The Composers of Working

The Composers of Working
with Susan Birkenhead, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Stephen Schwartz, and moderated by Jeanine Tesori
with Susan Birkenhead, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Stephen Schwartz, and moderated by Jeanine Tesori
Nov 05, 2019

Working was conceived to be different from most “mainstream” musicals, in that it was both a kind of topical revue and non-fiction. It was very important to me and my collaborators that it remain as true as possible—no invented words or situations. But how to organize it so that it felt as if it had a throughline, gained momentum, and ultimately delivered an emotional punch? That was the main problem we struggled with as we put the show together. We discovered that the transitions from character to character which revealed their hidden connections to one another were both theatrically and thematically important, and that the order of songs, culminating in Craig Carnelia’s brilliant summation, “Something to Point To,” was also key to maximum theatrical impact.

Of course, I didn’t realize in 1978 that, because the workplace is constantly changing, I and my other collaborators were continually going to have to update the show with revised lyrics, new interviews and new songs, to reflect those changes and keep the show current. I find it both ironic and exhilarating that a show called Working involves work that never ends!

STEPHEN SCHWARTZ, 2019

Following is an edited transcript taken from The Composers of Working, a panel discussion produced by Encores! Off-Center, on June 17, 2019 at City Center in New York City. Just before the composers take the stage, Christopher Jackson sings Micki Grant’s “Lovin’ Al.”

[Applause. The composers enter.]

Jeanine Tesori:  You know that [movie]…What is the one with the raccoon? It’s not The Avengers. What is it?

Lin-Manuel MirandaGuardians of the Galaxy?

[Laughter]

Jeanine Tesori:  Is it a raccoon?

Lin-Manuel Miranda:  I love you.

[Laughter]

Jeanine Tesori:  I cannot believe this evening. I’m going to read you a quote [about working].

“It is a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

That’s a quote from Studs Terkel’s book. [Working] was one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you read it. This gentleman, Stephen Schwartz is responsible for the musical.

[Applause]

I wish this could be a retreat and we all had pajamas and we could just sit and get to know more about this musical. It was so formative for me growing up. It’s how I learned to write, or not write, or sort of write an ‘I am’ song, and how to reveal the interiority of a character. It’s a master class and Stephen Schwartz led the way with Craig Carnelia, Susan Birkenhead, Micki Grant, and then Lin-Manuel Miranda. Working opened [at] the Goodman Theatre in 1978, [and then] at the 46th Street Theatre.

[Applause]

One of the beauties of getting older is finding out your connections run deeper and deeper—from worshipping Micki Grant and celebrating her show Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope [produced by Off-Center in 2018], working with Susan Birkenhead and celebrating her lyrics. Her new show, The Secret Life of Bees, just opened and is amazing. Craig Carnelia’s Poster Boy, Is There Life after High School. But I want to start with Stephen. Where did the idea come from?

Stephen Schwartz:  I was very interested in the whole idea of a documentary musical—a musical that was actually non-fiction. I was reading this description of the book Working, and there was a brief quotation from a telephone operator (in those days there were telephone operators that you spoke to) who said, “Sometimes you get somebody on the line and they say, ‘How’s your day been, operator? Has it been a rough day?’ You’re so thankful for those people.” And I realized that I was a person who tended to be rude to telephone operators and get exasperated if I was frustrated while trying to make a call. That moment is still in the show after all these years and through all its incarnations. It made me realize that I was viewing a lot of people—with whom I interacted on a daily basis—as functions. I wasn’t actually seeing them as people, and that felt profound to me. So, I thought maybe Working was the idea for the documentary musical that I had been looking for.

Jeanine Tesori:  Micki, when did Stephen call you about writing “Lovin’ Al?”

Micki Grant:  He called and said he was having a problem with a particular character or song he’d been working on. He had this idea that maybe I could do something with the sound it needed. In order to read this character, I ended up reading the entire book, of course. [Stephen] wanted to write something bluesy for Lovin’ Al. It actually turned out not to be a blues-blues [song] but just had the feeling of it. It was good just getting to know the character. I could visualize [him] in what he was saying. It was like the waitress: nobody could wait tables like she could. Well, nobody could park a car the way he could park a car! I just loved the way that he bragged on himself about this ordinary function. To him, it was the world and it was fun. It was just great putting his own words—actually, most of those were his words.

