21 August 2011

‘Rags,’ 25 Years On

“I remember summer evenings, sitting you and I,
While the cranes were calling in the eastern sky.
Sometimes we don’t love things, ’til we tell them goodbye.
Oh, my homeland, my homeland,
-- “I Remember,” lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Sung by Andy Gale, as the curtain rose on each performance.

Twenty-five years ago, one of the greatest adventures of my life was drawing to a close: the Broadway musical Rags opened in New York on 21 August and closed, three days and four performances later. Many members of the company, sensing that the end was nigh, had begun already to think of the next project, putting into practice the time-honored “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” philosophy, and for many the next show was Les Misérables. Victor Hugo’s novel was a best-seller among our company, to the point that it was almost a joke. In the event, several members of the Rags family wound up in the show — but only this summer, a quarter-century later, have I begun to read the book.

I’ve written often here about Rags: how Bob Straus overcame his perfectly reasonable reservations to hire me as the lone production assistant on the $5.5 million musical; how the show’s associate producer, Madeline Gilford, befriended me; how Joe Stein tirelessly revised the book he’d written but never really completed; how Marcia Lewis took me to dinner; how Jack Gilford sang “Give My Regards to Broadway” for me; how Larry Kert sang “Johanna” for me. For Opera News several years ago, I tried, in my most dispassionate style, to sum up the most passionate experience I’ve known. But ultimately Rags was an adventure too big to fit into a single account, or even to depict in a mosaic of short prose. Really, it’s a book-length saga — Les Misérables on the Great White Way.

A Playbill bearing Marcia Lewis’ and Evalyn Baron’s autographs.
Idiotically, I didn’t ask for any signatures,
and my own Playbill and poster are spotless.

If only one could find a reading public sufficiently interested in all the tragicomic, gorgeous, amorphous and messy details! But Rags was a flop, the most expensive in Broadway history at the time — and then, a short time later, Carrie lost even more money than Rags had, proving that our hapless band didn’t even know how to flop right.

Why then am I still so fascinated by the show? I was and am in awe of the creative team: writer Joe Stein, composer Charles Strouse, and lyricist Stephen Schwartz; the directors, first Joan Micklin Silver, then Gene Saks; and above all, the star, Teresa Stratas, my longtime idol and muse, who brought me along for the ride. That so many talented people, once assembled, couldn’t get their act together — literally — is fascinating to me.

“Absa-lootly, hawnee”: Teresa Stratas.
She was photographed for her record album Stratas Sings Weill
while we were in Boston tryouts. I have worn that cap.

They spoke from the heart, each and every one of them, and somehow that wasn’t enough. All of them came from immigrant families, some quite recently arrived. Teresa declared that her performance was an homage to her mother, who came from Crete and who, when times were tough, went hungry to keep her children fed in this “Brand New World.” Stephen Schwartz got choked up until he could hardly sing for us a new lyric he’d written for “Children of the Wind,” in which Rebecca imagines the future, with grandchildren running through her kitchen and never knowing the kind of suffering she endured. And so on. With one notable exception, you couldn’t find a member of the company who didn’t have some sort of profound personal connection to the subject matter.

And that lone exception was this writer, the last of whose family emigrated from Germany in the early 1830s. (Most of the rest got to America during the 17th and 18th centuries.) Ellis Island might as well have been the moon, for all my family knew about it. And thus the show was a means of exploring a culture that, from an early age, exerted a powerful hold over me — part of the process of my becoming “an honorary Jew,” as Madeline later certified me.

Disney’s Pocahontas is just the latest show
Stephen Schwartz has written about my ancestors.
(Pippin and, more debatably, Godspell are the others.)

Broadway musicals have been an important influence, too, starting probably when I was a baby, and my mother used to dance me around the room while playing the original cast album of My Fair Lady. Since then, I’d devoted considerable study to the art form — most recently at my first job, at the Kurt Weill Foundation — and here was a chance to see one show as it was created. For example, in Rags I was able to observe what Kurt Weill had long ago seen, appreciated, and exploited: that Broadway performers are the most versatile on earth, for whom nothing is impossible. (Can you wonder that I’m so frustrated, then, when the average Broadway musical nowadays is so ordinary, so characterless and lacking in ambition?)

