Friday, October 31, 2008

Studs Terkel


"I came up the year the Titanic went down."

Radio host, black-listed activist, sometime actor, oral historian, and acclaimed author, Turkel won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Humanities Medal, and the National Medal of Arts, among countless other awards. A mainstay on Chicago radio, he found international fame with his oral histories, including The Good War, for which he won the Pulitzer in 1985. Earlier, his examination of the lives of ordinary working people became the source material for an under-appreciated, problematic, but highly personal musical called Working.

Being the musical theatre maniac that I am, it is that contribution for which I am most thankful. Sadly, the show derived from Terkel's book is a mish-mash of styles, with the music written by more than a half dozen composers, including Broadway Babies Mary Rodgers and Stephen Schwartz, pop superstar James Taylor, and cabaret stylist Craig Carnelia. Predictably, such an eclectic mix prevented a single style to emerge. The show wasn't helped much by the musical's text, which consisted of a series of monologues delivered by various working folks: a UPS man, a telephone operator, a newsboy, a teacher, a housewife, a maid, a waitress, a truck driver, well, you name it. Even illegal aliens and hookers showed up to tell their tales. It's little wonder that the show failed in its original production, but the musical continues to be presented on college campuses and in regional theatres. Currently, a revised version of the show is being prepared for the Old Globe in San Diego.

Clearly, Terkel's oral history still resonates. In his honor and in his memory, please enjoy the clip below, in which the heartbreaking Eileen Brennan is paired with the musical voice-over of Jennifer Warnes, to present one of the many moving moments in Working.

MILLWORKER, from Studs Terkel's "Working"