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Wellesley College production of Studs Terkel’s ‘Working’ reinforces age-old truths

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Wellesley College production of Studs Terkel’s ‘Working’ reinforces age-old truths
The cast of “Working.” (Photo: Courtesy Wellesley College)

The Wellesley Repertory Theatre at Wellesley College wrapped up an all-female production of “Working” by Studs Terkel, adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso. Based on Terkel’s 1974 book of interviews with Americans about their jobs, the musical reveals that though titles may change, the attitude towards working remains the same.

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The students of Wellesley Rep performed their roles dynamically and expertly, though there is a special irony in watching college students sing about the disillusionments of the working world. Only one of the performers is a theatre major; the others’ fields of study range from linguistics to computer science. The script was adapted at the end to accommodate interviews the students conducted with workers at Wellesley College. They weren’t always positive, and they drove home a more local perspective.

The first production of the musical was performed in 1977, and since then the play has undergone revisions to make it more relevant. In 2010, Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote two new songs for the musical. The jobs of newspaper boy and valet were removed. Interestingly, so was the position of migrant worker, although immigrant labor is still a relevant topic.

Of course, technology moves quickly and many of the jobs and stories feel outdated even just seven years after being updated. Now the gig economy runs America, and though Miranda added a song called “Delivery” about a food delivery person, it doesn’t quite line up with Uber drivers, YouTube influencers and social media strategists.

Despite the older jobs, the production still conveys the toxic working culture of the United States. Very few of the interviews-turned-songs expressed any real joy about working. Many of the characters said they work to live, but would so much rather not. The culminating number, “Something to Point To,” expresses the idea that everyone should have something tangible to show what their working life has meant. But how many people do?

In a post-show talk-back, the song “Just a Housewife” ruled the conversation. The song says that stay-at-home moms are judged for not working, even though their jobs are difficult. Juliette Bellacosa, the singer, commented that students at Wellesley, which is still a women’s college, are trained to take over the world professionally, which can make domestic work inaccurately look less valuable. The topic spurred a discussion on the priorities of contemporary feminism.

Though many of the songs are upbeat and many of the performers wore smiles, the underlying tone of the show is somber. The job market has changed, but America still celebrates working to the bone, no matter how unrewarding it may be. During the talk-back an audience member said, “We always toe that line between being human and achieving.”

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