Labor Day Listens
By Peter Filichia
So how will you spend your Labor Day? As summer is a-going out, you may have one last chance to enjoy it.
Leave the work to the people in musicals. While you’re on a nice long drive, hear The Producers try to produce. Catch up with photographer Jacques in The Happy Time and have a happy time yourself. Lie on the beach with your iPod (or, for you Luddites, your CD player) and hear Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof ruminate on his fate as an un-rich milkman. And if you’re going to Barcelona, sit back on the plane and relax while April (of Company fame) serves you. She has to work. You don’t.
On Labor Day you can, like Zorba, sing “I Am Free!” You can avoid work as much as the hippies in Hair, the kids in Grease, or Peter Pan himself. Like most everyone in Sunday in the Park with George, you get a day off. And while you might agree with Hubie Cram in Do Re Mi that you should have “Ambition,” you also know that’s for other days of the year.
Are you just staying home and having some friends over? Perhaps your plans include matching up a couple of your single pals. Better to do it as a lark; for Dolly Levi, “It’s a living,” as she tells us just before she sings the rollicking “I Put My Hand In” in Hello, Dolly! Aren’t you glad that you don’t have to depend on it for your next payday, but can just do it for fun?
If you like, you can stay in your pajamas all Labor Day. Put on The Pajama Game and hear the employees in the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory go “Racing with the Clock” and enduring their efficiency expert Hinesy. You don’t have to. Be thankful, too, that you’re not working for “Henry Ford,” as so many assembly line workers do in Ragtime.
Yes, it’s “nice to have a day off,” as the chorus sings in 110 in the Shade. If your average workday means struggling with legal documents, today instead listen to Honore and Alicia wrangle in “The Contract.” It’s the nine-minute extravaganza that Lerner and Loewe wrote for the 1973 stage production of Gigi. After My Fair Lady and Camelot, Alan Jay Lerner may have lost a bit of his luster, but you can’t tell it here. John Adams thinks he has trouble in persuading Ben Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman and Thomas Jefferson to get to work in 1776, but he would have a tougher time if he were dealing with recalcitrant negotiator Alicia.
As any office worker can tell you, working in a big building doesn’t mean singing “Turkey Lurkey Time” at Christmas parties. But today at least, unlike the workers at World Wide Wickets in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, you don’t have to play it the company way.
Speaking of offices, one of the most riveting scenes in a musical is set there – although it’s a fantasy sequence. During the first act of Parade Leo Frank is seen as a mild-mannered man, especially in the humble way that Brent Carver plays him. But when a young girl testifies that Leo is a sexual predator, Carver brings her testimony to life and suddenly becomes the dissolute person she’s describing in the smarmy “Come up to My Office.” It’s a masterstroke of Jason Robert Brown writing and Harold Prince direction.
Some characters in musicals will make you glad you don’t have their jobs. “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” sing three taxi dancers in Sweet Charity’s Fandango Ballroom. Miss Hannigan laments about Annie and the other “Little Girls” she must oversee in the orphanage. “Wildcat” Jackson endures sexism from the male workers in Centavo City; they think that they and they alone can find “Oil!” And while Lola in Damn Yankees is initially proud of her dishonest work (especially in the fetching “A Little Brains, A Little Talent”), she does come to see it for what it is.
Well, once upon a time, women didn’t have that many professional opportunities. Note that in Carousel’s “Soliloquy” Billy Bigelow envisions his son in 10 different occupations, but doesn’t even mention one possible profession for his daughter.
In olden days a woman could “Be a Performer,” as the Buchsbaum Brothers sang to Belle Poitrine in Little Me. But, as Show Boat’s Ellie points out in “Life upon the Wicked Stage,” show business “is nothin’ like a girl supposes.” Both Peggy in 42nd Street and Ruby in Dames at Sea, each an understudy, must work much harder than she would have ever imagined once the show’s star becomes indisposed.
Better to work in show business, however, than to be employed in the garment trade. As Barbra Streisand teaches us in I Can Get It for You Wholesale, that’s a case of “men and ulcers on parade.” But better the garment trade than a sweatshop where Bella toils in Rags. Terrible working conditions cause her to unleash a torrent of frustration in the riveting Charles Strouse-Stephen Schwartz title song. At least Chairy Barnum knows enough to be the boss and puts herself in charge of a building campaign to rebuild her husband’s museum in “One Brick at a Time.”
Manual labor isn’t the only work that’s difficult. Even a writer who simply sits and works with words has his problems. Witness how in City of Angels an author named Stine fights with his fictional creation Stone in “You’re Nothing without Me.” For that matter, Stine gets criticism from his wife, too, in “It Needs Work.” The song itself, however, seems effortless, thanks to a swinging Cy Coleman melody, taut David Zippel lyrics, and a terrific Billy Byers orchestration that perfectly homages Nelson Riddle.
Listen to A Class Act and see how hard lyricist Edward Kleban labors to come up with the precise and correct syllables and words. Then listen to A Chorus Line and hear how well he succeeds.
Of course, what you’ll also take away from A Chorus Line is that 17 applicants will endure the most agonizing job interview through which anyone can suffer. Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town may take umbrage at her prospective employer Robert Baker mocking her in “What a Waste.” Flora Medzaros – who some would eventually consider a Red Menace – is so utterly frustrated after filling out an “application for no job” that she sings “All I Need Is One Good Break.” Thoroughly modern Millie must endure “The Speed Test.” All of them, however, have it easier than all those dancers who are auditioning for Zach.
But no job is easy. Although Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie thinks the ideal way to spend time is being “An English Teacher,” she might feel differently if she spent a few minutes with Professor Henry Higgins, who’d unceremoniously tell her how difficult some students can be. That is, if indeed Professor Higgins chose to give Rosie some time. After all, as he told us in My Fair Lady, he was reluctant to ever let a woman in his life.
Even royalty needs some alone-time as Arthur in Camelot proves to us in “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight.” And while you might be neither king nor queen, at least on Labor Day, you can be monarch of all you survey. Enjoy your break from work. Spend it with musicals, and it will only seem better.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia