10:00 am EDT, March 30, 2018

‘Working the Musical’ cast recording review: How Stephen Schwartz, Lin-Manuel Miranda joined forces

By Irvin K

Unbeknownst to most theatre fans who are not following news from the West End, a new cast recording was recently released which saw one of the most exciting team-ups in musical theatre.

Among the lesser-known entries in the oeuvre of Stephen Schwartz is a musical called Working, which was on Broadway forty years ago. And let’s just say it was not quite the smashing success that Godspell and Wicked are: it closed after 24 performances (three weeks), and was put out of sight and out of mind of the theatrical community, even as Schwartz continued revising it through the years.

Working is based on an oral history book from 1974 with a gloriously unwieldy title: Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Imagine trying to fit that on a Broadway marquee! The book featured interviews with people about their jobs, from all walks of life, and was a big success back in the ‘70s.

The musical… not so much. But Schwartz has never been one to let his projects lie fallow, so he enlisted some help. In 2009, he got an assist with the material from the moderately successful writer of In the Heights… Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The two composers responsible for the biggest Broadway blockbusters of last decade and this decade, joining forces – I was surprised this was not considered the hugest deal in theatre since Bernadette Peters happened. Fortunately, Working the Musical finally received its London premiere last summer, and the fresh version of the show received a cast recording (as most shows playing that big a stage are wont to do). So this writer tracked it down, to see whether the material lived up to its pedigree.

Of course, listening to a cast recording is never the same as seeing a show live. But Working seems to almost be a revue, more than a book musical, with barely connected musical numbers from different workers. In theory, it could work as an album just as well as a live show. Furthering the point, Miranda was not the only composer that Schwartz asked for an assist – there are also songs written by the likes of Mary Rodgers (Once Upon a Mattress), James Taylor, Micki Grant, and Craig Carnelia.

The results were, in a word, surprising. The songs are definitely worth listening to; they offer some interesting perspectives on people whose lives you wouldn’t think about. The album gets infinitely better as it goes along; with one or two exceptions, the first half is a slog, whereas the second half is consistently decent or really good.

But the surprising part is that most of the weakest songs on the album comes from the two biggest names: James Taylor and Stephen Schwartz himself. While it makes sense that James Taylor wouldn’t be at home writing for a musical, it’s shocking that the man who composed Wicked, Pocahontas, and Hunchback of Notre Dame could give such a middling effort – no wonder Schwartz needed an assist from other writers on this one!

Fortunately, Schwartz redeems himself on the antepenultimate number, “Fathers and Sons,” where his gift for melody and for storytelling through song really shine. The song is about a father thinking of how much time he has missed with his son due to his job, and it’ll probably hit many listeners right in the feels.

As for Miranda’s additions, they’re… fine. The lyrics are very clever (which seems to be his forte), and worth a close listen to. But the melody never quite takes off in a way that makes you want to belt these songs right alongside the music.

To my surprise, the standout composer on the musical was not either of the big names that piqued my interest originally, but Craig Carnelia. Full disclosure, I had never heard of him before, and had not even a passing familiarity with any of his work. But almost every time the album had a song that made me go “wow,” his name was on the byline.

For female empowerment, one needs to look no further than “Just a Housewife,” the story of a housewife defending herself from all the people who dismiss her, which sounds like it should get a standing ovation at every performance. “The Mason” brings a love for buildings alive, singing about something that will last. “Joe” is about a retired man, and what his life looks like now. And Carnelia brings the entire album home with the finale, a rousing ensemble number about people and the pride they take in their jobs.

So on the whole, Working the Musical is worth a listen to for some of the songs, even if as a whole it is less than the sum of its very impressive parts. In the meantime, we can hope that Stephen Schwartz (who hasn’t written anything new in a decade) will turn to Miranda again, who’s now a much more seasoned composer, and they will create a musical together worthy of Wicked and Hamilton.

If you want to listen the Working cast album, it is currently available from Ghostlight Records.

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