Any new musical from either Stephen Schwartz or Lin-Manuel Miranda makes for big news – so it is even more intriguing and exciting that this week at Southwark Playhouse sees Working make its European premiere – a show that is a collaboration of these two creative giants. The show is being directed by Luke Sheppard whose recent credits most famously include Miranda’s In The Heights. This proved to be a show which achieved that holy grail amongst London’s Off West End (or fringe) theatre scene by securing a fully invested transfer to a commercial venue in the capital, where it played for more than a year, garnering some considerable recognition and success at the Oliviers along the way. As the rehearsals for Working were coming to an end, I spoke with Sheppard.
JB: Luke, tell me about the strengths of the story that lies behind Working.
LS: Well, to be absolutely honest with you, there isn’t a story, but there is a narrative. There is no character in the piece that has a traditional journey as we would know it in a book musical even though the book was Tony nominated on Broadway.
It’s not a song cycle either. Rather it is a series of characters who take us on a narrative arc through their different jobs, throughout the piece. Essentially, its closest cousin is something like A Chorus Line because that is based on real experiences attached to a story narrative. Working however has deliberately always sought to remain detached from any sense of fictionalisation. It may not have a story, but what it does have is roots that are connected in, what is I think, arguably one of the first approaches to making a verbatim musical.
Stephen Schwartz took words from interviews and translated them into first monologues and then the songs, that now exist in this structure. I think part of what makes it so wonderful is that while it is totally unique, it’s not a story-driven musical, as people might have come to expect from shows at the Southwark Playhouse.
JB: This is a most unusual project, bringing the long established talents of Schwartz together with Miranda. What has it been like to work with these two writers?
LS: It’s been a real passion project for Stephen. Working is a show that he’s held very close to his heart over the decades, and he’s been right behind us in what we’re creating. We keep him in the loop, and I flew over to see him in New York to explain our vision for the show. He really is our port of call as the kind of gospel for the show.
Lin-Manuel has been supportive, although we haven’t seen much of him so far because, really, it’s only two of his songs that are in the show, while Stephen is the father figure. But I do think that everyone who’s ever been involved with Working feels a real fondness for it and are really excited that we’re presenting it here.
JB: And what about the cast? You have assembled a fascinating array of respected and established leads alongside a number of newcomers. Tell me more.
LS: Yeah. Our cast are extraordinary. Literally, if we were doing this in the West End, every single one of them is who I would want to be playing these roles. Each day, in rehearsals, is just full of revelation after revelation.
We have six, I guess, in inverted commas, “grown-up actors,” who play the roles, as per the scripts. We’ve made a decision to invite six young graduates along for the ride. We’ve created these six jobs for six graduates who were just leaving drama school and taking their first steps into the world of work, and invited them to essentially bring their opinion into the show, which absolutely informs every step of the production.
They’re on stage throughout, and they become the mirror that we hold up to these professions and, also, the lens through which we see the piece. I hope that they will become the narrative that defines the show, that takes us on the emotional journey that Working demands, which is fundamentally all about presenting real people’s words in a documentative way.
JB: You worked with Lin-Manuel when you directed In the Heights a few years ago when, to be honest, his name was only know to the cognoscenti of musical theatre. Since then of course, with Hamilton, his rise to fame has been stratospheric. What has it been like, working with him in that transition?
LS: It’s been very exciting for In the Heights to have been a small part of that dialogue. I was drawn to that show because it’s a piece of material that has, in my mind, a universal appeal, even though it’s about a very specific community.
What Lin-Manuel does so brilliantly is writing work that is not only so connected to his own experience but can translate to such a wider perspective. In the Heights has been a very, very small part of that dialogue, but it’s been wonderful to be a part of that journey.
JB: You are also one of the very few people who’s stewarded a show from a humble Off West End conception through to a full commercial transfer. Obviously you’re not going to tempt fate and want to wish for something similar here – But……..
LS: Do we think it could have the same path? Actually, the brilliant thing about In the Heights was that it was never meant to do anything else. It was just meant to exist at Southwark. If you missed it, you missed it, and it would go away, and you’d never have another opportunity. The fact that it had a commercial life was a real surprise for us. It wasn’t built to do that, and actually, if it was built to do that, we probably would have made different decisions that might have resulted in a less successful show. It was a real gift that the producers just trusted us to make it an event at Southwark and go from there.
And what I have loved about doing Working is that it’s exactly the same ethos. It’s put together by a team who want to come and work at this theatre, on this piece, and there’s no other theatre in London where I would rather be debuting this show because of the industrial roots in the very architecture of the building!
Actually, we have never once talked about the show going any further which I find really refreshing. If you’ve always got one eye on the next step, then it’s not always easy to make the most empowered choices for the audience who are coming to see the show right now. As it stands, this show is here for five weeks, and if you don’t see it, you don’t see it.
Working is a slice of something very bold and different, which is exactly what I think Off West End theatres are designed for and should be used for.