The work by Mark Saltzman has been New York-aimed for several seasons and continues to be, with Broadway producer and Jupiter, FL, resident Rodger Hess on board. Fred Berman (The Public Theater's The Normal Heart) plays Irving Berlin and Alton Fitzgerald White (Broadway's Ragtime and The Lion King) is Joplin.
"In 1915, New York City's 28th Street was also known as Tin Pan Alley — the bustling music publishing capital of the world where the King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin, meets the young, upstart songwriter, Irving Berlin," according to the Jupiter, FL, theatre. "This bracingly original piece contrasts the ironic similarities and differences between the men. Joplin, the musical prodigy son of a slave, was educated in a conservatory. Berlin, the Russian immigrant who couldn’t read music, had his first international hit at the age of 23."
Tin Pan Alley Rag features Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band," Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," and many more classics. Tony Award winner George Faison (The Wiz) choreographs, with direction by Jiri Zizka, the co-artistic director of Philadelphia's Wilma Theater.
The show received five Los Angeles Ovation Award nominations, including Best Musical, when it first opened at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1997. It has been refined over the years.
The company includes Greg Roderick, Terace Jones, Lanette Costas, Andre Garner, Bonita Hyman, Dirk Lumbard, Autumn Dornfeld, Carmen Barika, Idara Victor, Daria Hardeman and Warren B. Griffin III. The design team includes Jerold R. Forsyth (lighting) and David P. Gordon (set).
Brad Ellis handles the project's music direction, original music, arrangements and orchestrations. The show includes Joplin ballet music and sections of his rag opera, Treemonisha, as well as such classic Berlin songs as "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "I Love a Piano." Also expected is the little-known "Yiddishe Nightingale."
Zizka's Wilma Theater produced the show in 1999, with Zizka directing, and it was also seen and developed elsewhere — Cleveland Playhouse, Coconut Grove Playhouse, Fullerton Civic Light Opera, Goodspeed Musicals — under several directors.
The chief roles in the piece are the late-career Joplin and the hotshot twentysomething Berlin. The meeting is fictional; there is apparently no record of them ever meeting.
The Tin Pan Alley Rag is set circa 1915 in the music publishing office of Berlin & Snyder. Joplin is trying to get a publisher for his opera, Treemonisha. What follows is an exchange, musical and human, between the men, whose worlds expand around them thanks to the larger ensemble.
Are there sparks?
"There are two very large egos in the room," Saltzman previously told Playbill.com.
Joplin is the King of Rag, yet Berlin is a sensation due to "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which both men note isn't a true rag, but a popular tune with the word "ragtime" tacked on the fit the day's musical fashion.
The Tin Pan Alley Rag is a kind of musical biography, a snapshot of what was happening in American songwriting 90 years ago. African-American Joplin was the conservatory-trained composer who thought he was writing classical tunes, but in a rag idiom, and European-Jewish Berlin was the showman and sentimentalist — and the more popular of the two.
Do Joplin and Berlin sing about their feelings in-character, or are their songs demonstrated in a more presentational way?
"One of the things Jiri and I are uniformly focused on is the theatre style of this — it's naturalistic," Saltzman explained. "The grim nature of what happened to these guys — it's not traditional musical comedy subject matter. Even the discussion of what music is and what it ought to do is challenging the whole notion of [traditional musical comedy]."
In other words, don't expect character and plot songs to advance the story in the same way you might see in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
What has changed in the project in recent years?
Saltzman told Playbill.com that the sense of loss felt by both men has been underlined in the writing. Both lost their young wives to illness. Berlin's first wife especially appealed to audiences, and Saltzman has "deepened her presence," he said.
The cast is a mix of black and white performers, including dancers to perform Joplin's balletic The Ragtime Dance.
Performances continue to Feb. 5. For more information, visit www.jupitertheatre.org or call (561) 575-2223 or (800) 445-1666.
The Maltz Jupiter Theatre, at 1001 Indiantown Road and A1A in Jupiter, FL., opened in February 2004 as a 550-seat nonprofit community-based professional regional theatre and is a member of the League of Resident Theatres.