Monday, November 6, 2017

In Pieces: Rags

Sean MacLaughlin, Samantha Massell, and Christian Michael Camporin in Rags. (Photo:Diane Sobolewski)

Rags failed spectacularly on Broadway in 1986, closing after eighteen previews and four performances. Rumors of trouble during the Boston tryouts may have dogged the New York opening, though my recollection is that they focused on the unreliability of the star, opera diva Teresa Stratas in her musical-theatre debut, who kept missing performances. (That’s the reason I didn’t make an effort to see the show – I didn’t want to be disappointed if Stratas, a great actress as well as a great singer, didn’t appear that night.) So I was staggered when, on the advice of a friend, I bought a copy of the original cast album, recorded with Julia Migenes-Johnson substituting for Stratas. It’s not just that the score is lush and thrilling, Charles Strouse’s music inviting comparisons to Jerome Kern and Kurt Weill and Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics displaying a specificity and emotional authenticity that none of his previous work for the theatre could have led anyone to anticipate. It’s also that the story the songs develop and embellish, as the plot synopsis in the liner notes confirms, is a complex and multi-leveled examination of the experience of Jewish immigrants living in New York at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. The book writer, Joseph Stein, was most famous for writing Fiddler on the Roof, and Rags seems intended as an unofficial sequel.The protagonist is Rebecca Hershkowitz, who comes to America with her little boy David to escape the Russian pogroms, though her husband Nathan, who preceded them to these shores, doesn’t know they’re seeking him and she doesn’t connect with him until the end of the first act. In the meantime she works in a sweatshop and is drawn somewhat reluctantly into the life of her new home. The musical is her coming of age, which is prompted not only by the hardship of her time in America but also by the people around her: David’s curiosity and openness to the new world, the anger of her friend Bella Cohen at the poverty they can’t rise above, and the labor organizer Saul, who at first unsettles her and then gets her thinking. (They’re also attracted to one another.) Nathan, it happens, has changed his name to Nat Harris and gone to work for the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine. When they find each other again, he promises to take her out of the slums to a sheltered, luxurious uptown existence, but Bella’s death in the Triangle Factory fire radicalizes her and she leaves Nathan’s world for Saul’s. The finale is bittersweet: Rebecca’s moral triumph and her self-discovery are filtered through the tragedy of Bella’s death and the deaths of her co-workers and mediated by the reprise of the first chorus number, “Greenhorns,” which views the wave of immigrants as mere grist for the economic mill rather than as human beings striving to find happiness. That’s the view that Saul and Rebecca have pledged to fight, and the fight has just started.

Productions of Rags since it closed ignominiously three decades ago have been sparse, and the new one at the Goodspeed Opera House is the first I’ve seen. But it’s not Stein’s Rags. David Thompson has rewritten the book, so clearly the general assumption clearly is that it was so bad it needed to be overhauled. (Stein died in 2010, so who knows what his opinion might have been?) Well, I’ve never read the original book, but honestly, how terrible could it have been with that narrative? This I can say with absolute certainty: what Thompson has put in its place is truly terrible. Rebecca is now a widow who comes to America with her son after the Cossacks murdered her husband. But despite that trauma, she’s so plucky that she barely needs to undergo a coming of age; it’s David, who witnessed his father’s murder by Cossacks, who’s frightened of the new world (so much for him) and Bella who’s na├»ve (so much for her). Bella’s only struggle is with her old-world papa, Avram, who disapproves of her being courted by Ben, a young man who works with all of them, including Avram’s sister and brother-in-law, to sew dresses for an ambitious merchant named Bronfman. Rebecca is a gifted seamstress with a talent for design; when Bronfman discovers it he hires her to make dresses for wealthy uptown customers. He also romances her, though he’s such a vile bastard that he lies to her about how much money he’s charging his customers so that he can screw her out of her rightful profit. In the original story Nathan is a complicated character who takes a dishonest route to the American dream; Bronfman is the Evil Capitalist, whose opposite number is the stud-muffin union organizer Sal (now an Italian). Thompson must prefer to keep his characters two-dimensional to avoid confusing the audience, who might not  realize that mistreating the working class is bad. I’m guessing that he’s flattened out Sal, Bella, David and Ben (whose courtship of Bella is like something out of a Disney movie) because he’s afraid that if he doesn’t put all his eggs in Rebecca’s basket there might be too much going on with the cast of characters and the audience might get lost.

Lori Wilner and Adam Heller in Rags. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

But it’s Thompson who can’t seem to avoid getting confused. In the original, the title song, which comes near the end of act one, is Bella’s cry of fury – expressed to her father – about the iniquity between the Lower East Side Jews and the expensively dressed (non-ethnic) Americans she sees on the streets. Thompson has given the song to Rebecca, who sings it to Bella when they get lost in a bad neighborhood where the locals (Irish) mock them and tear up the beautiful gown they’re bringing to a customer. The song makes so little sense in this context that for a moment the musical seems to have lost its mind. The only point appears to be that Rebecca is discouraged because she had a lousy experience with a couple of thugs and now, unaccountably, she’s ready to give up hope of the dress shop she and Bella have dreamed of opening. And by the second act she’s forgotten all about that little setback anyway, so the “Rags” number doesn’t even make an impression. Then there’s the intrusion of a subplot about anti-immigrant sentiment, no doubt interpolated to make Rags relevant to the Trump era. The problem is that “Greenhorns,” which still opens and closes the show, isn’t about the desire to close America’s doors to newcomers; it’s about how important they are because they “[w]ork the shops / Pick the crops / Eat the slops . . .”

Thompson isn’t the sole culprit, of course; Schwartz and to a smaller extent Strouse collude in the mangling of the Stein’s beautifully worked-out narrative. “Children of the Wind,” Rebecca’s magnificent lament about the fate of uprooted Jews like herself and David, is undermined when, instead of singing the chorus (“We’re children of the wind / Blown across the earth / Pieces of the heart / Scattered worlds apart / So far from those we love”) she and Bella shift from the verse to an optimistic duet about the shop they’re planning to open. Most of the original songs are still here (the omissions, like “Penny a Tune,” “Easy for You” and “Dancing with the Fools,” are sorely missed), but the musical is  now overstuffed, twenty-first-century style – there are sixteen songs in the first act alone – and the mostly unmemorable additions (some showed up in earlier productions of Rags) dilute the power of Strouse’s great score.

The cast – Samantha Massell as Rebecca, Sara Kapner as Bella, Adam Heller as Avram, Sean MacLaughlin as Sal, David Harris as Bronfman, Nathan Salstone as Ben, Christian Michael Camporin as David and others – sing well but not one of them has the material to give a distinctive performance. Rob Ruggiero’s staging is stillborn, but it’s not really his fault: Michael Schweikardt’s set is so crowded that most of the time there’s hardly anywhere for the actors to move. And this may be the ugliest use of projections (Luke Cantarella designed them) I’ve ever seen on a professional stage. The production is almost as dispiriting as the rewrite.  There are other versions of Rags out there – a friend praised one in the Bay Area that stuck pretty much to Stein’s story – so, God willing, this one may not become the new official edition. And you can still buy the original cast album. It’s a treasure.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment