Take two musical giants of the 20th century, put them in a room with a piano, and let the chips fall as they may.
That's the premise of a new musical by Mark Saltzman, The Tin Pan Alley Rag, which begins performances Oct. 30 at Goodspeed Opera House's Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT.
Saltzman imagines what might have happened if Joplin, then 47, had wandered into the New York City offices of Irving Berlin, 27 and the toast of Tin Pan Alley, one fine spring day in 1915.
Joplin is trying without luck to get his opera Treemonisha published; Berlin, although professionally at the top of his game, is still in mourning for his first wife, who had died three and a half years earlier.
In true "Meeting of the Minds" fashion, the men talk about anything and everything: how they came to their success, rampant prejudices of the time (anti-artist, anti-African-American, anti-Semitism), love, and all that jazz. And then there's the music: In the course of their meeting, Joplin and Berlin one-up each other at the piano with their most famous tunes (Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," Berlin's "I Love a Piano" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band") as well as some marvelous lesser-known songs (Berlin's "Yiddishe Nightingale" and Joplin's "Ragtime Pieces," a dance piece which was not performed by a dance troupe in Joplin's time).
Into the drama are woven other characters, including Berlin's business partner Teddy Snyder. The cast features Damon Evans as Joplin and Danny Strauss as Berlin. Other cast members include Kimla Beasley, Hunter Bell, Cheryl Howard, Kim Lindsay, Glenn Turner, Richard Vida, and Sean P. Watters.
The Tin Pan Alley Rag comes to Goodspeed after a successful six-week run this past summer at the Pasadena Playhouse. The director is Alan Bailey and the choreographer is Larry Sousa. The musical director is Brad Ellis. Sets are by Peter Harris, costumes by Zoe DuFour, and lighting by Mary Jo Dondlinger.
Saltzman (who also wrote the script for the CBS television production of Mrs. Santa Claus and the screenplay for the current film Napoleon,) told Playbill On-Line about his inspiration for the play.
"The [Houston Grand Opera] recording of Treemonisha in the mid-70s was the first opera I ever heard," said Saltzman. "I immediately fell in love with the music."
"We don't know if Joplin and Berlin ever actually met up, but we do know that they were both very familiar with each other's music," Saltzman continued. "And in those days -- like today -- everybody in the music business stumbled upon everyone else."
"When the show was performed in Pasadena, Irving Berlin's daughter Linda came to see it. It's nice to have the family's approval," Saltzman concluded.
The Tin Pan Alley Rag is at Goodspeed-at Chester/The Norma Terris Theatre Oct. 30-Nov. 23. For tickets, call (860) 873-8668.
-- By Rebecca Paller