Studs Terkel first thought turning his 1974 oral history Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do into a musical was a crazy idea. Stephen Schwartz, lyricist and composer for Broadway smashes such as Wicked, Pippin and Godspell, disagreed.
"Halfway through (reading) the book I started to feel this was something I could see and hear as a musical," Schwartz said by phone last week from the Rubicon Theater near Los Angeles, where he is rehearsing a new play.
Not long after the book was published Schwartz flew to Chicago, convinced Terkel the idea for a musical had legs, put together a team of songwriters, workshopped his adaptation into shape, previewed it at Chicago's Goodman Theater and opened the show on Broadway, with himself as director, on May 5, 1978.
Working: A Musical ran for only 24 performances but scored six Tony nominations, including one for best book of a musical.
The work has been staged many times since then and continues to evolve as times and tastes change. Asolo Repertory Theatre will debut a fresh update Friday at the company's Mertz Theatre in Sarasota.
Schwartz worked closely with Gordon Greenberg, who directs the Asolo production, on this latest revision.
"I like Gordon's work a lot," Schwartz said. "Together we've updated some material, swapped out a few characters and reordered some of their appearances on stage, worked on the lyrics, but we were careful not to invent things, to put our words in characters' mouths. The show remains a documentary. The idea is to be theatrical but authentic. These are real people's real words."
Some of the updated words come from more recent interviews by Terkel, and others were drawn from the original interviews. A handful of characters has been replaced with others from the book. And there will be at least one new song by Lin-Manuel Miranda ("Two, maybe, by the time we open," Schwartz said), who currently is the darling of Broadway for his music and lyrics plus star turn as Usnavi in In The Heights.
"I'd pretty much bet the farm he'll be nominated for Tonys for both his score and his performance," Schwartz says.
There aren't many people better qualified to make that prediction. Although Schwartz's own six Tony nominations have not resulted in the prize, he has managed to bring home three Oscars, three Grammys, four Drama Desk Awards and a Golden Globe.
In addition to his update of Working, he's currently massaging the incidental music he wrote for his son Scott's adaptation of Willa Cather's novel My Antonia, which Scott also is directing at the Rubicon.
Any new play is a lot of work, but Schwartz will be in the opening night audience for Asolo's Working, which will be produced with a cast of six actors playing multiple roles.
"If I can get a flight at the right time," he said from California, "I'll be there for the final preview, too, but definitely for opening night. I can't wait to see this."
John Bancroft is a Sarasota writer specializing in food, wine and
the arts. He may be reached at