers. Four of the songs were written or co-written by James Taylor, including “Brother Trucker,” “Traffic Jam” and the hauntingly desolate “Millwork,” which includes the line: “It’s me and my machine, for the rest of the morning, for the rest of the afternoon, for the rest of my life.”

Like Taylor’s song, “Working” portrays the mindless frustration of a factory job, but also the essential dignity of earning a living. The working man and woman were under pressure in the 1970s, when the play was first staged, and even more so now, in the wake of the pandemic, when so many jobs disappeared and the risks of working skyrocketed.

Those who had the privilege of working from home have come to appreciate those stresses.

Jewl Carney in the Alliance Theatre production of "Working."
Courtesy of Greg Mooney
Jewl Carney in the Alliance Theatre production of "Working." Courtesy of Greg Mooney

“This is going to, I think, echo in people’s experience,” said director Tamilla Woodard. “The essential worker is actually part of people’s experience now, and the hazard of that work,” she said.

“Working” is an unusual show. A host of different songwriters have contributed tunes, and new songs have been added (including one by Lin-Manuel Miranda) and old ones jettisoned when the show was rewritten in the 1990s and again in the 2000s to mesh with the times.

The production by the Alliance brings yet another incarnation, with a new song by Atlantan Kristian Bush (one half of country music duo Sugarland) and new monologues that grew from interviews with Atlanta workers.

Staff at the Alliance planned to continue recording new interviews with Atlantans up until a week before opening night, said Woodard, who is originally from Texas. The new additions, she said, allow the Alliance to put itself, and Atlanta, inside the show. “We want to talk to as many people as possible.”

Many of those interviews are being collected by Rita Kompelmakher, who is responsible for community engagement at the Alliance. The creative team was particularly interested in Uber drivers, delivery people, teachers, fast food clerks, health care employees and other essential workers whose jobs suddenly went from being unnoticed to critical.

The recordings from these interviews will be pieced together into a quilt of Atlanta voices and will be used in monologues and as part of the sound design in the show.

Some jobs that were represented in the original version of “Working” — housewife, mason and (sadly) newsboy — don’t exist in the same way and were changed or left out of the new version.

“We won’t refer to women as housewives,” said Kompelmakher tartly, speaking from London, where she is coordinating the intelligence gathering by remote control.

Courtenay Collins in the Alliance Theatre production of "Working."
Courtesy of Greg Mooney
Courtenay Collins in the Alliance Theatre production of "Working." Courtesy of Greg Mooney

One character from the 2012 version of the show, the community organizer, held a special interest for Woodard. Atlanta has a history of producing such organizers, from Martin Luther King Jr. to the Black women who played a pivotal role in turning out the vote in the last election, she said. She and Kompelmakher made a point of collecting stories from protest leaders and activists, and conveying those stories to Kristian Bush (collaborating with his brother Brandon Bush) and lyricist Carlos Andrés Gomez to incorporate into a purpose-built song.

Some of the lines in that song, and in the organizer’s monologue, will come from interviewee Deborah Scott of Atlanta, a community organizer who told Kompelmakher about a protracted effort to get a penny tax passed in Clayton County to pay for mass transit.

“Well, in the year that, you know, a former president was elected,” she told Kompelmakher, “in that same year, transit passed in Clayton County. And I was on the first bus at 5:35 in the morning. That was a moment of just sheer joy.”

Speaking in a phone call from Nashville, Bush praised the concept of a stage musical that changes with the times.

“I’m not sure whose idea it was to make (the show) a living, breathing thing, but whoever did was a genius,” he said.

That genius would be Stephen Schwartz, a giant in musical theater (”Pippin,” “Godspell,” “Wicked”) whose crowd-sourced approach to “Working” recaps the same techniques used by Terkel.

Schwartz has been steadily involved in the Alliance production, answering questions and offering guidance. “This wouldn’t be happening if he wasn’t involved,” said Woodard. “He has been incredibly generous in the amount of time he’s spent with me.”

In an interview from his home in Connecticut, Schwartz said previous updates have always been under his direction, but what the Alliance is doing is something new and perhaps unprecedented in a licensed musical.

To help them, he said, he tried to prepare a template for a localized version, so that “each theater or community doing the show has the right and ability to do interviews with local workers and interpolate them into the show and replace some of the other interviews with those. It is enormously exciting and what keeps the show fresh.”

“Working” is part of the Alliance Theatre’s Under the Tent series of performances, an effort to bring theater back to Atlanta, slowly but safely. The outdoor shows will keep audience members and actors separate from each other, masks will be required and admission will be by mobile e-ticketing only.

“There are a lot of restrictions with the various unions, but we’ve been able to conceive of a concert staging that keeps everybody safe and goes above and beyond what the COVID protocol is, so that nobody’s actually worried,” said Woodard.

This new show will come as precious oxygen for those who have been holding their breath, waiting for theater to begin again.

“I’m happy to leave my living room,” Woodard said, “and I think our audience is too.”

THEATER PREVIEW

“Working: A Musical.” Presented by the Alliance Theatre April 22-June 6. $50-$245 for two- and four-seat pods. Under the Tent, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. All Under the Tent productions will be recorded and streamed on-demand on the Alliance Theatre Anywhere streaming app. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org

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