At the time, I kept thinking of an old Disney movie, Toby Tyler, in which a little boy (Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran) runs away and joins the circus. It’s terribly exciting, but ultimately he’s obliged to go home again: somehow I knew, almost from the start, that Rags would be my one and only Broadway-musical experience. Even before it became clear that only a miracle would save the show, my senses were heightened: I wasn’t just learning (because everything was new to me), and I wasn’t merely studying. I was savoring, recording, storing away the memories, to look back on, years later, as I do and have done.

The lobby of the former Mark Hellinger Theater.
“It looks like Franco Zeffirelli designed it,” Teresa and I joked.
Maybe we should have taken that as an omen.

Ultimately it’s people who made Rags so special for me — even though I see very few of the company anymore. Lonny Price tried to warn me that these relationships were fleeting. A few years earlier, I’d admired him in Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, another legendary failure with a feisty, talented, close-knit cast. Though I could hardly believe it was possible, already the Merrily gang had moved on, Lonny told me: from time to time somebody would try to host a little reunion, but they never amounted to much, he said.

Lonny and I worked on three shows in 1986: Rags; a production of Room Service at the Roundabout (on which I worked a total of three nights as an assistant to the director, Alan Arkin); and a staged reading of two short plays that Lonny himself wrote and directed, pointing the way to his subsequent career. “You are my theatrical year,” he said at the time. We were friends. But the years have built up a distance between us, and now I reintroduce myself when I see him, or (once or twice) I walk past him anonymously. There will never be another Lonny Price in my life, but there have been plenty of Bill Madisons — dozens of eager assistants in the wings and on the fringes — in his.

Lonny had an impressive résumé already by the time we met.
“What’s it like, working with the Muppets?” I wanted to know. “It’s like working with a piece of felt,” he answered.

Lonny isn’t a Toby Tyler; he has dedicated a great chunk of his life to musical theater. That was true for just about everybody in the company: even those who didn’t stay much longer in show business had devoted years of training and study to acquire the skills necessary to a career. They are pros; I was a dilettante.

And yet what impressed me most about them was not their talent but their fortitude. As one hardship followed another, as directors came and went, and as rewrites piled up, and nothing, absolutely nothing made any material difference or improved the show and its chances of survival, they bonded together, very much like a family — very much like the sorts of families they portrayed and paid tribute to in each performance.

Boston’s Shubert Theatre, where Rags played in tryouts.

This isn’t to say that the cast and crew went around being heroic all day long, or that tempers didn’t sometimes get the better of us, or that we were consistently smiling and uncomplaining. But as a group, our company was ever brave and honorable, and true even when blue, until the virtues urged on by Kipling’s “If” seemed easy and commonplace. I admired these people, but even more, I loved them.

The means of holding onto the memories are meager, really. I meant to keep a journal during the rehearsals and tryouts, and even at the time I knew I was making a mistake when I didn’t record each day’s events. I looked on enviously as Evalyn Baron carried her journal with her everywhere and meticulously noted each development. But I was never much of a journal-writer, certainly not so in those days, and thus my own impressions are lost or unverifiable.

There are hardly any production photographs, for example: we closed so suddenly. The father of Devon Michaels, one of the little boys in the show, took a few pictures, and so did a professional (I can’t remember who — one of the usual suspects in New York theater, I think), but we dispersed before we could get the chance to purchase any for ourselves, and they are seldom if ever published. It took work to find the illustrations for my Opera News article. And while in this age of camera phones and digital everything, it may be hard to believe, it’s true: I have not one single backstage photo, not one record of the kid I was and the friends I knew.

There’s an original cast album, but Teresa declined to participate, and so it’s Julia Migenes who sings the leading role. I’m told that she recorded her numbers in Los Angeles, and that only Terry Mann flew out to join her; this would explain in part the sense of disconnectedness I get when I listen to her: she’s separated from the rest of the gang. But more than that, she hadn’t lived with the show, as Teresa had, as the others had, and as I had.

At Tony time, in 1987, Judy Kuhn and Dick Latessa performed the title number, in the familiar costumes and something that suggested the set. But by then Les Misérables had taken hold of Judy’s artistry, and a different music flowed in her bloodstream. Good as she is in the clip, she’s offering just a distant echo of what she achieved during the run of Rags. I had hoped that Teresa might sing “Children of the Wind,” one last time, but she didn’t want even to attend the award ceremony. “I’ll be your date,” I said hopefully, but she was obdurate (in this, as in so many other matters).

