The two men who have each been individually anointed the King of Ragtime are no less than Irving Berlin (Michael Therriault) and Scott Joplin (Michael Boatman). The former came to his title by accident, starting as a poor Jewish immigrant who never took lessons but turned to music to pay the bills, and now that he’s a big success still sees songwriting as strictly a moneymaking formula. The latter, on the other hand, is a true struggling artist, who plunked away on bordello pianos as he painstakingly blended black and white into the seamless new sound of turn-of-the-20th-century America. Joplin wants only to make a statement; Berlin wants only to make a buck.
That is the only topic of weight Saltzman compels the men to discuss when he unites them, sometime in the mid 1910s, under the premise that Joplin is hoping Berlin will publish his ragtime opera, Treemonisha. Oh, there are momentary detours: We get to see how each man was discovered (Berlin as an on-call improviser in a bar, Joplin peddling his “Maple Leaf Rag” to generally unexcited other-side-of-the-tracks clientele) and how each lost the love of his life almost immediately after marrying her. But the play isn’t, and doesn’t want to be, about the hearts and souls of Berlin and Joplin. It wants to nudge around the border of art and commerce and ask whether a work can ever be a legitimate success if it doesn’t embrace one without the other.
This is a difficult approach to make theatrical - forget about entertaining or moving - and Saltzman doesn’t make it easier by treating the characters as little more than robotic avatars. “Catchy don’t happen by accident,” Berlin smarms early on. Later, he cockily admits: “I hear somebody say something like ‘Everybody's doing it,’ so I write a tune with that. If the title's a phrase they recognize, they're likely to put down a dime.” In describing the impact of “The Maple Leaf Rag,” Joplin recounts with history-book fervor: “Ragtime roared into being! At every society ball or back street honkytonk, there was the ‘Maple Leaf Rag.’ Four pages of music freed me from having to play for drunks in bars and johns in bordellos. And ragtime saved the nation from European waltzes and polkas.”
There are the appropriate dollops of mutual admiration society as well, as when Berlin reveals the magic of his “Play a Simple Melody” quodlibet and Joplin quips, “You don’t deserve to be this brilliant.” (A bonus Joplin barb: “There’s nothing more annoying than a miracle.”) Or the final scene when Berlin attends the 1970s premiere of Treemonisha with the elaborate reverence of a religious pilgrimage. And both men spend a fair amount of time proselytizing, Joplin even going so far as encouraging Berlin to bleed his soul rather than eke out a dollar (“What do you play for yourself in the dark?”). But all any of this does is shore up these men’s professional legends, which - because of their compositions - are in no danger of disintegrating anytime soon.
Everything else is too calculated to be enjoyable in any real way. Director Stafford Arima, who brought nonstop jolts of cleverness to the musical Altar Boyz, has provided a lot of static stage pictures that capture all the turgid enthusiasm of Saltzman’s writing. Beowulf Boritt’s set is uncommonly utilitarian and cheap-looking, an uninspiring collection of turning walls that roughly revolve us into and out of the composers’ memories.
Therriault and Boatman have a good basic chemistry together, the former’s wunderkind inclinations and the latter’s sandy weariness blending very capably, but each actor strains against the nearly impossible task of extracting humanity from a sepia-toned philosophical argument. Michael McCormick bubbles over with oily appropriateness as Berlin’s business-minded publishing partner, and Jenny Fellner and Idara Victor attractively portray in line and lyric Berlin’s and Joplin’s romantic and musical muses.
There is, however, not a single feeling to be found among them, or the seven other cast members. Such things only appear in the music, which is rightfully recognized as the third lead it is. Though every tune is played from offstage by two unseen pianists (Michael Patrick Walker and Brian Cimmet) and merely “acted” by Therriault and Boatman, they spark and shimmy with an irresistible melodic and syncopated fizz. “I Love a Piano,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “A Real Slow Drag,” “The Entertainer,” and a dozen classics of various vintages (which have been smoothly arranged by Walker and Brad Ellis) pierce through their surroundings to captivate and intoxicate as only great music can.
But because they’re all so lively and everything else so leaden, you can never hear enough of even the tiniest snippets. They also effortlessly answer the question with which Saltzman is so obsessed: If the songs are good enough, the pretense under which they were written doesn’t matter at all. Yes, to understand that, one need only listen to the music - everything else is superfluous. Including, ultimately and unfortunately, The Tin Pan Alley Rag itself.
The Tin Pan Alley Rag