Mark Saltzman, the creator of the musical play The Tin Pan Alley Rag, now playing at Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre, doesn't think that the work's central device — a meeting between the towering American songwriters Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin — is such a wild idea. In fact, since they both lived in New York during the second decade of the 20th century, he's all but certain it did happen.
"Oh, more than probably," says the writer, who is perhaps best known in theatrical circles for co-writing the long-running Off-Broadway revue A...My Name Is Alice and writing the 1996 television movie "Mrs. Santa Claus," which starred Angela Lansbury and featured original music by Jerry Herman. "It would just be two songwriters meeting. At the time, it wouldn't have been a big deal."
Given their differing backgrounds, the Jewish Berlin and African-American Joplin would have found they had more in common than one might expect. "Both came up from nothing," observes Saltzman. Joplin was the son of an ex-slave, while Berlin was a Russian Jewish immigrant who moved to New York when he was five.
Besides that, their experiences, not to mention their temperaments and worldviews, part. Joplin was a musical prodigy who received a conservatory education. Berlin had no musical training; he couldn't even read music. Joplin hoped to raise his chosen form of music — the propulsive, syncopated, harmonically complex piano style known as ragtime, which he considered classical music — to the level of art. Berlin was happy just generating popular hits. Together, they embodied two divergent but not necessarily disconnected strains of what the American Dream means to an artist. Another thing they didn't have in common was ragtime — despite the fact that Berlin made his name and fortune with a tune called "Alexander's Ragtime Band."
"It wasn't really a ragtime," says Saltzman. "It was a song with the word 'ragtime' in it." By the time "Alexander's Ragtime Band" became a smash, Joplin, frustrated in his attempts to find an audience for his ambitious opera Treemonisha, was on his way down. (Joplin actually maintained that the song's melody had been stolen from a section of Treemonisha.) He would die in 1917, while his colleague would live long enough to see Joplin revered as a genius (Berlin died in 1989).
"Alexander's Ragtime Band" is performed in the piece, which stars Michael Therriault and Michael Boatman as Berlin and Joplin, respectively. Also included are Berlin's "I Love a Piano" and "Play a Simple Melody" and Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" and "The Entertainer."
The show previously had productions at Cleveland Playhouse and the Maltz Jupiter Theatre in Florida, which means Saltzman has spent a lot of time with both composers. Asked which he prefers, he laughs and strikes a Solomonic note. "It depends on my mood."