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Labor Day Special Reissue Theory: Stephen Schwartz and James Taylor, “Working”

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Working (Original 1978 Broadway Cast)

The Second Disc Archives are open!  We’re reprising this look at a musical which united the talents of Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor, Mary Rodgers, Micki Grant and Craig Carnelia, while our story also features “appearances” along the way by Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Jennifer Warnes and Rupert Holmes!  Welcome to our Reissue Theory special: Working!

On Monday, September 6, 2010, America celebrated its 128th Labor Day, all but the first 12 of them recognized as a federal holiday. Labor Day was designed as a holiday to celebrate the contributions, both social and economic, of labor and trade workers to the country’s livelihood and prosperity. One chronicle of the great working men and women of America was Studs Terkel’s 1974 book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Terkel found surprising meaning in the lives of America at work, speaking to masons, valets, waitresses, truckers and housewives, just to name a few. One fan of the book was a young composer and lyricist named Stephen Schwartz. Having already struck commercial gold with his musicals Godspell , Pippin and The Magic Show (and with a little musical called Wicked some years in the future), Schwartz became intrigued with the idea of creating a theatrical adaptation of Terkel’s book, turning the spotlight of a major Broadway musical onto everyday citizens.

Schwartz’s conception was a non-traditional musical with a score created by a group as diverse as the true-life characters they would write about. Invitations were shortly sent out to an elite group of composers and lyricists admired by Schwartz: Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Micki Grant, Craig Carnelia, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead. (One might-have-been: after the fact, Schwartz got a call from Billy Joel volunteering his services. He told biographer Carol de Giere that “he would have been brilliant at this material but it was too late,” the musical having already been completed. “To this day,” Schwartz wrote in the liner notes to the 2001 CD reissue of the cast recording of Working, “I would love to hear what he would have written!”) Mitchell and Simon turned Schwartz down although both were interested (talk about another might-have-been!), but the others signed on.

Despite the herculean efforts of a talented cast (including Bob Gunton, Patti LuPone, Joe Mantegna and Lynne Thigpen) and creative team, Working was not a commercial success. After a tryout in Terkel’s stomping ground of Chicago, Working shuttered after a mere 12 performances and 24 previews (performances prior to the official opening night) on Broadway. Columbia Records, however, had the foresight to see that Schwartz’s musical receive a cast recording. The album was produced by Schwartz himself with Elliot Scheiner, now a six-time Grammy winner out of 23 nominations, and long a leading light in the DVD-Audio/surround sound community. So please hit the jump and meet some more famous names from the worlds of music and theatre in a special Labor Day Reissue Theory look at the original cast recording of Working!

Schwartz and Scheiner’s cast recording preserves the best of Working, namely its often-stunning score. The multiple-songwriter approach paid off. As a successful songwriter himself, many expected adapter/director Stephen Schwartz to write the score himself. But as he put it, “…if I were to write the entire score, a lot of what I was writing would be pastiche or imitations of other people’s styles. Since I felt the songs should have more authenticity than that, I decided it would be better to have a team of songwriters approach the characters, and I began to recruit collaborators.” His choices were inspired, and the songs submitted were strung by Schwartz and his collaborator Nina Faso into a loose narrative intertwining all of the characters so that Working wasn’t simply a concert or song cycle. A more defined story of a family was initially developed, but a more revue-like format emerged by the time the production hit New York.

James Taylor was by far the most well-known member of the team. Taylor contributed a folksy, gentle guitar-played melody to “Un Mejor Dia Vendra,” a reflection of a family of migrant workers. Taylor’s other songs were “Brother Trucker,” which he himself reprised on the 1982 television adaptation of Working, and one of the legendary songwriter’s finest compositions, “Millwork” (later retitled “Millworker”). The former was introduced by Joe Mantegna and has the rhythms of Taylor’s funkier work, while the melancholy “Millwork” was achingly poignant as performed by Robin Lamont (of Schwartz’s Godspell). Schwartz was impressed that Taylor had come up with the notion of the millworker’s song, and remains proud of the integration of Taylor’s “absolutely beautiful and devastating” song with dialogue and dance in the complete millworker sequence. The song, too, is Schwartz’s personal favorite in the show. Working remains Taylor’s only Broadway musical.

Micki Grant’s infectious and powerful “If I Could Have Been” was performed by Lynne Thigpen as the musical’s Act One finale, and the song wistfully sums up the universal regrets shared by so many. (So in tune were the musical’s writers that Grant’s song, with its prominent piano part, sounds much like something Schwartz would have written, with his Elton John/Laura Nyro influence.) Schwartz contributed four songs, including the future cabaret standard and comic tour de force “It’s an Art” in which a waitress (Lenora Nemetz) describes her daily grind. The emotional “Fathers and Sons,” one of the most autobiographical songs he has penned, was one he was initially reluctant to include because of its deeply personal nature. His “All the Live Long Day” opening song melds Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing” into a very period opening number combining elements of contemporary pop/rock and traditional show music, one of Schwartz’s specialties. (He has credited James Taylor’s style with influencing this song, as well.)

Craig Carnelia tackled the story of “The Mason” and the retiree “Joe,” and summed up the musical in its proud closing song, “Something to Point To.” But his most famous contribution to Working may be “Just a Housewife,” sang with conviction by Susan Bigelow as the housewife questions her mundane daily life. Mary Rodgers (the composer of Once Upon a Mattress and Richard’s daughter) gave Working her “Nobody Tells Me How,” a still true-to-life reflection on the generation gap by an aging, frustrated teacher.

