Rags to Riches? Creators Revise 1986 Bway Musical About Immigrants

Special Features   Rags to Riches? Creators Revise 1986 Bway Musical About Immigrants
Like the immigrant experience it celebrates, Rags, the short-lived 1986 Broadway musical by Joseph Stein, Stephen Schwartz and Charles Strouse, is getting a new life beyond its grim beginnings.
Marilyn Caskey and Jonathan Andrew Bleicher in Rags.
Marilyn Caskey and Jonathan Andrew Bleicher in Rags.

Like the immigrant experience it celebrates, Rags, the short-lived 1986 Broadway musical by Joseph Stein, Stephen Schwartz and Charles Strouse, is getting a new life beyond its grim beginnings.

A revised version of the four-performance flop began Nov. 3 at Paper Mill Playhouse, the New Jersey resident company known for is sumptuous revivals of Follies and Gypsy.

The original run of Rags -- remembered for its star turn by Teresa Stratas, its negative New York Times review and the organized audience and-cast march to the TKTS booth, with the chants of "Keep Rags open!" -- is still a heartbreaker for the collaborators, despite the Tony Award nominations for Best Book, Score and Musical (and a non for Stratas).

But out of heartbreak, there is hope again. The creators hope that the new "revisal," through Dec. 12 in Millburn, NJ, will spark more productions of the show, and perhaps a new commercial run. There is talk that commercial producers are exploring the idea of a tour and that regional artistic directors are thinking about resident a co-productions elsewhere.

The staging by Jeffrey B. Moss had its roots in a revised production that played the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami earlier in 1999. The book has been clarified by librettist Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof) over the years, and composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Stephen Schwartz have refined the score since Coconut Grove. "We keep making changes in both the script and the score," Stein told Playbill On-Line during the Paper Mill rehearsal period. "We made changes yesterday. The basic story has never changed: There are still the same four central characters and their struggles to become American -- to overcome the problems and fears of the immigrant."

Small changes and refining continued even after the first week of shows.

Stein said the original libretto was not disastrous, but there was too much story being told. The negative New York Times review, cited as the reason producers pulled the plug after four performances, agreed with Stein's assessment of the original.

"In a sense, I tried to do too much, to tell too much story," Stein conceded. "It's perfectly fine for a novel, but it was a little too much for a musical structure. I think we've sharpened the characters and clarified some of the storyline."

The show still concerns Jewish-European immigrants Rebecca and her son, David, and Avram and his daughter, Bella, and her beau, Ben. Rebecca is reunited with her Americanized husband, Nathan, and drawn to the Jewish reformer Saul. Avram falls for a widow named Rachel.

"Look," Stein said, "if I had the opportunity to work on Fiddler now, there are a couple of little things I'd like to change. You can always improve something. Nothing is ever really perfect."

The Paper Mill production draws on elements from the Miami company and includes Marilyn Caskey as Rebecca, Jonathan Andrew Bleicher as David, Wayne LeGette as Nathan, Raymond McLeod as Saul, Christopher Bishop as Avram, M. Kathryn Quinlan as Bella, Caesar Samayoa as Ben and Maureen Silliman as Rachel. The company includes Hunter Bell, Peter Cormican, Angela DeCicco, Darin DePaul, Jesse Greenwald, Jayme McDaniel, Tia Speros and William Whitefield.

Musical direction is by John Mulcahy. Designers are James Morgan (set), Carrie Robbins (costumes) and Stuart Duke (lighting). Barbara Siman is the choreographer.


How did Rags -- an original show not based on source material -- come about?

"It started with my idea to do a musical about the immigrant experience," Stein said. "After Fiddler I was besieged by requests to do a followup, a Fiddler II. I didn't want to use those characters, I felt I used them sufficiently. I didn't want to do Tevye in America. The fact that I was asked to do that kind of thing got me to thinking about the immigrants who came [to America] roughly at the same time as the Tevye period. Since my father came from the Old Country and told me some stories, that intrigued me. In a sense, it's a followup to Fiddler, but not a sequel."

Charles Strouse (Bye Bye Birdie, Annie) called the short life of the original production a heartbreaker. "It goes in the annals of Broadway as a flop, and I don't like that," Strouse told Playbill On-Line. "The commercial theatre of Broadway flattens everything out into a kind of 'yes' and 'no.' I had more or less given up on this show, except for the fact that I got a lot of mail on it," Strouse said. "I think God has given me another shot at making it a well-known show."

The Jeffrey Moss staging draws on elements of several versions of the show, including the pre-Broadway Boston tryout (which Strouse and Schwartz directed), the Broadway version (directed by Gene Saks) and the Off-Broadway American Jewish Theatre staging (directed by Richard Sabellico). One new song was added to the Paper Mill staging, but was cut just before opening.

The AJT version has been the script available for stock and amateur productions, but the writers now expect the Paper Mill staging to be the "bible" script.

"Some of the order [of the songs] has been changed, but basically every song is there," Strouse said.

The new song was "The Music We Know," for Rebecca, and, in rehearsals, it ended Act One and used "Nothing Will Hurt Us Again" as an interlude.

Rags has had several successful regional productions since 1986. Strouse said the show's stock life is due to the availability of a cast album produced months after the show's closing. The Herrick Theatre Foundation funded the CD, which had Julia Migenes (Fiddler on the Roof) singing the role of Rebecca (instead of original, unavailable Stratas).

"The recording had gained certain kind of prominence," Strouse said, but did not reflect changes in the available script. "Directors were calling us all the time asking of they could put [songs] back in."

The score includes "Greenhorns," "Brand New World," "Children of the Wind," "Penny a Tune," "Blame It On the Summer Night," "Rags," "Yankee Boy," "Uptown," "Wanting," "Three Sunny Rooms," "Bread and Freedom" and more.

The title refers to music of the period, but also to the "rag trade" that so many immigrants worked at -- in often stifling conditions -- in New York City.

Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Godspell) points out that there is something "gratifying about things not just failing and going away" but "there is something exhausting about having to revisit these from time to time. I've had two happy endings so far [Working and Children of Eden], so maybe this one will be a third."

The show is a rare piece that Schwartz contributed only lyrics to. His music and lyrics to Pippin and Godspell are well-known to theatre buffs. He told Playbill On-Line that it's "extremely unlikely" he'll write just lyrics again for a full show because he still has things to say musically (he penned lyrics for Alan Menken's music for the animated films, "Pocahontas" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame")."It's extremely unlikely," he said, "but you never say 'never.'"

"I have always publicly credited this experience with my really learning the craft of lyric writing," Schwartz said of Rags. "The experience of working with Charles, another composer, this was really the first time I had done so on a major basis."

The music was written first, said Schwartz, who added that he thinks it's Strouse's best theatre score.

Tickets for the Paper Mill staging range $36-$60. For information, call (973) 376-4343.

-- By Kenneth Jones

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