Lyric Stage, a Dallas-area theatre company which partners with the estates and licensing agencies of theatre writers to present large-scale musical revivals (many times with restored original scores), is currently giving Rags the royal treatment through Nov. 6. Performances began Oct. 28.
Cheryl Denson helms the production, which is premiering a newly revised version of the book completed by Tony-winning Fiddler on the Roof book writer Joseph Stein prior to his death in 2008. For Stein, the piece was a continuation of the journey of his characters from Fiddler on the Roof, and what happened to them after they left Anatevka to make a new life in America.
"Joe Stein, before he died, worked very, very hard on the rewrites – shortening and bolstering certain characters," Strouse told Playbill.com. The composer had just returned from attending the Lyric Stage production. "The framework of the piece was vastly improved. Joe and Stephen and I, but mostly Joe, made significant changes in the structure. We eliminated one character and looked at all kinds of things. It made it smoother and gave it more of a relevancy that it didn't have before."
Critics, who praised the "splendid revival" for having an air of Occupy Wall Street relevance in its message, agreed. With the scores to Annie and Bye Bye Birdie under his belt, Strouse mined the sounds of early 20th century American music to provide the sweeping, melodic score to Rags, which pulls from jazz, blues, klezmer, ragtime and traditional Irish music. Academy Award-winning Wicked and Pippin composer Stephen Schwartz penned the lyrics.
"My particular interest was American music at that time," Strouse said. "It all went together and made something that I think is beautiful, like American. And it was called jazz and it was called blues. And to me, that's my special vision of the show." While Rags played only 22 performances on Broadway in the summer of 1986, the large-scale Dallas staging has prompted renewed interest in the piece. The studio cast album has long been a must-have for theatre fans.
Both Strouse and Carolyn Rossi Copeland, executive producer of Strouse IP, which oversees the composer's work, said buzz from the Dallas run has prompted tremendous amounts of calls, with interest in stagings across the U.S., as well as London.
"It was a luxury that I do not think that will be granted me many other times," Strouse said of the lavish Lyric Stage engagement. "We've had productions with a fiddle and a clarinet and a keyboard, and they've been more than satisfying emotionally. But this theatre has a reputation for bringing a great, rich quality to their work and they gave me a 35-piece orchestra. What a rich experience."
Stand-outs from the score include "Children of the Wind," "Brand New World," "Yankee Boy," "Blame It On the Summer Night," "Dancing With the Fools" and the title song. Rags earned seven Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score.
For tickets to the Lyric Stage production, visit LyricStage.org.