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The names Stephen Schwartz, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rogers and James Taylor certainly mean something to fans of musical theatre and beyond, and whilst many of us are familiar with their individual works their collective collaboration is perhaps less well known. A new production of their 1977 musical Working is preparing to open in London at the Southwark Playhouse, offering musical fans a rare opportunity to see this deeply relevant and curious 'genre-defining' show.
“It's genre defining as it's in a genre of its own” explains director Luke Sheppard as we meet mid-rehearsal for this exciting new production. “No one else really ever joined that genre. Its closest cousin is something like A Chorus Line. It's genre-defining because it doesn't work with a book narrative, it doesn't take you on a story. Instead it takes text and uses that as the source, so it's character driven rather than plot driven.”
Like A Chorus Line before it in 1975 Working is an early example of a verbatim musical that uses text from transcripts based on interviews with ordinary working Americans. Originally compiled in Studs Terkel's nine-book long tome 'Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do' the musical draws together some 40 characters who all have their own unique, yet quietly unremarkable story to tell.
“It's also not afraid to be imperfect in its form” Sheppard comments as we discuss the numerous revisions made to the show over the years, including the addition by Pulitzer Prize-winning Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda in 2008. “Quite often when we work on new musicals we talk about the 'perfect' musical or the structure of the musical and we try to dissect it into plot points or numbers, whereas this wears its imperfection on its sleeve and uses that to its strengths.”
Some of the most original pieces of musical theatre have been created from the most unlikely of source material and Terkel's original book continues to find deep resonance across the United States.
“I've come into this with really fresh eyes and I know a lot of musical theatre but I didn't really know this show” comments performer Liam Tamne who stars in the production alongside the celebrated West End actor Peter Polycarpou. “I didn't know that Stephen Schwartz had worked on this piece and brought it together. What I find fascinating is that it's actually used in the curriculum at school in America – they actually study the book”.
“He was a very radical writer” Polycarpou explains as we talk about the background of the book and details that have inspired the musical. “All of his work focused on the labour movement and the liberal side of the political debate. This book itself was a huge best-seller – it's very much part of the American psyche in terms of work, it was massively incorporated into the education just to help people to understand what working life in America was made up of. All these people, this cross section of society – a whole sphere of work was covered, it wasn't just labourers or waitresses, it went all the way up to management class. These people were interviewed and these extracts were then taken from that, it's hugely interesting”.
As a director who has most recently worked on the Olivier Award-winning UK premiere of In The Heights and the brand new musical adaptation of Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole, Luke is certainly skilled at working on new and challenging material, yet Working still is proving to be quite a different challenge.
“I was interested in Working because it is unlike any other piece I have come across before” he explains. “I love working at Southwark Playhouse because I think it's one of our most extraordinary theatre spaces in London and I think it's a special part of the theatre ecology because it allows you to put on shows that wouldn't have a natural home elsewhere. For me there is something about this piece that was in natural dialogue with that building – Southwark used to be, to our knowledge, a development for Ford motorcars, that's what the space actually was.”
American industry and the eclectic nature of working life is a topic that feels so relevant that the production feels like a natural fit in London in 2017. I ask Luke if that provide a refreshing challenge to the creative team or if in fact it feels exhausting for this 1970s musical to be so closely aligned to a post-Trump world.
“Ever since we decided to do this a year ago the world has changed and the responsibility on our shoulders feels like it has increased” he explains. “We have a research sessions every day and we're not short of material – you just have to turn the news on to see what industry means to America at the moment, this drive to reclaim jobs, what jobs mean for working Americans and their identity. What immigration means for work, what gender means for employment, and we've got a real pool of talent in the rehearsal room who have strong feelings about that so it's a constant dialogue.”
“I think the politics of it are very rooted in what it means to be an American worker and that specificity makes it have a universal appeal” echoes Polycarpou. “It's so focused on how you do your work and what you feel about your work that a lot of people will relate to that in a very real sense wherever you are in the world. If you work for a living you're going to understand the emotions the thoughts and the feelings of these characters.”
"When we decided to do it I had a meeting with Stephen Schwartz and I said that as a director I understand that this isn't necessarily a piece of political theatre" remembers Luke. "He stopped me and said it's absolutely a piece of theatre that can be political. I found that very refreshing – he was absolutely open to the idea that it should speak for the time in which it is performed. There's nothing about it that's preaching, hopefully there's a sense of the undercurrent of what we're experiencing now that allows an audience to draw those out. We are looking to theatre to try and answer the questions of the world. Personally I think that's a very exciting time.”
For Liam and Peter who play multiple characters throughout the production Working offers a unique set of acting and musical challenges that are shaped by the diverse talent and backgrounds of performers in the whole company. “We have an eclectic cast who all bring different working backgrounds” Tamne states. “I play a lot of different cultures and that is something that I bring. It's very interesting seeing things from different perspectives. We all bring our own experience to these roles and it's essential in some of the roles that you draw on your own experience.”
“I found inspiration in how Stephen Schwartz and the other writers adapted that text into song so that their feelings formed a narrative of their own in their own description of their work, these songs for me were a revelation” Peter comments, talking about the mix of writers and styles that make up the entire score.
“I can see why they've drawn on so many writers because it's so fitting to real life people” Liam replies. “The music is very fitting. We know Stephen Schwartz for really big work and I think they've been very clever in the people that they've picked to contribute. It may seem to some people that it's a bit 'jolty' – you've got to remember that this is real life conversations, this is the thing, there isn't a through-line as such”.
“Schwartz used the word mosaic, which I found very interesting” Luke follows up. “It brings together different people who tell their story on their tile or patchwork quilt as it were, it should feel stylistically varied and that each one of those voices brings their own flavour to it. As a team we're looking to find a sense of consistency in terms of style, and the way that we discover the songs are through this company of six young people which I think gives a consistency to it but I'm hoping the range and the breadth of music is one of the things that makes it unique.”
The show certainly offers multiple on-ramps for audiences looking for a unique and relevant piece of theatre as well as musical theatre fans excited to perhaps see the piece for the first time in London.
“I think it has some fantastic songs, really accessible songs that they will instantly like” Peter comments. “They're melodic, exciting and beautifully intricate songs and vignettes. Connected to that they'll hear some really interesting dialogue from the mouths of real working people, they'll hear people talking about their work. It really is a very interesting piece of theatre.”
“What we have learned recently is that we need to listen to each other more, we need to speak about things more” Liam proposes. “I think this show is very clever in the sense that it opens your eyes for people to learn something they didn't already know and also have the gratitude for what they already have, and to understand that other people are just making a living”.
For Luke, the production offers audiences a new way to see the news and the world around us.
“It leaves you going out into the world connecting with what we see in the news but through a different lens that we don't always have access to in this country” he says. “Americana with a sense of authenticity, I hope”.
Working runs at the Southwark Playhouse from 2 June to 8 July 2017.