Broadway legend Stephen Schwartz on updating his musical with multi-media, CT locals and Lin-Manuel Miranda
Stephen Schwartz’s Working first hit Broadway in 1977. The original Working is adapted from Studs Terkel’s book and uses actual words of ordinary men and women. In that original show, 26 people—a parking-lot attendant, housewife, schoolteacher, corporate executive, fireman, sailor—talk and sing about their lives, troubles, and joys. The down-to-earth yet elevating musical features songs by Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, Craig Carnelia, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
A revised production of Working will take the stage at A Contemporary Theater (ACT) beginning February 14, under the direction of Daniel C. Levine. Levine is artistic director and co-founder with Katie Diamond of ACT. This Working will be heavily infused with Ridgefield’s DNA.
“What I am excited about is that Dan has done new interviews with local people, and we will incorporate them into the musical,” says Schwartz, who has also composed blockbusters such as Pippin, Godspell, and Wicked. “The word contemporary in A Contemporary Theater is very appropriate here.”
Schwartz and Levine previously collaborated on a project that brought upscale shows to cruise lines. “I was enthusiastic to work with Dan again. Live theater is collaborative. I really value and enjoy that. A show is made from all the people who work on it. The idea that Dan came up with—a mixed-media experience—will make it very exciting for the audience.”
The idea behind bringing Working to ACT stems from the fact that Schwartz has lived here for more than 40 years and is arguably one of the greatest Broadway composers of all time. “I wanted to do something to honor him and to let Ridgefield in on his work,” says Levine. ACT produces four shows a year and for its first three years one of those shows will be part of the Presenting Stephen Schwartz series.
The challenge with Working is that it is based on 1970s jobs, which are not so relevant to 2019 Ridgefield. Says Levine: “The music to Working is so great. It’s so successful in capturing each character’s story. And Stephen’s brilliant idea to have other songwriters—James Taylor, Mary Rodgers, Lin-Manuel Miranda—makes the musical score so diverse, interesting, and authentic.”
To modernize it, Levine invited Ridgefield workers to become part of the story. He was buying paper towels at CVS and briefly chatted with employee Nettie at checkout. “As I was driving home, I thought about her. How does she get home? Where does she live? What’s her story? Or Rosie at Tony’s Deli. I saw so many people in a new light.”
So he interviewed various workers and will show those interviews on large screens on stage as part of the show, but with the original score of music performed by the actors. “Stephen is as excited as I am with the results, and we agree it will be a crowd pleaser. The music is not changing but the order is different. It’s the script that is changing.”
“The show finds and celebrates people who are normally unsung and then sings about them,” adds Schwartz.
The key to the revision of Working, well, working is the relationship between Schwartz and ACT. Normally when a theater seeks to license a show, like Evita for example, it must pay a license fee of $30,000 to $40,000. On top of that is the stipulation that nothing changes: “not a word in a song, or the order of the songs, or changing of characters,” says Levine. Whereas with Working, ACT had to secure the rights but Schwartz was able to allow for the creative flexibility afforded Levine. And be part of the process.
Levine and Schwartz dug into the revision together—“there were lots of phone calls and emails, with a few working meetings either at my house or at ACT,” says Levine. And Schwartz was at ACT for some rehearsals. The show runs through March 10, with a highly talented cast of mostly New York-based Broadway performers.
“If this show is successful—both creatively and with good audience reaction—then it might become a template for other communities,” says Schwartz, who says of ACT in general: “It’s an astonishing accomplishment that Dan and Katie were able to pull this off at all. Not only have they gotten this beautiful theater up and running, but they found an audience. It’s a jaw-dropping accomplishment.”