Recreating WORKING: Gordon Greenberg & Donna Lynne Champlin
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by Jena Tesse Fox
While Working had a short life on Broadway 30 years ago, its songs remained popular enough to keep it in the popular consciousness of the musical theater community. Gordon Greenberg first did the show when he was 12, which gave him, he says, an "ingrained fondness for the material." Years later, he worked with one of the show's creators, Stephen Schwartz, on The Baker's Wife at Paper Mill Playhouse, and got the composer's blessing to try his hand at reworking the material.
"The trick was figuring out how to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts," Greenberg says about the mosaic nature of Working. "For years, people have tried to figure them out." Working with Jenny Steingart, President and Co-Founder of Ars Nova (and where Greenberg was an associate artist), he began finding a way to revamp the musical and make it relevant to a new generation. "We thought the way to do that was to conduct a new series of interviews and seek out people in professions that were modern and contemporary," he recalls. "We went to the people who created the self-checkouts at supermarkets, people in new software or computer professions or even in toxic waste." Following the new interviews, however, Greenberg and his collaborators realized that the strength of Studs Turkel's original work from 1974 could stand on its own. "The most fascinating aspects were timeless," Greenberg said.
With renewed purpose, Greenberg started looking for interviews and moments that did not exclusively apply to 1974, but that could apply to today's job market and economy. "We used that as a starting point, and I was fortunate enough to go back to archives and listen to the audio of the original interviews and pore through piles of transcripts. It was like a dream." Using the original material and parts of the original script, new monologues were created or adapted, and others were cut. Two new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda were added (written, Greenberg notes, while Miranda's own In the Heights was opening on Broadway, and needing no second drafts), and the 21st-century Working was taking shape.
Working under the assumption that the show would be performed on Ars Nova's smaller stage, Greenberg adapted Working for a smaller cast and a shorter running time. "We cast actors outside of their comfort zones and their types," he says. "Since the show doesn't have any continuing characters, we shaped it like La Ronde, so each character connects with the one before it, returning in to the end to the first man we met. By watching the actors transform before our eyes into dramatically different characters, it becomes almost a marathon of quick changes and transformations." Taking that idea to the next level, Greenberg had the idea to let the audience see the actors-and the rest of the stage crew-doing their jobs from the moment they enter the theater. The performers sit upstage to put their costumes on. The house lights go down to the sound of the stage manager calling cues. "We're going backstage," Greenberg says. "We can show them how things work."
Following productions at the Old Globe, Asolo and Broadway In Chicago, Greenberg talked with Prospect Theater Company's Cara Reichel and Peter Mills, who had worked with him on a workshop of Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge and were looking for revamped musicals. After looking over the script, Reichel was on board to bring the show to New York City. "And here we are, in the most intimate production imaginable. The theater only has 100 seats, but it's very thrilling. It's a tightrope walk because they're out there with no safety net. There's no scene partner, except for the audience in a 100-seat house. It builds a close relationship with the audience."
That tightrope walk, as challenging as it is, can be very rewarding for the performers onstage. "My favorite part of this production is the fact that we six actors get to shoulder a tremendous amount of the story telling with very little smoke and mirrors," says Donna Lynne Champlin, who plays several of the working characters in the show, from a waitress to a socialite. "We are pretty much right on top of the audience and all we have to differentiate between our many different characters are a few costume pieces and props. There is very Little Room for error." With nothing to hide behind, Champlin believes that the production has a level of theatrical intimacy-and that audiences are responding to the characters.
"There is a school of thought that the more likeable a character is, the quicker the audience will relate to them-which can be an extremely handy short cut when you've only got 90 seconds (sometimes less) to get an entire character across," Champlin notes. "However, my job as an actor is to simply make these people as honest and three-dimensionally alive based on the words they chose to speak in their interviews. Their 'likeability' is not my concern, because to measure their 'likeability' is to judge them in some way. To judge my characters is to make decisions for the audience that I have absolutely no right to make. My job is to serve my character's truths as my own and then let the chips fall where they may."
Champlin has been involved in the new Working from its San Diego premiere, but her life has changed considerably in between the two productions, including marriage, motherhood and home-ownership. And while those changes have impacted her own roles, Champlin has found the strongest emotional growth in two scenes in which she barely appears. During "Just A Housewife," performed by Kenita R. Miller, Champlin sings backup while holding a doll. "I remember worrying during the whole Old Globe run about how I was holding my baby because I think I'd held an actual baby maybe twice in my entire life up until then. And now, of course, with a 17-month-old son, it's second nature. In fact, my onstage baby is smaller than my son is now and I find myself sort of wistful for when he was that little...But I swaddle it every night just like I did my boy. It makes me nostalgic, I guess."
And during one of the new songs, Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Very Good Day," about a nurse and a nanny caring for an elderly man and a toddler, respectively, Champlin doesn't even appear onstage. "As a working mom, I can't listen to it anymore without bursting into tears. There is a lyric that the Nanny sings: 'Her mother works late...I tuck her in each night...For now I do what her mother doesn't do'-and it just doubles me over. Before I became a working mom, I could listen to that song guilt-free, but now the lyrics kinda punch me in the face. Repeatedly."
That reaction, she says, is part of the show's strength, and another way for her to connect with her audience. "I knew I had 'working mom' guilt but I didn't understand to what extent until I heard that song again. It's a gift. It's a chance for me to come to terms with an issue that is much larger in my heart than I realized. Their mirror hasn't changed, but my reflection in it has."
Working, Champlin says, is based on truth-"and truth is universal so I think this show speaks to everyone as clearly now as it did then, and will continue to do so in the future. The people interviewed spoke from the heart, and I think a major lesson in Working is that anyone who's worked a day in their lives, regardless of their profession, all have a lot in common. The Wall Street guy, the housewife, the waitress-they all want to be happy. As our fireman so poignantly says, they 'all want to feel good about they did on this earth.'"