15 March 2012

‘Rags’ Revisited

“Yankee Boy”: Martha Wasser as Rebecca, Zac Ballard as little David, and Austen Nash Boone as Nathan.
Barbara Siman’s staging for Marymount Manhattan College’s
Theatre Production Workshop.
Photograph by Susan Cook©

My last glimpse of Rags was not closing night of the show’s Broadway run, 23 August 1986, but a few years later, when lyricist Stephen Schwartz directed a smaller-scale production for the Jewish Repertory Theatre (or somesuch name) in a tiny theater in Chelsea.* I am in fact eager to hear people other than Teresa Stratas and Dick Latessa sing the words “Now it belongs to you,” to people other than Josh Blake and Judy Kuhn, and really to mean those words: Rags ought to belong to more performers and more audiences than ever knew the original. But returning to the show a quarter-century later, with so many beloved friends gone now, and to see Rags in a student production at Marymount Manhattan College proved more poignant than I could have imagined.

After all, when Leanne Brunn warbled “Three Sunny Rooms,” it was as much the voice of my beloved Marcia Lewis that I heard as it was Brunn’s, and faces of friends loved and lost that I saw in place of the young actors onstage now. The show meant a lot to me, as I’ve said, and over the years it has taken on additional meanings, resonance far beyond the strains of Charles Strouse’s score. I had to keep reminding myself: the past doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. Now it belongs to them.

According to Barbara Siman, the show’s distinguished professional director and choreographer, the performing edition used for this production incorporates changes made by Strouse, and the book’s author, the late Joseph Stein. (Absolutely nothing was made at MMC of the fact that Ms. Siman is also Charles Strouse’s wife, and I confess I didn’t recognize her when we spoke after the performance and probably made a fool of myself.) Remembering that Schwartz tinkered with the book, too, for his production, we can see clearly that it’s been a goal of all three of the creators of Rags to give this show a new life: to correct the persistent problems in its book, perhaps at the same time making it easier to produce, to help it attain and sustain the status it deserves.

After all, Rags represents strong work from all three creators — and in the case of Strouse’s score, it represents some of the most ambitious and thrilling music he ever wrote. Moreover, and again it’s true for all three creators, Rags expressed profound feelings, particularly about the experience of Jewish Americans but also about politics, family, love, class, and success. There’s no reason to leave this piece locked in an archive somewhere — and it would be nice to earn a little royalty income from it, too.

But the changes that Charles and Joe wrought are only partly successful, and in some cases quite puzzling, especially in Act II. While Siman’s production was for the most part sensational — a template of sorts for other theaters with less than Broadway-size budgets — I’m left with the feeling that the best thing that could possibly happen to this show is a revival by an outfit such as “Encores!” here in New York, involving a fresh creative team and employing (as “Encores!” always does) a fresh hand to adapt the book.

Surely the answer to Rags’ problems isn’t to make the show even talkier than it was before — and yet so many songs are cut in Act II! Turning that ravishing, thundering Kaddish chorale into a truncated solo made me wince, though it does speed up the action. But how did Strouse bring himself to sacrifice “Dancing with the Fools”? That’s the eleven-o’clock number for the show’s heroine, Rebecca, and possibly his most serious composition, one of the reasons he wanted to cast an opera singer in the role, to avail himself of the range and scale of a trained voice.

Granted, if you eliminate that song (rather than transposing it down or rearranging it), you do make it easier to cast Rebecca’s part in a theater where a Classical soprano may not be available. We’re trying to guarantee this show’s future, as I say, and sacrifices are necessary. But that one must have been tough, and ultimately I don’t think it helps much.

For long stretches, the show is very much as it opened on Broadway — apart from the overture, and the questionable choice to make the first account of “I Remember Summer Evenings” an accompanied chorus instead of an a cappella solo, Act I would be thoroughly recognizable to the show’s veterans. The character of Ben, the fast-talking boyfriend of the juvenile lead, Bella, has shrunk yet further, to the point where I don’t understand why he’s still in the show: that character’s loss would be a much easier sacrifice, especially if you haven’t already cast Lonny Price (or Ben Garrett, the very appealing fellow who played him at MMC) in the role.

Siman used photo projections to establish place, generally to much greater effect than Beni Montresor’s ugly, combersome set did on Broadway, and her choreography was truly marvelous, far better overall than that in the original production. She was less successful at getting the young actors to pick up the pace (I could have driven a pushcart through some of the lags between cues, which in turn made Act II seem all the talkier) and at discouraging the egregious mugging from one particular ensemble member. But I walked out of the theater thinking, “Yes, this is just about what this show ought to look like.” And I was happy, truly.

As is my habit, I’ll refrain from commenting in much detail about the student actors, though they were a talented lot, with some especially fine singing voices. Casting a very young boy as David was an interesting (and crowd-pleasing) choice, though it did make me wonder whether Nathan was really the father, since he’s said to have left home six years before the play begins.

I wished Rebecca had been given a coat and a babushka or some sort of head kerchief, especially in the early scenes, to give us more of a sense of the character’s emergence, in “Blame It on the Summer Night” for example: as it was, Rebecca stepped off the boat at Ellis Island looking very much as if she’d just stepped into her kitchen for a little light baking. But Martha Wasser gave a thoroughly admirable performance in what is still a demanding role. For her and for Brunn, who out of all the cast had perhaps the most difficult shoes to fill to the satisfaction of this audience, I’m especially confident the future holds much reward.

As for that future, it remains my hope that, the more people hear Rags, the more they’ll take it to heart — as I did, a quarter-century ago, and as I did again last week. There are so many treasures here! They’re really not hard to find, among the show’s shortcomings. Yes, Rags is still a challenge, but now it belongs to you. So pick it up.

“Greenhorns”: Rebecca and David arrive at Ellis Island.
Photo by Susan Cook.©

NOTE: Only a short while before Stephen’s production of Rags, I’d seen cast member Lonny Price’s production of The Rothschilds, working magic in the same space (a full-out pogrom, no less!) and — for this audience, at least — truly signaling that Lonny’s career as a stage director was launched.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This a great piece that combines personal and critical comments about Rags plus a production history. I didn't know it at all but Marymount usually does great productions. I was astonished by the score and also by the great young singers. I hope you're right that Rags gets picked up Encores or some such company. And kudos to Marymount for their wonderful work.