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 show by Mark Saltzman, Tin Pan Alley Rag, which is currently in that "next step" holding pattern so many musicals go through before reaching New York.
The show's most recent production was at Florida's Coconut Grove Playhouse, Oct. 9-Nov. 8, 1998. Andre DeShields, fresh off his award winning performance in Broadway's Play On!, played Ragtime legend, Scott Joplin, with David Norona (pronounced no-ROHN-yah) playing composer Irving Berlin.
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 "Yiddish Nightingale" and Joplin's "Ragtime Pieces," a dance piece which was not performed by a dance troupe in Joplin's time). The Tin Pan Alley Rag came to Coconut Grove after successful runs at The Goodspeed Opera House and the Pasadena Playhouse. Still attached to the project are director Alan Bailey (who conceived and directed Smoke on the Mountain), choreographer Larry Sousa (no relation to choreographer Pam Sousa), and musical director Brad Ellis. The project did hit a bump when Ellis underwent a heart transplant a couple of months before the Coconut Grove engagement. John Mulcahy, associate musical director of the out-of-town tuner Busker Alley stepped in for the Florida mounting.
Sousa told Playbill On-Line (March 1) "We are clearly targeting this project for Broadway, the 2000-01 season...ideally the Music Box Theatre, which has to do with support from the Berlin family...
"We're now looking towards the next production. Ideally, our next situation will be a regional thing that brings us in. We really want to work on it. We had three LORT regional productions, and while it was great to have had them, and they helped us see the vulnerable points, a two to three-week rehearsal period doesn't allow for much discovery."
Although there are no commercial producers at this point, Sousa noted that regional supporters include Arnold Mittleman at Coconut Grove and Michael Price & Sue Frost at Goodspeed. "When we were at Chester," said Sousa, "[Tin Pan] was one of the only shows that sold out (and sold out quickly). It had something to do with the names Berlin and Joplin. Plus audiences expected a revue, but they got a play. Granted, one with a ton of dancing in it, plus singing across a wide range of disciplines, from blues to ragtime to opera."
Asked about people in place to bring Tin Pan Alley to the next step, Sousa said aforementioned musical director Ellis is "doing really well now," and stars DeShields and Norona really want to do it. Sousa anticipates Berlin being a breakthrough role for Norona, who served as a stand-by in Broadway's Love! Valour! Compassion! and apparently is "a dead-ringer for Berlin at age 28."
Weeks earlier, author 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.
-- By David Lefkowitz
and Sean McGrath