Judy Kuhn sings “Rags”: Screenshot from her Tony performance.
Good Lord, she was lovely.

In the Lincoln Center Library, there’s a video recording of one complete performance of the show, made during the Saturday matinée. The tape concludes with Lonny’s speech to the audience, asking them to join us in a march down Broadway to the TKTS booth — a protest demonstration of sorts, though what we were protesting wasn’t entirely clear. (Bad luck, maybe.) Anyway, hundreds followed us, singing and chanting, and we wound up with excellent press and a sold-out final performance — too late to do us any good.

Because I knew the show so well, I was enlisted to “help” the director, and told him which cameras to use when, in order to catch the best shots and to preserve the best bits. It was hard work, made all the more difficult when the Hellinger’s house electrician, a drunkard, decided I wasn’t paying enough attention to him. Flirtatious at first and then violent, he had to be dragged away, and Madeline Gilford always referred (half-seriously) to this as the day she and her friend Betty Corwin, the Lincoln Center librarian, saved my life.

Several months after the show closed, most of the company gathered at Lincoln Center to watch that video. Most of us cried, at least a little, but not so much for the plight of Rebecca Hershkowitz as for our own, more immediate struggles and losses, and the broken hearts of Broadway that beat inside every one of us. It’s as close to a full-on company reunion as we ever managed.

From the Whorehouse movie: It’s hard to be sure, but I believe that’s Mark Fotopoulos, just to the right of Dolly Parton.
(His head is level with her bust. Not that anyone would be looking there.)

Too many of them are gone now; our company began to dwindle even as the curtain fell. The dancer Mark Fotopoulos was sick already, and knew it. Not long after Rags closed, we saw his picture in the newspaper, at a protest demonstration in Washington, carrying a sign: “Ten Years Living with AIDS — No Thanks to You, Mr. President.” The last time I saw him, on a subway in New York, his skin was frighteningly discolored, but his smile and the gleam in his eyes remained unchanged. Now I go back and watch the locker-room number from Best Little Whorehouse to remember him as he was, and as I think he would want us to remember him.

Larry Kert is gone, too, and Ron Field, and Joel Tropper, and so many others. It seemed almost a relief whenever a member of our company died of something normal, like cancer, as Rex Everhart did.

And those of us who are still around are older, by far: Josh Blake and Devon Michaels must be grown men now, though in my mind’s eye they’ll always be little boys. Yet no matter what else we do in life, all of us will always be “Children of the Wind.”

Teresa, as Salome, when I first saw her: Strauss, not Strouse.
Now you know why she intimidated the hell out of me.
(She still does, too.)

Here are a few more things I remember:
  • The morning sun glinting off Scott Frankel’s rumpled hair as he sat at the piano in the rehearsal studio at 890 Broadway.

  • Teresa’s finding her high F — and singing the Queen of the Night for me alone — and the look on her face when she heard little Devon sing the same notes with terrifying ease.

  • The intense physiological reaction I got when Teresa sang “Blame It on the Summer Night,” making it necessary for me to conceal myself. (I think I used a broom. Nobody said anything.)

  • Teresa, singing “Children of the Wind.” Judy, singing “Rags.” Marcia and Dick, singing “Three Sunny Rooms.” Andy, singing “I Remember.” Terry Mann, singing “Desperado” — during breaks, of course.
Marcia Lewis’ smile.
  • The thrill whenever the whole company lifted its voice — in “Penny a Tune” for example, or the Kaddish — but especially when they sang “Happy Birthday” to me in Boston.

  • Those days when Bob Straus’ voice was the most beautiful sound in the room.

  • Making an out-of-this-world experience seem more real by sharing it with friends: inviting Andy Weems to a rehearsal, and Melia Bensussen to opening night; enlisting Steve Biel to help with research; knowing that people like Sue Klawans were seeing the show, too, and regretting that my parents, who were passing through New York that August, assured me they’d see the show “some other time.”

