I was trying to think what I could post here for Labor Day. And then I realized -- the stage musical based on Studs Terkel's epic book, Working.
The book interviewed many dozens of people about their jobs. The stage version honed in on about a dozen or so, and had score by multiple composers, most notably Stephen Schwartz (who conceived the show) and even had one song by James Taylor. (It was performed in the Broadway production by then-little known actor Joe Mantegna.) The show began life in 1977 at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, Studs Terkel's stomping ground, where it was a bit hit and ran about 18 months. Transferring to Broadway, it wasn't successful, though it has a terrific score, and a 90-minute version of Working was done in 1982 on PBS for American Playhouse. (James Taylor played the trucker in the TV production and sang his own song.)
Most of the people in Working (the book and musical) are especially happy with their job, though there's a great spirit in people wanting to do more. (One of the best numbers is called "If I Could Have Been Been" -- what I could have been, I could have been something. It's written by Micki Grant, who wrote the shows Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope and added songs for Your Arms Too Short to Box with God,)
But there's one person who leaps out, particularly in the musical, one of the very few who absolutely loves her job. It's "The Waitress." This joyous number is performed by Oscar-winner Rita Moreno and written by Schwartz (whose other shows include Pippin and Wicked.) And making the scene all the more fun is that the diner at her table is none other than Studs Terkel, who they cleverly worked into the TV production. Forget the idiot title by the fool who posted this video. This is a jubilant Viennese-like waltz with some of the continually cleverest lyrics and rhymes you'll hear in a song -- all of them telling a wonderful story. And a big finish last line that blows me away every time.
A few years back, I ran into a waitress at a Chicago suburb Italian restaurant, Francesco's Hole in the Wall, who, every time I went in, reminded me of this waitress in the book. (It's a nice, little place with an owner who's so distant that he seems to make diners who aren't his friends feel like intruders. His family, I think, helps manage, and they're the same. But the staff -- including the energetic bus boy -- is terrific. But this one particular waitress just shines above them all.) So, I made a copy of the cast album and gave it to her. Over the next couple years though we didn't cross paths again -- when I'd be in town and show up, she would be off -- but last year I finally saw her for the first time since giving her the CD. When I explained that "I was the guy who..." her face immediately lit up. "I keep that in my car and listen to that song all the time!" she said with a huge smile. She was so happy to have gotten the song. Hey, I was so happy to have gotten her as my waitress.
So, on Labor Day, here's "It's an Art."
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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