In 2019, Americans have a different relationship with work than they did in 1977.
So it stands to reason that "Working: A Musical," which examines that relationship, should have something different to say. But, for the most part, it doesn't.
Based on Studs Terkel's comprehensive interviews with people about their jobs in his book of the same name, "Working" has since been updated with modern vocabulary. Its 10 performers depict workers across multiple sectors of the economy, including an office manager bombarded by emails and a UPS deliveryman who collects signatures electronically.
But those surface-level changes reflect the surface-level focus of the latest show at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in Owasco.
Most of "Working" is concerned with the who, what, when, where and how of human labor. And the breadth of jobs it covers is impressively varied: an arthritic factory worker, resilient cleaning ladies, even a young financier who already has his gaudy McMansion blueprinted in his mind. They take us through their routines and introduce us to the vocabularies of what they do for 40 hours a week or more. It's fascinating, too, seeing the world through stone the way the aging mason does, for instance, or hearing all the ways the classroom has changed over the years for the teacher.
When Brett Smock gave the curtain speech at opening night of the last show at the Merry-Go-R…
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Still, "Working" doesn't have much to say about the why of human labor. In two moving numbers, a mother and then a group of fathers sing about making life better for their children. Other than that, though, there's little mention of what's at stake when we drag ourselves out of bed every morning. And there's no mention of what's at stake today that wasn't, for the most part, in 1977: student loan debt, the dire necessity of employer-provided health care. Someone casually refers to automation once, which is still once more than anyone says the word "union." Workplace harassment, life-invading surveillance, 24/7 emails from your boss — without these widespread hazards of "Working" in 2019, a musical on the subject just feels like it's missing something.
Nor is the show concerned with why we have to work, or work as dehumanizingly as we often do, in the first place. It flirts with criticizing the way capitalism abuses labor, once, when some Martin Shkreli type glosses over the violent side of robber barons like Rockefeller and Carnegie for a laugh line. But his tribute to those titans of industry otherwise goes unquestioned. And the jobs located at today's logical endpoint of their exploitation go unrepresented: There's no Uber driver chewed up by the flesh-eating gig economy, no home office worker alienated by the lack of human interaction.
Those who don't seek such politicized insights from "Working" may find it as fulfilling as some of its characters find their jobs. The show is undeniably loaded with vocal talent and funny moments. Musically, closer "Something to Point To" stands among the best parts of a soundtrack that features work from Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor and Lin-Manuel Miranda. And on the surface, the lyrics are inspiring: At one point, the cast imagines a column of a skyscraper that lists all the people who worked on it. That way, the musical idyllically proposes, their contributions would be recognized.
In 2019, though, most workers probably want a little more from their jobs than that.