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Making 'Working' work in Southampton

The cast of the musical

The cast of the musical "Working," based on the Studs Terkel book. The Center Stage production plays at the Levitas Center for the Arts, Southampton, through July 31. Photo Credit: None

'We all work," says Michael Disher, describing the universal resonance of "Working," the updated 1978 musical he's directing for Center Stage in Southampton.

Yes, even hedge fund managers work. Although maybe not their heirs. And according to the United States Department of Labor, 9.2 percent of Americans who want to work can't find a job. Does that make "Working" even more relevant today?

"I think so," says Disher, who first directed "Working" in 1997 at Southampton College, now Stony Brook Southampton. "I had a built-in base of people about to enter the workforce," he says. "They learned that work is part of our identity. Whenever you meet someone, one of the first things they ask is 'What do you do?' " (In college, it's "What's your major?")

"Whatever it is that you 'do' profiles you," Disher notes, adding that -- besides the economic hardship -- not working "creates a gap in our identity."

 

REAL PEOPLE, REAL WORDS The musical is based on the Studs Terkel bestseller "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do," a seminal work -- that word again -- based on interviews with Americans on the job. Attempting to match the diversity of workaday folks Terkel gave voice to, Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, who adapted "Working" for the stage, recruited a wide range of songwriters: James Taylor, Mary Rodgers and Lin Manuel Miranda, among a half-dozen others. They created songs that ring with pride and frustration over an occupation that workers may revel in or feel stuck in for the rest of their lives. "All the Livelong Day," for instance, or "If I Could've Been."

At Center Stage, Disher directs a cast of 17 in 26 roles. For those who want a front-and-center seat, cabaret tables for four provide a ringside view.

 

'WORKING' IN PROGRESS Despite its reflection on our life's nitty-gritty, or maybe because of it, "Working" was a bust on Broadway, surviving only 24 performances, though it received six Tony nominations, winning two. Northport native Patti LuPone was in the original cast. The show has since been updated many times -- "It keeps reinventing itself," Disher says -- as recently as February in Chicago. Two new songs and several updates in occupations were part of a 1999 revision that played Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn. "The gas meter reader became the UPS man," says Disher of the version he's directing for Center Stage. "And the secretarial assistant is now a project manager. Several roles have been elevated." Some by intervening history. "The fireman has a particularly pointed monologue," Disher says. "Post-9/11, it's even stronger."


WHAT "Working," the musical based on the Studs Terkel interviews

WHEN | WHERE Thursday though Saturday nights at 8, Sundays at 5 p.m., through July 31, at the Levitas Center for the Arts, Southampton Cultural Center, 25 Pond Lane

INFO Ringside table seats $35, $25 general admission, $22 seniors (Fridays only), $12 students; scc-arts.org, 631-287-4377

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