Stephen SchwartzSomething that all the songwriters tried to do was stay as close as we could to the character’s actual words. Micki was the first of the compendium of songwriters I contacted. [At first], when I undertook the show I thought, “I’ll write all the songs,” as I had been accustomed to doing. Then, as I was working on particular characters, such as Lovin’ Al, I realized: “I’m writing pastiche; I’m imitating other people’s styles. Since this was a documentary musical, it felt to me that authenticity of voice was extremely important. As I was playing around with the song I thought, “All I’m doing is trying to imitate Micki Grant. Why don’t I just call Micki Grant?”

[Applause]

Micki Grant:  And he told me that.

[Laughter]

Jeanine Tesori:  Well, when you’re learning how to music direct a show—I remember I did it along with The Me Nobody Knows and Runaways—this was the type of show that was really prismatic in the way a lot of composers came together. For example, Liz [Swados] wrote Runaways where a lot of the language came from young people.

Lin, you’ve done this before by contributing songs where other composers have worked. What is the payoff of that?

Lin-Manuel Miranda:  Well, I mean to be a part of this team, I felt like I got invited to be one of The Avengers—or the one with the raccoon.

Jeanine Tesori:  All right, don’t. I was busy studying Bartok.

[Laughter]

Lin-Manuel Miranda:  I only had the one show, In the Heights, when Stephen contacted me. We knew each other through Alex Lacamoire, who had worked on Wicked as well as In the Heights. I just felt thrilled to be a part of it. I was familiar with the Studs Terkel book and my pitch—if there’s such a thing as a pitch in something like this—was if could I write a ‘my first job’ song. My first job was working the cash register at McDonald’s on 91st Street. It’s not there anymore. It’s an Urgent Care Center now. But I wanted to write [about that] because there’s excitement when you work for the first time, and I felt like I hadn’t seen that in the show, so that was my way in.

Jeanine Tesori:  Susan you had many jobs. You were a teacher and a switchboard operator?

Susan Birkenhead:  Yes, once briefly. I was a piano teacher for a lot of years while I was going to school. Then [I had] some weird jobs like folding sweaters and putting them in boxes. That lasted two days. I couldn’t take it.

I came into this [musical] through Mary Rodgers, actually…

[Applause]

…who I really wish was here. Mary called me out of the blue. I was a young mother, I really had done nothing, I had gotten into the business almost by accident, and I was doing a terrible show at Goodspeed. Mary called and said, “You know I’ve been asked to be one of the writers of this new musical for Broadway.” We had the same agent. And she said, “I read some of your lyrics and I was wondering,” and I said, “Yes!” She said, “Don’t you want to know what it is?” and I said, “No, it’s okay.” She said it was Working. Then I read and loved the book and I met Stephen.

Jeanine Tesori:  Craig, before you sing, I think “Joe” is really a fascinating song and one of my favorites and I’ve never heard you perform it. A young composer I know said his favorite thing is hearing Craig sing “Joe.” And it’s interesting to talk about Working and to make a song about not working and the consequence of not working and I’m wondering where the – in terms of writing a monologue and turning it into song if there are any stories about this particular selection that come to mind.

Craig Carnelia:  Absolutely. First of all, Lin-Manuel left something out of his own story that I recall vividly. He was in In the Heights and doing eight shows a week, but he was depressed because he had finished writing it. Stephen called and asked him to write the songs and he said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Then he went on stage and was brilliant.

Lin-Manuel Miranda:  I had spent my 20s writing a show and then suddenly I wasn’t writing anymore and that [had been] part of my day so I was so thrilled for the assignment.