Working has had a long life since its brief Broadway stand. After its 1982 television airing, revised versions appeared at many regional theatres around the country including Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre, Florida’s Asolo Rep and San Diego’s Old Globe. As a result, the show is still known by many today, as its themes still resonate. Its cast album was reissued in 2001 on the now-defunct Fynsworth Alley label, and while it fetches high prices today, is well worth seeking out for any fan of the 1970s singer/songwriter sound and of theatrical pop/rock.

Of course, this is a Reissue Theory column, and a reissue is indeed overdue. The 2001 edition, supervised by producer Bruce Kimmel, appended 6 terrific bonus tracks: a 1999 song added by Schwartz for a Los Angeles production and performed by Kenna Ramsey; a song cut prior to Broadway performed by its composer, Craig Carnelia; further demos performed by Grant and Carnelia, and a solo track of Schwartz singing “Fathers and Sons” originally recorded for The Stephen Schwartz Album. In a dream world where no expense would be spared on a project such as this, yours truly would supplement these extras with Taylor’s recordings of “Brother Trucker” and “Millworker,” both recorded for his 1979 Columbia album Flag. It’s known that Taylor wrote a song that didn’t make it into the show, one entitled “American Dreaming.” Perhaps a demo could be unearthed, if one exists. Later productions of Working added the Taylor song “Traffic Jam,” so it’s a natural for inclusion. Another fine bonus would be Bruce Springsteen’s raw, wrenching and indelible performance of “Millworker,” from the 2006 MusiCares Person of the Year Tribute to Taylor, which has only been released on DVD and not in any audio format. Springsteen’s rendition of “Millworker” is a rare cover of a Broadway show song for the singer. (Taylor has dipped into the Broadway songbook on more occasions, including a fine version of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” recorded for his Covers CD.) Jennifer Warnes performed the original female version of “Millwork” for the television production, and many consider her rendition to be among the song’s finest. It would be a welcome treat for Warnes’ recording to finally see a CD debut. (The television production was available on DVD from Image Entertainment’s Broadway Theatre Archive, but is also sadly out-of-print.) Finally, Rupert Holmes paid tribute to Working by recording Carnelia’s cut “Hots Michael at the Piano” with producer Kimmel expertly at the helm, and it’s a great, bluesy rendition that deserves a spot on our disc.

As the summer draws to a close on this Labor Day, Studs Terkel’s words ring true: “I was constantly astonished by the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people. No matter how bewildering the times, no matter how dissembling the official language, those we call ordinary are aware of a sense of personal worth…Their spirit transcends.” Happy Labor Day, and enjoy my hypothetical track listing this 2-CD, cross-licensed reissue of Working just below!

Working: Original Cast Recording (Columbia JS-35411, 1978)

Disc 1: Original Album

  1. All The Live Long Day
  2. Lovin’ Al
  3. The Mason
  4. Neat to Be a Newsboy
  5. Nobody Tells Me How
  6. Un Mejor Dia Vendra
  7. Just a Housewife
  8. Millwork
  9. If I Could’ve Been
  10. Joe
  11. It’s an Art
  12. Brother Trucker
  13. Fathers and Sons
  14. Cleanin’ Women
  15. Something to Point To

Disc 2: Bonus Tracks

  1. Millworker (Bruce Springsteen)
  2. I’m Just Movin’ (Kenna Ramsey)
  3. Hots Michael at the Piano – demo (Craig Carnelia)
  4. The Mason – demo (Craig Carnelia)
  5. Joe – demo (Craig Carnelia)
  6. Lovin’ Al – demo (Micki Grant)
  7. Fathers and Sons (Stephen Schwartz)
  8. Millworker (James Taylor)
  9. Brother Trucker (James Taylor)
  10. Hots Michael at the Piano (Rupert Holmes)
  11. Millworker (Jennifer Warnes)
  12. American Dreaming – demo (James Taylor)
  13. Traffic Jam (James Taylor)

Disc 2, Track 1 from The MusiCares Person of the Year Tribute to James Taylor (Rhino R2971642, 2006)
Disc 2, Track 2 from Working: 1999 LA Theatre Works Production (Original Cast Records 8749, 2002)
Disc 2, Tracks 3-6 from Working: Original Cast Recording (Fynsworth Alley CD 302 062 114 2, 2001)
Disc 2, Track 7 from The Stephen Schwartz Album (Varese Sarabande VSD-6045, 1999)
Disc 2, Tracks 8-9 from Flag (Columbia FC-36058, 1979)
Disc 2, Track 10 from Lost in Boston IV (Varese Sarabande VSD-5768, 1997)
Disc 2, Track 11 from Working (American Playhouse/PBS, 1982)
Disc 2, Track 12 previously unissued
Disc 2, Track 13 from JT (Columbia JC-34811, 1977)

Written by Joe Marchese

September 6, 2010 at 23:45

2 Responses

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  1. Neat idea, too bad your concept isn’t open enough to add a song that wasn’t written for the musical … namely Billy Joel’s “Allentown”. This song could well have been partially inspired by “Working” and would serve as a fitting epitaph to what has happened to the American industrial worker. (And since Stephen Schwartz was disappointed that Billy Joel wasn’t able to be included on the original production, this would be the perfect place to finally include a song by him.)


    September 5, 2011 at 12:25

  2. Allentown: Great song by a great songwriter… Just a shame that it remains as relevant as ever. Don’t you wish more people would actually learn something from history (not to mention rock & roll)?

    And “Millworker” is one of my favorite JT songs. But that version Springsteen did could be the definitive performance of it. I’d like to see it released on audio someday.


    September 5, 2011 at 17:19

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