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This is a movie episode of the TV series American Playhouse, showcasing
the musical adaptation of Stud Terkel's book that portrays the everyday
lives of working people.
This movie features a list of Hollywood actors and singers, from Barry Boswick to Rita Moreno, all giving stunning acting performances while telling the story of their working lives. Occupations such as steel workers, waitresses, factory workers, housekeepers, parking attendants, office personnel, firefighters and telephone operators are all portrayed here.
The visual effects were great and believable and the plot was dramatic; you can feel the stress, frustration, indifference and, at times, joy these occupations cause in these people's lives. In addition, the musical numbers sung by the actors were uplifting and catchy, with the song "What I Could Have Been" being my favorite. This song sounds nostalgic, sorrowful, but hopeful at the same time, and it reminds us how workers dream of being in something "bigger" like a celebrity or own a farm. But, this movie also reminds us that these everyday people are the ones who keep America, and the world, going.
My community college's theater did a performance of this story and I was very fortunate to be a part of the instrumental accompaniment of the play. So, this story has a special place in my heart.
Overall, it's a very meaningful story with uplifting songs that is not your conventional play or movie, but a brilliant portrayal of everyday jobs.
This was produced by PBS/WGBH/Great Performances/American Playhouse. But I wish they had cast some of the roles better. People like Barry Bostwick, Charles Haid, Rita Moreno & Barbara Hershey were very good, but I had to wince at Beth Howland's (from the "Alice" CBS sitcom) attempt at "Just a Housewife." Ugh. Didi Conn was annoying as the secretary, and Barbara Barrie was boring as The Schoolteacher, a song she did not sing well. Studs Terkel introduces the show, and in back of him are matted on the wall HUGE portraits of the actors in the show. Ick. Ploddingly directed - too bad for a wonderful musical that is not performed enough...
"Working" is looked at as a wonderful show with eclectic music and only
the most tenuous of connective matter. Basically a collection of
several dozen monologues and songs, it doesn't necessarily translate
well to the screen -- large or small. This teleplay is bookended with
speeches from the author of the source material, Studs Terkel. The
presentation is repetitive: almost each scene consists of one actor
addressing the camera. When presented on stage, the directorial trick
is to make it not look like that, and numerous techniques can be
employed to achieve that end. On screen, however, it seemed like the
same thing over and over again.
Several different composers contributed material to the Broadway production and this adaptation. Mary Rodgers contributes a traditional musical theater tune for the schoolteacher, sung wanly in this production by Barbara Barrie. Craig Carnelia contributes several songs including "If I Coulda Been" and "Something to Point To", and Micki Grant contributes "Lovin' Al", among others. Mega-Singer/Songwriter James Taylor adds some of the best songs, including the powerhouse "Millwork", and musical theater luminary Stephen Schwartz pens some of his most personal music, including the moving "Fathers and Sons".
However, there are some extraordinary performances that keep the presentation alive. Barry Bostwick as the Steelworker shows a surprisingly strong singing voice. Scatman Carruthers is endlessly amusing as Lovin' Al, as well as Carole Schwartz as the gum-chewing grocery cashier. Underrated Vernee Johnson is disturbingly honest as the secretary, and Patti LaBelle tears it up as the cleaning lady. It's always wonderful to see Lynne Thigpen doing anything at all (if it were my responsibility to re-do every artistic endeavor from 1972 to 2005, I would put Lynne Thigpen in every role in every show everywhere), and she was in perfect counterpoint with Edie McClurg. Rita Moreno makes a fantastic turn as the waitress, and Barbara Hershey is subtly seductive as the hooker. Charles Durning, Didi Conn, and Beth Howland round out an impressive cast list. The crowning achievement in all of this belongs to Eileen Brennan as the Millworker. With the song sung in haunting underscore by Jennifer Warnes, Ms. Brennan's physical manifestation of the pain of performing 30 years of the same 40-second repetitive act is all too real. Watching her scene makes tracking down a copy of this production worth the difficulty.
In all, 7/10. Repetitive, but the music and the cast list pull this out of the toilet.
This musical deserved more than its short Broadway run, and has gotten new life in college and regional theaters. I had the honor of performing in a community theater version in 2000. The PBS version is a letdown. It is like a documentary with a few songs thrown in. Sometimes the characters are shown talking to the narrator instead of performing or the songs are sung over still photographs or filmed versions of the actors doing 'work,' which blunts the impact. Some of the songs have been cut, and the 'ensemble' cast rarely interacts or performs together. Plus, it is not all that well cast; Barbara Barrie and Beth Howland are very lackluster in their roles (although I usually like Barbara Barrie). Look for a live performance, it will be worth it.
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