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Working The Musical - DVD Review

by Michael Colavolpe

WORKING A Presentation of Thirteen/WNET New York, American Playhouse, 1982 (Length approx. 1:30, Color)

Synopsis/Review by Michael Colavolpe TheatreMania Productions

CAST: Barry Bostwick, Rita Moreno, James Taylor, Eileen Brennan, Charles Durning, Barbara Hershey, Patti LaBelle, Scatman Crothers, Barbara Barrie, Charles Haid, Fausto Barajas, Didi Conn, Vernee Watson, Edie McClurg, Lynne Thigpen, Bill Beyers, Barbara Browning, Jay Garner, Billy Jacoby, David Patrick Kelly, Beth Howland, Matt Landers, Mark Neely, Carole Schwartz.

PLAYWRIGHT: Stephen Schwartz, Nina Faso, James Taylor, Micki Grant, Craig Carnelia, Mary Rodgers, and Susan Birkenhead adapting the work of Studs Terkel DIRECTOR:

Stephen Schwartz Produced in 1982, this video version of the 1978 Off-Broadway musical is a bit like the Holy Grail among WORKING fans. Populated by a cast of somewhat popular film and TV stars of the time, the pacing and direction of this piece on the whole is very slow and plodding, a surprising fact when you learn that Schwartz himself was behind the helm. Many of the songs' tempos have been slowed (compared to the original) and some scenes, despite being shortened for television, were downright boring when transferred to film. Some songs have also been edited (All the Livelong Day, Neat to be a Newsboy, Something to Point To) or excised completely (The Mason). Since I don't believe this project was intended to be a "film version" of the original theatre script, but rather simply a video version of the stage play, I'll be comparing it as such.

The video starts with a introduction by author Studs Terkel himself, who re-appears at various times throughout the video interviewing steelworker Barry Bostwick (Rocky Horror Picture Show, Spin City) in an attempt to create a throughline for the vignette-style show. Bostwick acts the role of the steelworker just fine, but does a major disservice to "Fathers and Sons" toward the end of the piece. His voice and his vibrato of death - was just not a good match for this great Schwartz song. In the opening, Terkel is backed by a large montage of the cast as "All The Livelong Day" starts playing in the background, focusing on a particular actor when their role is mentioned ("the checker, trucker, the hooker, the housewife..."), although wobbly-voiced Bostwick sings his "hey somebody..." solo on-camera. You know right there that "Fathers and Sons" is going to be painful later on.

Scatman Crothers (The Shining, Chico and the Man) appears next as "Lovin' Al", the car hiker, and does a very faithful and credible rendition of the song while jazzing his way among Cadillacs and Lincolns. The office scene follows and is pretty much intact from the original script, with Vernee Watson (Welcome Back Kotter) giving this somewhat long scene some spunk as clerk/typist Diane.

Barbara Browning and Jay Garner also appear here. Barbara Barrie (Company, Barney Miller) as the schoolteacher is, like Crothers, very faithful to the original and does a pleasant rendition of "Nobody Tells Me How".

Next up is Billy Jacoby (Beastmaster) as the newsboy. And while it might be "Neat to be a Newsboy", the song is literally cut in half and most of his dialogue is gone. It's curious that this would be left in and "The Mason" cut.

Following is the rather lengthy supermarket and migrant farm worker scenes, although as in the original stage script, they are so well-written that you don't care how long they are. Especially nice are the transitions from the supermarket to the fields as the same actors are used for both. Schwartz' wife Carole is featured as the supermarket checker and Fausto Barajas as the migrant worker. While I've never seen either before or since, they have some shining moments here. The beautifully haunting "Un Mejor Dia Vendra" is sung by a disembodied voice.

Comic relief follows as the gasman, played by Charles Haid (Hill Street Blues), delivers the speech most WORKING fans love the most. Unfortunately, without a live audience, it doesn't quite pack the same punch. Beth Howland (Company, Alice) is up next as the housewife and she proceeds to massacre one of the most beautiful songs in the show ("Just a Housewife") in what has to be the worst casting in this piece.

Barbara Hershey (Beaches) is the hooker, doing what Barbara Hershey does best - pout. Eileen Brennan (Private Benjamin) is excellent as the millworker and there's no doubt in the viewer's mind of the emotional pain she's suffering, "Millworker" (the song) is also sung by a disembodied voice. Ending Act I is "If I Could Have Been", just as in the stage script.

Terkel pops up again and we catch glimpses of the cast we've already seen and those we've yet to meet in this rousing anthem. Rita Moreno (West Side Story, Electric Company) is the waitress and "It's an Art", both in delivery and staging, is quite fun if a bit slow (again, like most of the numbers). A special treat follows as James Taylor plays the trucker, singing his own song, but with verses I've never heard before or since (maybe they're on JT's album that contains the song). You basically cannot go wrong with JT singing JT and the scene is great.

Next up is Didi Conn (You Light Up My Life, Grease), Edie McClurg (The Hogan Family), and Lynne Thigpen (Godspell, Carmen Sandiego) as the telephone operators in a scene that, again, really needs a live audience to work well. What a waste of Lynne Thigpen, the original stage show's cleaning woman. Taking on the role later in the video is pop diva Patti LaBelle, who makes "Cleaning Women" virtually unrecognizable with all her wailing. Thigpen should have been allowed to re-create her role.

Charles Durning (Tootsie, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) follows as retiree Joe and the song (the aptly-named "Joe") is as cute as ever. Fireman Matt Landers, salesman Mark Neely and copy boy David Patrick Kelly (Twin Peaks) bookend Patti LaBelle in scene virtually identical to the original, but not really offering any shining moments. Bostwick warbles through "Fathers and Sons" and the entire cast reunites with Terkel to end the video with "Something to Point To".

As WORKING fans know, the original production only ran for 25 performances, but has found a kind of immortality ever since thanks to continuous local productions. While it is nice to have some preservation of the show, it's a shame that it couldn't have been a little better than this one. With the advent of the newly revised and updated version, perhaps fans can someday look forward to a second stab at it.

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