Boxer Rebellion Ensemble

By Jack Helbig

In my life I’ve worked as a grill man, waiter, security guard, ad salesman, telemarketer, film librarian, teacher, census taker, secretary, freelance editor, and word processor; I’ve worked in a car wash, a McDonald’s, a warehouse, and on a country club golf course; I’ve done heavy lifting and light typing; I’ve served liquor when I was underage, pretended I knew what I was talking about when I hadn’t a clue, and acted dumb to cater to the ego of my high-powered lawyer boss.

All the jobs I’ve ever had have sucked at one time or another. And all of them, even the dirtiest and most dreary, have had their moments of sublime satisfaction–even if it was only that dreamy, drowsy feeling I used to get after a long day of selling hot waxes in 100 degree heat to people who just needed to hose off their car, when we finally got to lock up the cash register, take in the vacuum hoses, and go home.

Most of the jobs I’ve had belong in the category of invisible, shitty positions no one really wants but lots of people have to take to pay the rent, pay off car loans, and keep the family fed. These days these jobs seem more invisible than ever, as the media increasingly fix their attention on the career moves of some three dozen actors, supermodels, and directors or spend hundreds of column inches lionizing or vilifying this or that CEO or captain of industry.

But there was a time, not that long ago, when popular culture paid at least passing attention to the world’s unglamorous jobs. That time was the 70s–that funny transitional decade, when the most radical populist ideas of the 60s were either filtering into the culture or being watered down for public consumption, depending on your point of view. Movies like Nashville and Car Wash portrayed average people in average jobs without either mocking them or glamming up their work beyond recognition, the way sitcoms regularly do now.

Studs Terkel’s 589-page tome Working was published in 1974, collecting his interviews with hundreds of everyday people talking about their everyday jobs, typing reports, driving taxis, laying bricks, waiting tables, and the like. Reading through the book today, I’m struck by how much more honest Terkel is about the nature of work than most writers now. Cartoonist Scott Adams captures well some of the stupidity of modern corporations in Dilbert, but he’s not even attempting to fill the same role as Terkel, who manages in one interview after another to be both sympathetic and probing.

In 1978 Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso adapted a musical revue, Working, from Terkel’s book–another artifact of the 70s. In this collection of excerpts and songs, first produced at the Goodman Theatre, Schwartz and Faso–with a little help from songwriters James Taylor, Craig Carnelia, and Mary Rodgers, among others–attempted to translate to the stage some of the fire in Terkel’s book. They succeeded remarkably well–and continue to succeed, especially the way Melissa Ann Young has staged the musical for the Boxer Rebellion Ensemble, with a minimum of props, costumes, and lighting cues, in a storefront space smaller than most company break rooms. In fact, even though the show was originally commissioned by the Goodman, its minimalist aesthetic demands a simple approach. A $100,000 set would rob it of its charm and authenticity, whereas this production–with an ensemble of energetic if raw actors, some of whom even look a bit uncomfortable onstage–makes the show shine.

Just as Schwartz’s Godspell works best when the cast resembles a church youth group, it helps if the ensemble of Working have put in full days at empty jobs just before stepping onstage. You can’t fake that “God, I hate my fucking job” energy a non-Equity actor brings to a role. It helps too if they can sing well enough to negotiate the show’s pop-rock tunes, though even that’s not absolutely necessary. Matthew Kerns’s rendition of Taylor’s “Brother Trucker” actually gained something when he croaked the lyrics: in this show, power and polish aren’t nearly as important as feeling. Working is in fact the antithesis of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s technological behemoths, in which individual performances take second place to the machines that power the multimillion-dollar spectacle.

Some may complain that Working is dated. And indeed, technology has transformed some of the jobs featured. In one touching sequence, a series of switchboard operators talk about how dehumanizing it is to say the same half dozen sentences over and over. These days, of course, you’re lucky to get even a dehumanized human being on the phone. And it’s just plain quaint when the operators talk about wanting to unplug all the calls on their board.

But in a deeper sense, the only really old-fashioned thing about the show is how unashamed it is of the humble people it presents. These days it’s much more common to assume that beneath the workingman or woman’s bad haircut, uneducated accent, and “tasteless” clothing lurks a moron or a freak. (Half the appeal of the Jerry Springer Show is that it validates middle-class prejudices against the lower classes.) Working reminded me that these days the only time we see someone in a humble job–the kind of work most of us do–on TV or in the movies, it’s as a robbery victim telling a reporter how it felt to have a gun placed to his or her head, an extra in a scene that’s really about someone else with a much better job, or some lucky soul who’s about to win fame or fortune, thrust into the limelight like the protagonists in EDtv and Notting Hill.

Like Terkel’s book, this musical is truly a fanfare for the common man, and–again like Terkel’s book–it’s a fanfare without a hint of popular front sentimentality or trust-fund romanticism. That lack of bullshit, in the script and songs as well as in this production, is what makes it so refreshing.