The 14-actor work — which uses songs and compositions written by both men (Joplin, the noted ragtime composer, and Berlin, the Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songwriter) — was seen in a number of regional venues in its development since the late 1990s. The title has been mentioned as a possible Broadway show in recent years. Roger Hess is attached as the commercial producer.
The latest version of the play with music will be directed by Jiri Zizka, co-artistic director of The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. The Wilma 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 — with several directors.
Zizka will return to the project to stage the new run at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre in Florida Jan. 17-Feb. 6, 2006. He'll bring his 1999 design team along. George Faison (The Wiz) will choreograph. Musical director and arranger Brad Ellis will oversee everything from Joplin ballet music and sections of his rag opera, Treemonisha, to such classic Berlin songs as "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "I Love a Piano." Also expected is the little-known "Yiddishe Nightingale."
Casting is ongoing. The chief roles in the piece, naturally, 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 answered, with a laugh. 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 will be a mix of black and white performers, including dancers to perform Joplin's balletic The Ragtime Dance. The cast will rehearse in New York for two weeks in late 2005 before heading to Maltz Jupiter Theatre in Jupiter, FL.
Here's how Maltz Jupiter Theatre bills the show: "A meeting between Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin generates surprisingly entertaining and dramatic musical fireworks. When the aging Scott Joplin happens into young Irving Berlin's office in search of a publisher, a musical discourse unfolds highlighting influential and emotional moments from each of their lives. This bracingly original piece contrasts the ironic similarities and differences between the men to sustaining surge of their musical compositions."
The Maltz Jupiter 2005-06 theatre season also includes Pump Boys and Dinettes, Plaid Tidings, Guys and Dolls and Barefoot in the Park.
Subscriptions for the five plays are now on sale. For information, visit www.jupitertheatre.org or call (561) 575-2223 or (800) 445-1666.
The Maltz Jupiter Theatre opened in February 2004 as a 550-seat nonprofit community-based professional regional theatre and is a member of the League of Resident Theatres.
The Maltz Jupiter Theatre is located at 1001 Indiantown Road and A1A in Jupiter.