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‘Nice Work if You Can Get It’: The 6 Best Workplace Musicals

Category Broadway

|by Mark Robinson |


In honor of Labor Day, here’s our workplace musical playlist

Going back as far as the 1937 musical revue Pins and Needles, the concerns of labor have been well-reflected on the Broadway stage. Pins and Needles was created as a union show by Max Danish, editor of the International Ladies Garment Union newspaper Justice. Bringing together many popular and up-and-coming composers of the day, the revue looked at current events from the point of view of the pro-labor movement. The show’s performers came directly from the union (sewers, cutters, basters), rehearsing at night so as not to interfere with their day jobs. When Pins and Needles received enthusiastic word of mouth, the piece transferred to Broadway where it eventually enjoyed a run of 1,108 performances.

With Labor Day just around the corner, we celebrate the workplace musical and the characters who tell the story of the everyman and everywoman, the hard workers who keep our world turning.

David Cook and the cast of ‘Kinky Boots’ get to work (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

David Cook and the cast of ‘Kinky Boots’ get to work (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The Pajama Game
“7 ½ cents doesn’t buy a hell of a lot,” sing the garment workers in the Richard Adler and Jerry Ross musical The Pajama Game, and yet they soldier on with their demands for a raise. At the Sleep-Tite pajama factory, the union members dream of how a 7 ½ cent-per-hour raise may sound paltry, but can add-up over time. With the possibility of a strike imminent, the powers that be eventually cave, and the laborers win out in the end.


How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Climbing up the corporate ladder is the dream of anyone in big business, and J. Pierpont Finch of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying achieves this by following a how-to manual. Whether he’s planning a scheme for his next promotion, or overcoming the roadblocks put in his way by the boss’s nephew, Finch makes the most of his opportunities at the World Wide Wicket Corporation. Frank Loesser’s score is a smorgasbord of workplace-related humor, including “A Secretary is Not a Toy,” “Coffee Break,” “The Company Way” and “It’s Been a Long Day.”


Waitress
Waiting tables is hard work, and for waitress Jenna Hunterson, it is made even harder when she finds out she is pregnant by her abusive husband. Joe’s Diner is where she finds friendship and support as she soldiers on, creating signature pies and preparing for the life that she will soon bring into the world. Waitress, with a score by pop star Sara Bareilles, is a story about how our dedication and hard work in the workplace can lead to unexpected rewards. The song “Opening Up” is a tribute to those who make their living earning tips.


9 to 5
Consolidated Industries is not a happy place for its workers, particularly for the women who suffer sexual harassment and discrimination from the big boss Franklin Hart. When he is called out by three of the women for his misogynistic ways, they end up holding him captive while they work out a plan create a happier, more proactive workplace in his absence. 9 to 5, with a score by Dolly Parton, is a testament to what can be accomplished when greater minds prevail in the workplace, and women are given an equal voice.


Working
No other musical quite captures the range of careers in the American workplace than Working, based on the Studs Terkel book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day And How They Feel About What They Do. Offering a glimpse into the lives of everyday people, from a parking lot attendant to a schoolteacher, from a housewife to a firefighter, we learn what people do “All the Livelong Day,” and of the emotional toll their jobs can take on them. One of the musical’s most powerful numbers is “Millwork,” written by James Taylor, a sad reflection by a factory employee who is trapped in a monotonous existence and nostalgic for a childhood when her dreams were possibilities.


Kinky Boots
To what lengths will an employer go to make sure that the people who work for him are well taken care of? In the Cyndi Lauper/Harvey Fierstein musical Kinky Boots, Charlie Price inherits his father’s failing shoe factory. In an effort to keep the business open – and keep the employees, who he sees as family, employed – Charlie takes the business into a new direction. Working with his newfound business partner Lola, Charlie begins manufacturing footwear for a niche market: boots for drag queens. The Act One finale, “Everybody Say Yeah,” is an inspiring number where the whole team comes together, singing and dancing on the assembly line, agreeing to give Charlie’s plan a try.


Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.

 

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