Sock ‘n’ Buskin’s ‘Working’ gets creative, using movie format while trying to preserve community

Pelham Memorial High School’s Sock ‘n’ Buskin is working hard to produce their annual spring musical, which this year is “Working.” Last year, the spring show, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” was canceled. However, the program got creative by turning this year’s production into a mix of a film and theater experience. 

As described by Neil Schleifer, the co-director of the production alongside Tom Beck, “Working” is based on a book of the same name written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Studs Terkel in 1974. The book consists of interviews done by Terkel with regular working people about their jobs and lives.

In 1978, the musical was first produced with contributions from lyricists and composers like Stephen Schwartz and singer James Taylor. Through the medium, they were able to bring the stories of real-life people that Terkel interviewed to life. The show is updated through the years as composers like Lin-Manuel Miranda write more songs for the musical in order to make it more palatable to modern audiences. 

“Mr. Beck and I had the chance to do a Zoom workshop with the original creator of the show, Stephen Schwartz. Since then, the landscape of the American workplace has changed drastically,” said Schleifer. “Mr. Schwartz and his collaborators have updated the show at least four times since the original production, but Mr. Schwartz is 73 and wants to make sure that the show continues to be relevant. In his workshop with us, he devised a way for the show to be updated. Mr. Beck and I felt quite privileged to be a part of that creative process.”

A lot of work went into adapting the show to the modern world. In addition to the changes in roles and additions, they directors also had to accommodate the restrictions of not being able to perform live. The pandemic was part of the inspiration behind why this show was chosen due to the new perspective society has on jobs that often are overlooked.

“It’s interesting,” said Schleifer. “When the pandemic hit, a lot of people began to realize that there are people whose jobs we take for granted every day—the folks who stock the store shelves at the grocery, the folks who deliver food to us, the people who teach or take care of our children every day while we go to jobs elsewhere, or those who communicate with us over the phone or the computer to try to make our lives better. And of course, the frontline workers like doctors, nurses, police and fire personnel whom we never see unless there is an emergency. We thought this would be the perfect time to choose a musical that celebrated the people who are often unsung heroes.”

This pandemic also makes producing this musical more challenging and unique. “Most of the scenes had no more than five or six actors at a time, and the large musical numbers were filmed outside, with masks on, and with social distancing,” Schleifer said. “It has been more like filming a movie musical than performing a Broadway show, and that’s been both fun and challenging. Students have learned to make their performances ‘smaller’ or more realistic because a camera is inches away. And, of course, if someone makes a mistake, we have the opportunity to take it again from the top!”

While there are upsides to being able to film instead of perform live, PMHS actors are feeling the absence of the theater community as they aren’t together when performing their scenes.

“This year has been wholly unique,” said junior Austin Kelly. “We learned all our songs and lines virtually and just came together to film them. Most of the stuff we did was more individual, and it really felt like there was less of a sense of community, which wasn’t great, but overall it was fun. Sock ‘n’ Buskin is always fun.”

Not only are the students not able to perform with others in the drama club, but they also are unable to perform to a live audience.

“When we have a show in the auditorium, we can see the faces of those heading to their seats, and hear the laughter, tears and applause once they are seated,” said Schleifer. “We know that virtual theater is never the same as sharing a communal space with 300 other people… but after more than a year of no theater at all, we really hope that everyone in the community will support our young actors and watch the show. We have been challenging ourselves in ways that the community can’t even begin to imagine to create this spectacular piece and to give our students an amazing outlet for their creativity.”

However, despite being restricted from performing to a live audience, there were many unique experiences to filming as it opened up a new opportunity for experimenting with different locations. Using Google Meet to rehearse, all music was taught virtually by musical director Kevin Smith. In addition, the company was able to film all over Pelham and currently is in the process of editing the scenes together.

Schleifer said, “Through the graciousness of our community, our fireman filmed his scene in the Pelham firehouse. Our waitress filmed at Cantina Lobos. Our supermarket personnel filmed at DeCicco’s. So that the musical has become not just a celebration of workers, but also of our community. I think people will have a good time recognizing all the ‘sights.’”

The process of filming allowed for more creativity on the set, and while it is a shame there will be no live performance, as sophomore Bella Rosado said, “Despite the challenges we faced this year, the community of Sock ‘n’ Buskin remained the family I have always known. Being a part of the show was an amazing experience!”

To purchase tickets for “Working,” click here.