Craig Carnelia:  Which is about working—that we need to be doing what we do. As for as the song “Joe,” which is [about] the retired man, a good friend of ours, Stephen’s and mine, brought him to hear an evening of songs of mine in a cabaret in 1977. He came back stage and asked me if I would write songs for Working and I said, “Absolutely.” I read the book the next couple of days and he asked me to take a look at the chapter on the retired man and see if I could make a song of it. The writing took a long time, but Stephen and I were showing each other things in my work room as we wrote. I recall the day he played me the waitress song, “It’s an Art”, and I played him half of “Joe” and I think that’s probably the day I got the job. I thought I got the job at the cabaret that night, but I didn’t.

[Laughter]

In any case, one of the things I’m proudest of in the song “Joe” is that I wanted to find a way to meld the book and the singing that would be useful to the whole show, where you wouldn’t know if he was singing or talking. In reading the chapter a hundred or so times, I used about half of the man’s language and I made up the rest of it, so living in his skin was thrilling for those weeks I was writing this. Shall I?

Jeanine Tesori:  Yeah. This is “Joe” by Craig Carnelia.

[Applause]

Stephen Schwartz:  When Craig first played me this song, I had been working as a professional theatre songwriter for a while. I had done other shows, and I thought I knew about writing songs for characters. But I heard his song and it was revelatory to me. The thing that amazed me about the song is you can understand what the song is about even if you don’t speak English, just from the music. Even though the lyrics are quite brilliant, the music tells you everything about this character and what he’s going through. The music provides the subtext, so even when he’s saying, “Oh, I’m happy about this and I have a good time,” the music is telling you something else about the bleakness and sameness of his life. I think it is really an extraordinary song for that reason and a good lesson for all songwriters. I learned so much about writing from the other writers who worked on the show.

Jeanine Tesori:  Agreed. Susan, I’m going to ask you to sing yours next. Now Susan rewrote this song, what, 23 minutes ago? Well she was in previews and for this production it has a rewrite.

Susan BirkenheadWell, the thing about Rose Hoffman the school teacher, is that as curricula change and neighborhoods change, she begins to feel as if the ground is shifting under her feet. The song has been constantly updated for each iteration of Working. The song had to change because the world has changed. Anne [Kaufmann] contacted me and said we were going to do this again and said, “But we have to update this song again,” and of course I was in ten out of twelve [for The Secret Life of Bees] I groaned. For those of you who don’t know there comes a time during rehearsals of any show when you just live in the theatre from 10:00 in the morning until midnight for several days. So, if I stumble on some of this it’s because it’s all so new and I apologize for having a piece of paper in front of me.

Jeanine Tesori:  Go get ‘em. Susan Birkenhead.

[Applause]

Susan Birkenhead:  Thank you.

Jeanine Tesori:  I mean, for me, theatre is sacred, but even more sacred is hearing a writer sing their own work.

You know there is a history in every ribosome that comes out when you’re struggling with a song, and I have to say something about Stephen—he knows how I feel about him. [He] has always [extended] an invitation to other composers, whether it’s about serving in the Dramatists Guild, or asking other composers and writers to join him in a show, or teaching, or whatever, and this show to me is such a great invitation of the way that people hear other characters, each one so distinct and yet a fabric of America and it was written with that intention and I’m always astonished by it.

When we talk about figures—I’m really interested in the way that piano figures: the very lonely way that the clock goes in “Joe,” the way you can hear the wheel turn in “Lovin’ Al,” the classical nature that Mary put inside the teacher in “Nobody Tells Me How.” We’re going to close with the last two songs. Just to listen to the way that the figures work—the longing of “Fathers and Sons” and the exuberance of Lin-Manuel’s “Delivery.” We’re going to do [them] back-to-back and I wonder if both of you could say something about what these songs really mean to you both.

Stephen Schwartz:  Sure. So one of the themes that emerged out of reading the whole series of interviews that Studs did was that so many of the people he spoke to talked about their children and their aspirations and dreams for them, that they were determined through their work to provide an opportunity for their children for a better life than they themselves were able to have. That theme resonated for me personally, and it seemed to me important that it get expressed in a song. I used the character of the steel worker and a lot of his words for the song, but it was more a compendium of what many of the characters had said and, frankly, of my own experience as well.

Jeanine Tesori:  Lin-Manuel, will you say something about your song and also about Mateo who is going to be singing it.

