A production, which boasts music by two legendary composers, Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, In the Heights), is the stuff of musical theatre dreams. Mix in a stellar cast and you’ve got a recipe for a hit show on your hands, writes Nicky Sweetland.
If you venture down to Southwark Playhouse to see a musical entitled Working over the next few weeks, you’ll not only get both of those elements, but also a fascinating character study, which has been enthralling audiences across the Atlantic for many years.
The South London venue is hosting the European premiere of the show, which is based on a book by Studs Terkel and features a collection of interviews of the American workforce.
A cast of West End stars has been gathered to present the groundbreaking musical to London audiences for the first time this month. Peter Polycarpou (Miss Siagon, Les Misérables) Gillian Bevan (Billy Elliot, Holby City) and Liam Tamne (The Phantom of the Opera, Rocky Horror Show) will all play multiple roles alongside Siubhan Harrison, who took some time off from rehearsals to tell us about the characters she will portray.
“Everyone plays at least four parts, which is wonderful for an actor” Siubhan explained, “I play a mill worker, an air hostess, a secretary and a nanny. He [Studs Terkel] tried to steer away from the council led jobs and focus more on the unsung members of society, so there’s a real voice of America about it.”
First performed in 1977 in Chicago, Working has enjoyed a number of Broadway runs and due to the nature of the piece, has been revised many times to ensure it is able to reflect the society we now live in, while maintaining historical significance, something which is being reflected with the London production.
Siubhan tells me, “Southwark Playhouse is built on an old car-manufacturing site so we are honouring that with the staging.”
In 2008, Schwartz updated the musical again for a hugely acclaimed Off-Broadway run, drafting in Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda to write some new songs and Siubhan tells me, “He’s [Miranda’s] written two numbers. One’s called ‘Delivery’, which is about a fast food worker and has got a real Spanish ‘poppy’ feel. It’s the one that’s been going around in our heads because it’s harmonically so complicated, but it’s phenomenal. He’s also written a beautiful duet, which a Spanish care worker and a Filipino nanny sing called ‘A Very Good Day’, which is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.”
It’s a mixture of old and new within the cast too, as a group of young performers has been given the opportunity to make their professional debuts as part of the show. The musical’s creative team auditioned over 130 drama school students and aspiring young performers, discovering some of the most exciting upcoming musical theatre talent.
“It’s amazing because a piece that was originally written in the 70s is being updated because we’ve got this voice of a new generation.”
Siubhan was last seen on the London stage in the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Guys and Dolls, which received rave reviews when it transferred first to the Savoy Theatre and then the Phoenix Theatre. The show went through a number of cast changes and latterly featured Hollywood star Rebel Wilson as Miss Adelaide.
Siubhan was the one of the only lead cast members who remained throughout the London runs, reveling in the challenge that performing with different costars brought and said, “It was amazing having the luxury of having things change all the time. Every time someone different came in they brought something different with them, so every scene was slightly different from when you’d done it before.”
The talented triple threat performer admits she is also in awe of her current colleagues and is sure the production of Working at Southwark Playhouse will bring something different to audiences.
“The musical will absolutely blow your mind. There are so many different styles and so many beautiful songs. You’ll come away feeling so moved and so inspired. I think it’s something that everyone should see.”
Photos by Robert Workman