By Peter Filichia –
So what’s your favorite Stephen Schwartz song?
Of course, we’ve got plenty from which to choose. After all, Schwartz has been one of musical theater’s most valuable songwriters for more than four decades.
According to my records, we’ve heard 61 of his songs on Broadway — which would have been 76 if David Merrick hadn’t closed The Baker’s Wife in Washington. Add to these 12 off-Broadway songs, too. And I’m not even including the 18 for Rags; great as they were, Schwartz “only” wrote the (superb) lyrics for that musical, as Charles Strouse provided the (glorious) melodies.
But my all-time favorite is “It’s an Art” from Working. To be sure, it’s not as famous as any of Schwartz’s songs from Godspell, Pippin or Wicked. But now that the original cast album of Working is again available for our listening pleasure, see if you don’t agree that Schwartz’s song is – well, a work of art.
First, a little background on the show. In the early ‘70s, Schwartz had three straight smashes with the rock-infused Godspell, Pippin and The Magic Show. He then stretched his artistic frontiers with the tender The Baker’s Wife, set in France, and sounding it.
What next? Schwartz read Studs Terkel’s Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do. Not only that, Terkel used everyone’s real name to make it a genuine documentary.
Schwartz saw musical possibilities. But instead of solely providing the score, he shared those duties with one old pro (Mary Rodgers of Once upon a Mattress), one new pro (Micki Grant of Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope), and two up-and-coming writers — Craig Carnelia and Susan Birkenhead, both of whom, in a healthier musical-theatre climate, would have been household names by now.
Then Schwartz, who’s always been as intrigued by pop music as much as he is by show tunes, enlisted James (“You’ve Got a Friend”) Taylor. Taylor’s songs about a mill hand, migrant worker and trucker turned out to be the least theatrical of the bunch, but they did sport good melodies.
The other collaborators came through splendidly. Rodgers and Birkenhead’s “Nobody Tells Me How” had a teacher of 42 years rue the changes in her students. Funny; I saw the show twice on Broadway, and found that Audience One sat silently and commiserated with Mrs. Hoffman’s observations on how teaching had become harder. The second audience laughed non-stop and didn’t sympathize at all. See if you think “Nobody Tells Me How” is a serious song or a comic one.
Carnelia scored twice. “Just a Housewife” showed a woman wanly relating how diminished she feels in an age when society values super-achievers – while she stayed at home and became “like my mother.” Then Carnelia’s “Joe” gave us a retiree who put on a brave front about not doing much anymore – and tacitly reminded us how lucky the rest of us are to be working.
Grant’s “If I Could’ve Been (What I Could’ve Been, I Could’ve Been Something)” was a dynamic first-act closer. All the workers stated that they still believed they would have achieved so much more if it weren’t for a few bad breaks, some fickle fate, and, yes, their own damn mistakes.
But to me, ranking above them all is Schwartz’s “It’s an Art,” the story of Chicago waitress Dolores Dante, who is totally content with her work. Totally.
“It’s an Art” reminds us that a job, like life, is what you make it. As she starts to tell us:
There’s some who don’t care
When they put down a plate.
There’s a sound.
Not with me.
When they move a chair
It’ll scrape with a grate
On the ground
Not with me.
Notice how Schwartz is setting up an extremely rigorous rhyme scheme for himself. Each of the four lines in the first A-section rhymes with the analogous line in the second.
But then he achieves two triple rhymes in his next section:
I will have my hand right when I place a glass
Notice how I stand right as customers pass
Serve a demi-tasse
With a gesture so gentle
Or do it again till
It’s near Oriental.
Did you wince out of political correctness? I understand – and so does Schwartz. About 20 years ago, he went back and replaced that triple rhyme with another set. The original cast album made in 1978 doesn’t reflect this change, of course. Like all cast albums, it provides us with a time capsule of what life was like then.
