His 1974 book, the matter-of-factly titled, "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do," forms the basis for the 1978 musical "Working," currently being presented by Foothill Music Theatre.
Broadway glitz and glamour "Working" is not. Instead, it's a series of vignettes (monologues and songs) taken — sometimes verbatim — from Terkel's book, each highlighting a different occupation tied together by common themes. From computer-clicking cubicle drones to a firefighter, from housewives to a hooker, a range of laborers take turns sharing the spotlight. There is hardly any dialogue; characters generally talk directly to the audience, or sing lead with backing vocals. And there's no plot to speak of. The show is a slice-of-life look at some of the types of people not always given a voice in the annals of history.
They speak and sing of their feelings toward their jobs; the physical and emotional toll the work takes on them; their hopes that their children will go on to better things than their parents; their crushed dreams, if not spirits.
Despite often-jaunty music, there is a deep vein of melancholy running throughout. The fact that it's all based on real-life people makes it all the more poignant. There's no mistaking that, for many Americans, much of life is spent toiling away at something they despise (such as in the heartbreaking "Millwork" number); simply tolerate; or, as in Kristina Nakagawa's lovely turn in "Housewife," feel unjustly defined by.
A sense of pride, humor and dignity, too, pervades the characters, such as the stonemason who remembers every project he's ever built and, most notably, Jade Shojaee's standout turn as an exuberant waitress. The pure joy and sass of her number, "It's An Art," brought forth cheers from the otherwise politely reserved audience.
Todd Wright is another cast gem in his featured roles as a truck driver and retiree, as is veteran performer Linda Piccone, who plays a longtime teacher out of touch with a changing education world. "They say I'm supposed to keep up with the times but nobody ever tells me how," she sings.
There are no real principal parts in "Working." The whole cast does a great job of speedy wardrobe changes and convincing character switches, and everyone gets several scenes in which to shine.
While the script comes out of Terkel's book, the music comes from several composers, including folk-rocker James Taylor, and was spearheaded by musical-theater maestro Stephen Schwartz ("Godspell," "Wicked"). And though a 1999 revival modernized some of the jobs featured, the pleasant music retains a groovy 1970s light-rock/R&B sound. In fact, the entire show has a fairly corny charm — completely earnest and inherently noble.
This is a distinctly lo-fi and low-key production, well suited to the intimate Lohman Theatre. You get the feeling the actors themselves might have their own day jobs to go to offstage. The players all look like real people, not stars, outfitted in their real clothes, and the set is bare bones — a painted city skyline and a few sets of stairs/risers — with minimal props.
Those looking for escapism or high-tech, high-octane adventure from their night at the theater will not find it here. What they will find is a worthwhile little production full of heart, toe-tapping melodies and endearing characters. Though the original was a flop on Broadway, Foothill's "Working," if you'll excuse the pun, works very well.
What: "Working," presented by Foothill Music Theatre
Where: Lohman Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills
When: Through March 5, with 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays
Cost: Tickets are $13-$26.
Info: Go to www.foothill.edu/theatre/working/or call 650-949-7414