Hearing ordinary people talk about their jobs can provide surprising and moving glimpses of other lives. In Studs Terkel's 1974 book "Working" he interviewed hundreds of Americans talking about what they did for a living and how they felt about their jobs.
Informed by the long jobless slog of the past five years, the short-lived 1978 musical revue based on the book has been updated, trimmed and reworked, still using the original subjects' words, with added material from 2007-2008 interviews.
A spirited production of "Working: A Musical" presented by Prospect Theater Company opened Wednesday night off-Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. Written by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, the sometimes upbeat, sometimes pensive show has additional contributions by Gordon Greenberg, who also directed.
Through dialogue, song and dance, the dynamic adaptation provides memorable portraits of a diverse group of people, all ages and mostly salt-of-the-earth types, some underemployed and many underappreciated. Some share their dreams and consider other paths they might have taken.
Two new songs from Tony Award-winner Lin-Manuel Miranda ("In the Heights") have been added to original songs by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, Schwartz and James Taylor.
Six actors portray about 25 characters, backed by four musicians led by Daniel Feyer. The hardworking cast demonstrates wide-ranging talent and diversity as they slip quickly from one character to the next, aided by two onstage dressers.
Fittingly, the opening ensemble number, "All the Livelong Day" by Schwartz, acknowledges America's Everyman poet, Walt Whitman with the iconic lyric, "I hear America singing." Ironworker Mike, (one of several strong portrayals by Joe Cassidy), describes his job as 'Pick it up, put it down." Cassidy later robustly voices another reflective Schwartz song, "Fathers and Sons," in which Mike shares his hope to give his son a better life.
There's a modern segment on cubicle life in which one worker (Kenita Miller, sassy and resilient) says "I have friends who would kill for this job, for any job" even though she has a "Satan boss." The cast expertly swirls rolling tables with laptops around the small stage, in one of several snappy numbers by choreographer Josh Rhodes.
One of the most visually impressive scenes is beautifully led by Marie-France Arcilla as luggage factory worker Grace. Arcilla ruefully sings Taylor's dispirited "Millwork" while the cast robotically mimes an extended, trance-like repetition of the arduous, 40-second routine Grace performs all day, every day.
With boyish enthusiasm, Nehal Joshi enacts Freddy, a young fast-food worker who celebrates his moments of freedom provided by people who need "Delivery," a song by Miranda for which Rhodes provides another animated ensemble number.
Donna Lynne Champlin is memorably disgruntled as a third-grade teacher of many decades who bemoans the current state of education (and today's impolite, distracted children) in the poignant solo, "Nobody Tells Me How." Fresh-faced Jay Armstrong Johnson plays a pensive cop-turned-firefighter, and then a sleep-deprived big-rig driver in Taylor's anthem to independence and selfishness, "Brother Trucker."
Beowulf Boritt's set design cleverly enlarges the stage by creating a loft for the musicians, running a staircase up one side, and using black netting to create a semi-opaque area at the rear.
The life- and work-affirming finale, "Something To Point To" by Carnelia, sums up the show's simple message: that everyone can find something in their daily work to be proud of.