American workers come into their own in musical, 'Working,' at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre
STOCKBRIDGE — Studs Terkel never met anyone whose story was not worth telling. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and radio broadcaster who lived to 96 was a celebrated oral historian and consummate interviewer of people from all walks of life, famous and unknown.
Based on Terkel's best-selling book, "Working: A Musical" at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre shines a spotlight on American workers who form the backbone of society. Two dozen mostly blue collar occupations include a schoolteacher, ironworker, waitress, trucker, housewife — people often taken for granted — plus upscale roles including a high-rolling hedge fund manager.
The ensemble cast of 10 talks and sings about what their characters do and how that feels. Entertaining, affecting stories open doors to deeper understanding of these lives through honest expression.
"The musical is a mediation on the American Dream and what it means to each person," said director James Barry, a Berkshire-based actor, director and musician during a rehearsal break beside his "bible" — the original "Working" book first published in 1974.
"It serves as source material for all the show's characters," he said. "Monologues are lifted directly from actual interviews."
Multiple composers provide songs, among them "Hamilton's" Lin-Manuel Miranda, James Taylor and Broadway's Stephen Schwartz, with new songs added over the years.
"It highlights a range of different voices and perspectives," Barry said.
Since an albeit short-lived 1978 multiple Tony-nominated Broadway run with Patti LuPone and Joe Mantegna, "Working" has been staged around the world from England to Australia.
While revisions and streamlining into one act resulted in losing characters, such as a paper boy, new arrivals including an elder caregiver and nanny, both immigrants, "are welcome modern additions," Barry said. Changes may add contemporary perspectives, but some interviews endure regardless of the era, timely sentiments that remain "quintessentially American."
"Working" presents a series of monologues, sometimes two at a time, with company members filling in the world around each character. The format can challenge actors used to a more conventional story arc.
"Everybody keeps dropping in as different personalities and perspectives," Barry said; "But realizing the patchwork quilt of the whole [reveals] all the links in the chain.
"We're seeing a journey emerge where we begin in relative isolation from each other, then gradually come together as part of a national fabric that transcends the individual — a greater whole.
"We're opening a window into everyone's life to see the humanity in what makes every single character tick," he added.
"Everyone can see themselves somewhere in the show," said choreographer Ashley DeLane Burger, who recently helped Barry stage "Working" at Wagner College in New York. "Even though it was written [in the `70s], it still feels like issues we are dealing with today."
The Unicorn's open stage and amphitheater seating offers unique challenges and opportunities for Kentucky-born Burger, debuting at BTG fresh from choreographing "Sunset Boulevard" at nearby Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, N.Y.
"Seeing it above and around gives a 3D experience to the show," she said. "You get a much greater perception of the human body than a flat-facing theater. And small gestures are more effective."
Authentic vocational movements inform the show's dance routines, which are each "stylistically different," she added.
Burger is well versed in the world of occupational activity. Trained in movement analysis, she observes professionally "why factory workers do the things they do."
"Adding the expressive quality to make it more theatrical has been really fun," she said.
As music director, Chicago-native Casey Robert Reed is tasked with pulling together songs from myriad sources and musical styles.
In 2010, he explained, Lin-Manuel Miranda's music director Alex Lacamoire rearranged the show completely, resulting in a lineup of folk, James Taylor songs, '50s rock and roll, musical theater, gospel — even a hint of opera.
"It's all over the place in a beautiful way," said Reed, who anchors the four-member accompanying band on piano.
Faced with this stylistic diversity, "it's [my] job to make it all sound like one show," he said. "We want it to flow organically."
Of all the people who collaborated to create "Working," Barry said, "Studs Terkel is absolutely the steward of our musical. The work he did is the heartbeat of the show."
"I'm enjoying a parallel experience with our youngest cast member Miles Willkie, who is also playing the oldest character, a retiree," he added.
Barry first worked for BTG at the Unicorn in 2000, the summer he turned 21. Now it's Wilkie's turn to come of age on the same stage.
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