26 October 2010

Joseph Stein

The Broadway musical Rags, in 1986, was one of the formative experiences of my life, quite possibly the belated moment when I ceased to be a boy, for everything thereafter has made me feel as if I’m grownup already, and only growing more so. The show was a notorious flop, of course, and yet I’m absolutely convinced that the experience would have been equally meaningful — and bittersweet — even had Rags run for months or a year.

Blame for the show’s initial failure is usually placed on the book, by Joseph Stein, the Broadway veteran who also wrote Fiddler on the Roof, Zorba, and many others. Joe conceived of Rags as a television miniseries, and neither he nor anyone else ever quite managed to give the show the right focus as a two-act musical comedy. Joe tried, though, quite heroically. Perhaps nobody was in a better position to appreciate his efforts than the production assistant, himself an aspiring writer, who typed up the script changes every day.

Writing — even for the stage — is a solitary occupation, and as it became clear that Rags was in trouble, Joe was very nearly banished to his hotel room in Boston. He emerged to watch run-throughs, but otherwise, he was writing. I was assigned to see Joe every morning to collect new pages; he’d explain to me where the new scenes were supposed to go; then I’d take it away, type it up, and distribute it to the company.

This went on every day, and Joe was unhappy about it. Chomping on a cigarillo, he had a weary, even sorrowful aspect, which lightened only briefly and momentarily. If I laughed at a new joke in the script, he’d grunt first, as if I’d awakened him. Then he’d smile, then chuckle, as if to say, “That is kind of funny, isn’t it?”

But then it was back to melancholy. Simply stated, he had created too many subplots and too many characters, and he didn’t know what to do with them all. His collaborators — composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Stephen Schwartz — kept chipping in their ideas, and by the time we got to Boston, they were effectively directing the show, too. We were already playing to paying audiences, and the pressure mounted on Joe to fix the script now.

What about this? What about that? We tried such-and-such during the workshop; what if we put it back in? These were the themes of every conversation: cast members, too (and, indeed, everybody involved in the show in any capacity whatever), went over the same ground over lunch and at home in the evenings, hoping to hit upon the solution. Yet nothing seemed to work.

Soon, the producers called in Jay Presson Allen as a show doctor. Feeling like a double agent, I started going to her hotel room, too, to pick up her script changes. A fellow Texan and Kurt Weill fan, she was fun, but even I could see that her changes weren’t changing anything: she gave different weight to certain scenes, but she didn’t cut the running time, and she didn’t find the focus.

Joe knew she was in town, but they seldom came in contact with each other. To me, he seemed sadder than ever, almost like the father of a chronically ill child: I can’t cure her myself, I’ve placed her in the doctors’ hands — and God’s.

This can't have been easy for Joe, but he never complained when I could hear him do it, and though I saw some wounded pride, it was far less than the prize-winning author of Fiddler was entitled to wield. I never saw a hint of self-defensiveness from him at any point in the process. He was willing to do whatever was necessary to save the show; the demands of his ego were secondary.

Then one day, just as quietly as she’d arrived, Jay Presson Allen vanished. Returning to New York, the producers hired Gene Saks, a longtime friend of Joe’s, to direct the show, and Joe’s mood improved immensely. Tough choices were made, and the ensemble became a mere chorus. But the script was Joe’s.

Rags meant something to him, and to every member of the company. The writers and producers, the actors and crew: everybody associated with the show saw it as a tribute to their own immigrant ancestors. It must have meant something extra to Joe, who dreamed it all up, and who pretended (in my presence, at least) not to have noticed its debts to his most successful brainchild, Fiddler.

Our hopes for the show were disappointed, though I remain confident that the basic material is too strong not to prevail, some day; I’m told that some more recent productions have been quite good.

For me, as I say, the show was a continuing series of life lessons. What I learned from Joe was that sometimes you have to cope with terrible disappointments: a little sadly, perhaps, you keep plugging away, as Joe did. Though Rags was his last new musical for Broadway, he kept writing steadily until his death the other day, at the age of 98.

Once he handed me a scene from the end of the play, when Saul the sweatshop revolutionary bids farewell to Rebecca’s young son, David. Saul gives the boy a pen and pencil set. It’s a significant gesture, because Saul is in fact the person who taught David to read and write, in Act I: now he’s giving David the means to pursue that education on his own, and for the rest of his life.

“It’s a bar mitzvah present, isn’t it?” I said. “I mean, it’s the classic, traditional thing to give to a bar mitzvah boy.”

Joe hesitated, and to this day I’m not sure if he sincerely agreed, or if he was merely humoring me. But his eyes began to twinkle, and he said at last, “Sure.”

I defend my interpretation. At that moment in the play, David becomes a man. And so did I, in a sense. On that show, embraced by the sacred tribe of Teresa Stratas and Madeline Gilford and Bob Straus, and by a loopy, brilliant family of actors, facing a brand-new world — I grew up, too.

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