Lin-Manuel Miranda:  Oh sure. Like I [said] earlier, my first job was at McDonald’s and you know minimum wage is what it is, but delivery includes tips. And we were the very rare McDonald’s that delivered food on the Upper West Side. So, I remember just waiting for the call to come through. That’s really what the song is about; like everyone’s got this job, but if I can get the delivery call, I can transcend. And Mateo [Ferro] is fantastic. I first saw him as Sonny in In the Heights at The Kennedy Center and he blew everyone out of the water so he’s going to sing it for you tonight. Outsourcing is a big thing, so I’ve outsourced my singing of the song to him.

[Laughter]

Jeanine Tesori:  Okay, so first please welcome Stephen Schwartz singing Fathers and Sons, one of my all-time favorite songs.

[Applause]

Jeanine Tesori:  Watching the first lady of theatre, Micki Grant, listen to that song is going to be seared into my brain like a Chris’s steak. I just want to say something about Micki Grant, which is listen to everything she has ever written.

[Mateo Ferro sings “Delivery.”]

[Applause]

Jeanine Tesori:  I really appreciate you all coming out. As writers we have to take a stand for each other and not tear each other down; it’s really important. Our business is built on that. That’s what these people do. Please come and support Off-Center, please come see Working, please come see Promenade. María Irene Fornés is an artist who we don’t have any more on the earth. It’s an important, odd, wonderful work. Come see Road Show. Please come back to City Center anytime. We’ll all go out for pizza. Thank you. Good night.


SUSAN BIRKENHEAD received Tony and Grammy nominations and a Drama Desk Award for her lyrics for Jelly’s Last Jam, a Drama Desk nomination for Triumph of Love and won a Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination for Working. She won an Outer Critics Circle award for What About Luv, and an L.A. Drama Critics Award for Minsky’s. She wrote additional lyrics and new songs for the Broadway version of High Society and songs for Stars of David, and A…My Name Is Alice. Her latest musical, written with Lynn Nottage and Duncan Sheik, is The Secret Life of Bees. She is also working on Black Orpheus with Lynn Nottage and George C. Wolfe, and Betty Boop, with Bob Martin, David Foster and Jerry Mitchell.

CRAIG CARNELIA’s work includes Broadway: Sweet Smell of Success (lyrics), Imaginary Friends (lyrics), Is There Life After High School? (music and lyrics), and Working (contributed four songs). Off-Broadway: 3 Postcards (Playwrights Horizons - music and lyrics). Recent premiere: Poster Boy (Williamstown Theater Festival - music and lyrics).

MICKI GRANT wrote book, music and lyrics for Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope and It’s So Nice to Be Civilized, music and lyrics (with Alex Bradford) for Your Arms Too Short to Box with God and music and lyrics with others for Working on Broadway. Her writing has garnered Grammy, OBIE, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards, as well as five Tony nominations. She is the recipient of the National Black Theatre Festival’s Living Legend Award, AUDELCO’s Outstanding Pioneer Award, an NAACP Image Award, the Dramatists Guild Lifetime Achievement Award and others.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA is a Pulitzer Prize, Grammy, Emmy and Tony award-winning composer, lyricist and actor. He is the creator and original star of Broadway’s Tony-winning Hamilton and In the Heights. Additional Broadway credits include Bring It On: The Musical (co-composer/co-lyricist), and West Side Story (2009 revival, Spanish translations). Miranda is the recipient of the 2015 MacArthur Foundation Award and the 2018 Kennedy Center Honors.

STEPHEN SCHWARTZ wrote the music and lyrics for the current Broadway hit Wicked and has also contributed music and/or lyrics to Godspell, Pippin, The Magic Show, The Baker’s Wife, Rags, Children Of Eden and, upcoming in London, The Prince Of Egypt.

JEANINE TESORI is a composer whose Broadway credits include Fun Home, Violet, Caroline, or Change, Shrek, and Thoroughly Modern Millie; and opera credits include Blue, A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck, The Lion, the Unicorn and Me, and a commission from the Metropolitan Opera. Upcoming: Soft Power at The Public Theater.

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