  • Sneaking cigarettes when Teresa wasn’t looking.
Virtue Triumphant I:
Teresa returned to the Met, where she enjoyed
some of her greatest successes.
Here, in her comeback, as Puccini’s Suor Angelica.
  • Peggy Eisenhauer’s imitating her light-board conversations with Beni Montresor, our set and lighting designer: “More color.” “What color? Amber? Red?” “Color. Over there.” “Where? Downstage? Stage right?” “Over there. Make it … epic.”

  • The taste of the ramen noodles I lived on while we were in Boston. (Twenty-five cents a pack at the convenience store around the corner from the Shubert.)

  • The soothing perfumed air of Evalyn’s dressing room.
Virtue Triumphant II:
Scott Frankel went on to write the musical Grey Gardens.
Here, Christine Ebersole as Little Edie.

  • Combatting the dry air in the rehearsal rooms at 890 with an uncooperative spray-pump bottle until my hands ached from spritzing. “I’m getting a callous for Stratas,” I said.

  • The way Lonny used to have fits whenever I used the word “Yankee” to describe anyone other than a baseball player. He couldn’t believe I was from Texas. But then, neither could I, in those days.

  • The voluptuous way John Aller used to lie on the floor in the green room, “resting” during breaks at 890. He was so beautiful, and he knew it, but we were all more interested in the actor Thomas Gibson, who was rehearsing Twelfth Night with Shakespeare in the Park, down the hall, and quite possibly the most stunning man in New York at the time.
Virtue Triumphant III:
Dick Latessa in Hairspray, with Harvey Fierstein.

  • Taking Teresa to the doctor, after she missed opening night in Boston, and thinking she might really die, and that somehow it would be my fault.

  • Paula Kalustian’s homecoming, when she came backstage to the Hellinger, and I fell sobbing into her arms. It wasn’t in her power to save the show, but at least when she was around I didn’t feel quite so helpless.

  • The wordless, aimless way Joan Micklin Silver used to wander out of the rehearsal room. “You’ve got to tell us where she’s going,” the stage managers told her assistant, who snapped at last in exasperation: “Do you think I know?”
Virtue Triumphant, IV:
Terry Mann as Inspector Javert.
Others of our company who wound up in Les Miz include Judy Kuhn, Joanna Glushak, Evalyn Baron, and Peter Samuel.

  • The way the rats in the parking lot next to the Shubert used to get agitated during certain numbers, notably “Rags.” I suggested that we rename the show after them — Rats. (A short time later, the animated movie An American Tail opened, with themes similar to ours, only with mice.)

  • The way Gene Saks (a nice guy, actually, and a certifiable pro) “saved” the show in New York by cutting its heart out when he turned the ensemble into a chorus — and the way the audience sensed the difference and responded less warmly. We used to be scruffy and lovable, and then we were streamlined: it couldn’t be the same.

  • The late-night conversations with Scott, or with Paula, or with Lonny, or with Teresa, or with Madeline — with everybody — when we really thought we’d hit on the way to fix the show.

  • The way Frank Rich began his radio commentary on WQXR, the day after we closed, with the remark, “It’s a shame more people won’t be able to see Rags.” Gee, Frank, as theater critic of The New York Times, what might you have been able to do about that?
Virtue Triumphant V:
Marcia Lewis in Chicago, with Bebe Neuwirth.
(Many others of the Rags company have known triumph, too.
But these are the ones with good pictures.)

  • How sad I felt for everyone else when it ended. The show had so much potential, and the company was so brilliant, they deserved a long-running hit — and many of them got one, later (Les Miz, Chicago, Hairspray, etc.) — but I knew it was time for me to leave, no matter whether the show closed.

  • Only later did it occur to me that this was reason enough to feel a little sad for myself, as well as for everyone else.


Anonymous said...

This is a superb remembrance. Can't wait to read it again. Thx for the mention. Mark Fotopolous was ahead of me in school grammar and high school.

Anne said...

Another wonderfully enjoyable piece giving me a peak into a world I will never know. Thanks! from one 'honorary Jew' to another...and it IS an honor...

Teressa said...

Thank you for posting this amazing remembrance. I had the honor to play Rebecca for a scaled-down production of RAGS at Willows Theatre in Martinez CA this past January/February; we too all felt very protective of a theatrical experience that we sensed had deep, deep roots, and a beautiful show that is rarely done. Singing "Children" in the original key was tremendous, but I think it was the Kaddish that really did me in every night. Again - thanks.