There’s a scene in Working, Oak Park and River Forest High School’s newest spring musical, where the cast stands on the bleachers overlooking the football field, behind them a big, bright blue sky. Dressed in construction gear, medical scrubs or fitted suits, each actor and actress hold their arms up high and sing, “If I could have been what I could have been, I could have been something.”
Repeating the line over and over, the scene fades into a montage of clips from a previous OPRF graduation where eager seniors are reaching for their diplomas, grabbing hold of their futures.
This is the part in the story where the cast, most of whom play adults navigating the challenges of their everyday lives, comes to grips with reality, said Michelle Bayer, OPRF performing arts department chair and teacher. They are reckoning with the past, thinking about “what could have been,” as the song goes, before bills, marriage and professional pitfalls.
For Bayer, who also directs the musical, crafting that particular scene took time. She wanted to create a flashback and for her audience to see the cast as if “they’re watching their graduation.” Unlike most productions, this year’s musical is a pre-recorded performance, and throughout rehearsals, Bayer often found herself outside of her element. She had an idea of what the show could be, and she sought to capture that by leaning on her entire team, those on stage and behind the scenes, to bring those moments to life on the screen.
“Being uncertain is not my style,” said Bayer. “I know how to do live theater, and so this whole process — I had to suspend disbelief because I didn’t know what it was going to look like.”
“Is it going to look like what I see in my head?” is a question Bayer asked herself hundreds of times. “Because in live theater, I can watch that and say, ‘I like that.’ ‘Let’s do that again,’ or ‘Let’s make a different choice.’ I can’t do that this way,” she said.
But Bayer had to trust the process much like the rest of her crew.
Over the past two months, practices were held in what felt like unconventional places. Most of them took place inside students’ homes. Kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms were recreated into makeshift stages. Bayer said students used their cellphones, “not any fancy cameras” to record themselves singing, dancing or acting. And, while most meetings were also held over Zoom, the cast and stage crew only met in person for a total of three days to record certain scenes and group numbers.
Aasha Puri, the musical’s stage manager, said she cherished every single one of the in-person rehearsals. Ever since the pandemic put live theater on pause, she’s missed being around her “big family” – “people that just like to do theater and hang out together.”
“We didn’t really get to do that over Zoom,” said Puri, 15 and a sophomore at OPRF. “It was just kind of like work, work, work.”
And, by the same token, Working is about just that. The live stream musical, which runs about an hour and 50 minutes with no intermission, originally debuted in the late 1970s and was adapted for the stage by lyricist and composer Steven Schwartz, who wrote the Broadway hit, Wicked. It was later reworked to include songs by another famed composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, but the story of Working, which was based on legendary Chicago author Studs Terkel’s best-selling book, has remained the same over the years, putting a spotlight on the lives of everyday people.
From a laborer to a grocery store clerk and a stay-at-home mom, each character spins off into a series of monologues, opening up about the challenges of making a stable living, taking care of family, handling responsibility and managing the weight of work. It’s a fitting theme, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated every industry, widening the social, racial and economic gap.
“Why not talk about the work – and the work of the people that we don’t celebrate prior to the pandemic?” Bayer said. “So many people all of a sudden were important. I mean, they’ve always been important, but they were brought to the forefront.”
In an effort to localize “Working” and make it their own, Bayer said students had the chance to interview different people and learn about the ins and outs of their profession. She said they also turned to local businesses around Berwyn, Forest Park, Oak Park and nearby Elmwood Park, using their storefronts as backdrops.
OPRF senior Mira Mundt looked to her own mother as she prepared for her role as an intensive care unit nurse. During the musical, 18-year-old Mundt embodied her mother, who is a nurse by profession, and drew from her experience of long, grueling hours and coping with the stress and trauma brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“She’s super important to me, and she’s a hero to me,” Mundt said.
Like Mundt, castmate Leo Gonzalez relied on his friends to help him flesh out his part. In one part of the musical, Gonzalez plays a teenager who landed his first summer job as a delivery boy at a burger joint. He sings about being independent, having purpose and contributing to his family’s financial needs.
“I just felt super comfortable because people I’m friends with work at fast food restaurants and other restaurants around Oak Park, so I could just draw from that,” said Gonzalez, who is 17 and a junior.
This version of Working also puts a spotlight on factory workers, immigrants and low-wage earners – the “jobs that no one wants to do,” they sing. All in all, the musical is threaded in a patchwork of messages, including empathy and resilience.
“Every single person has value,” said Bayer of the lesson she hopes her students and audience walk away with from this show. “We use money to place value on people’s work, but the reality is the pandemic exposed that it’s not the people who make the most money that are the most essential. It’s that every single person has value for a system to work.”
There are two more showings of Working, Friday, April 23, and Saturday, April 24, 7 p.m. Tickets are $6 per person, with an additional $2.80 streaming fee. For more information, visit www.showtix4u.com/event-details/46098.