Among Chicago cultural hero Studs Terkel’s many oral-history records is the 1974 book on which this musical was based. For the book, Terkel interviewed dozens of regular Americans about their jobs; to set those stories to music, Schwartz and Faso conscripted songwriters ranging from Once Upon a Mattress composer Mary Rodgers to hippie crooner James Taylor.
The resulting show premiered at the Goodman in 1977 and, the following year, went to Broadway, where it bombed; reviews described it as bloated and overly sentimental. But Terkel’s clear-eyed core material remains attractive enough to have prompted numerous retooling attempts. This latest, on Studs’s home turf, went through trial outings at San Diego’s Old Globe and Florida’s Asolo Rep and has aspirations for further life. Schwartz, Faso and director Greenberg have tightened the show to 100 minutes and updated it with references to modern careers, the current job market and the end of the 9-to-5 workday; In the Heights composer Lin-Manuel Miranda contributes a pair of new songs.
Perhaps most notably, the creative team has reduced the cast to just six powerhouse Chicago actors (the original Broadway cast had 17). They get to show off their chameleonic chops, occasionally transforming onstage with the help of a team of dressers (a sly reminder that the crew and actors before us are on the job, too). The design is top-notch, even if Greenberg’s direction can be a bit stand-and-sing static and some schmaltzy bits survive (see Schwartz’s song “Fathers and Sons”). But they’re far outnumbered by genuinely moving moments, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more dynamic ensemble. This Working really works.