The musical tells the story of a group of Jewish immigrants living in New York's Lower East Side in 1910. With music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Fiddler on the Roof writer Joseph Stein, the production opened Aug. 21, 1986, at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. Gene Saks directed a cast that included Teresa Stratas, Larry Kert, Dick Latessa, Terrence Mann, Lonny Price, Judy Kuhn and Marcia Lewis.
Though critics praised Strouse's score, the show itself received mostly negative reviews. Frank Rich referred to the lyrics and supporting cast as merely "competent" and "predictable" in his review for the New York Times. "In the case of Rags," he wrote, "the potentially moving content is abridged into triviality by archaic romantic subplots, theater-party-targeted jokes and fudged melodramatic jolts."
Rags lasted only four performances and closed Aug. 23, 1986. Despite its brief run, it received five Tony Award nominations, including one for Best Musical and one for lead actress Stratas. The show still holds the record for the Best Musical Tony nominee with the fewest regular performances. A revised version of the musical played Off-Broadway in 1991 at the American Jewish Theatre, starring Ann Crumb and Crista Moore.