It’s the triple rhymes – without for a moment sacrificing meaning – that makes “It’s an Art” a dazzling achievement. And though I greatly admire:
If I let a fork drop
Or cut up a pork chop
Or serve a New York chop —
I better admire a lyricist when he gets the same sounds from different spellings of words:
Though the chef may be deaf,
I stay diplomatic;
If I give him static
He might burn the haddock.
Ditto this sequence:
You give ‘em what they like
You carry your tray like
It’s almost ballet-like.
Later in the song, Dolores (the terrific Lenora Nemetz) sings:
Tips are important for people like captains and barmen.
For them, it’s a tip, see,
For me, I’m a gypsy;
Just toss me a coin
And I suddenly feel like I’m Carmen.
All right, that sounds a little clunky, doesn’t it? Obviously Schwartz needed something to rhyme with “barmen.” Well, there right next to it alphabetically is “Carmen,” so he grabbed it and did the “gypsy” image which he could match with “tip, see” –
But wait! Take a look at page 295 of Working and see what the real Dolores Dante said to Studs Terkel: “Tips? I feel like I’m Carmen. It’s like a gypsy holding out a tambourine and they throw the coin.”
Makes you have a little more respect for Mr. S., doesn’t it?
So on through the ulcer, the backache, the hot sweaty feet
On you go!
Through “Is your knife dull, sir?”
And “Madam wants what with her meat?”
On you go!
And Schwartz indeed had Dolores take us through the night, until:
Two a.m. approaches
The curtains descend
There among the roaches
My act’s at an end
Every night I tend
To find myself crying
There’s no work so trying
Or so satisfying
You can see it gives me a glow
Ev’ry time I prove I’m a pro
Maybe I’m not quite Michelangelo
But I’m not just a waitress
I’m a one-woman show!
Of course, Working itself is substantially more than a one-woman show. We hear from many others in 14 additional songs. The Mason too takes great pride in his work, and shows us that he believes working to be ennobling.
But Working also points out that there’s many a person who sees his job as something he’ll do “for the rest of the morning, for the rest of the afternoon, for the rest of my life.” Others feel that their lives have passed so quickly that they’ve had to give up their dreams. Now that they know it’s too late for them, they bequeath their dreams to their children. The Cleaning Lady forcefully expresses this in “Cleaning Women,” sung wonderfully by future Tony-winner Lynne Thigpen.
She wasn’t the only future Tony-winner in the show. Patti LuPone was there, too, although you’d be hard-pressed to know it, given that she didn’t get her own song in the show. (Don’t you assume that Schwartz, who directed, too, eventually regretted that decision?) But listen carefully and see if you can hear the few moments that LuPone gets to chime in with the chorus.
For those barbarians who believe that a musical “doesn’t have one redeeming feature,” here’s one that rebuts that ignorant opinion. Working brought dignity and importance to the musical stage.
So why did the 1978 production die in three weeks? First, most musicals center either on big characters and/or big events. Working would seem to have neither. But that’s viewing the show too myopically. If you look at the big picture and collectively consider the characters as no less than the working force of the world, the show suddenly looms large. “Small” events — laying bricks, cleaning offices, parking cars — are finally given importance, as we’re reminded of what wretched shape the world would be in if we didn’t have workers to perform these tasks for us. We need to be reminded of this in a time when a national hero is a baseball player who succeeds once out of every three times he steps to the plate — and then gets insulted when he’s offered $5 million a year.
Secondly, Working was a revue. As Schwartz has said many times, the worst part of doing a revue is that no matter how wonderful the song or sketch is – or how much an audience adores it — writers must start from scratch with the next piece. The audience that has just bonded with characters won’t ever see them again.
Working, by its very nature, had to use the revue format. But strangely enough, that’s what makes listening to Working unlike most Broadway cast albums. It’s a halfway house between a cast album and a pop record, in that one song has no particular relation to the one before it. You’re not building characters here — although plenty of the characters have plenty of character. You’re simply intrigued by what they have to say – especially Dolores Dante in “It’s an Art.”