RAGS Yield No Riches in Seattle
Why is it that major writers of Musical Theatre are no longer able to let their less-than-successful shows Rest in Peace? In the Golden days of Broadway, there seemed to be a much healthier attitude towards flops; they were something that happened to almost every composer, regardless of their prior successes, and rarely provided any lasting traumas. Rogers and Hammerstein's Pipe Dream, Cole Porter's Out of This World , Frank Loesser's Greenwillow, Jule Styne, Comden and Green's Subways are for Sleeping, were dismal failures one and all. Yet all of these writers were able to shelve their failures and get on with their lives, following them up with new and oftentimes highly successful shows. However, we seem to be in an age where there are no such things as failures, just shows that have not reached their full potential and just need more nurturing and validation.
From Jerry Herman's Mack and Mabel and Dear World, to Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, today's writers are spending more time retooling their flops than they are writing new works. Quite possibly, nobody has been less able to let go than Stephen Schwartz, who's Baker's Wife, Children of Eden, and Rags all have been extensively reworked decades after their Broadway and London runs.
Rags, with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Joseph Stein, received its Seattle premier this month at Civic Light Opera with a talented cast that does great service to the music. Like many flop shows (Mack and Mabel, Baker's Wife, Merrily, etc.) it is hard to believe Rags was a dismal failure upon listening to its cast recording. The songs are breathtaking, ranging from glorious anthems ("Children of the Wind" and the title song) to comedy numbers ("Three Sunny Rooms") to dreamy, bluesy numbers (the cabaret semi-standard "Blame it on the Summer Night"). Like those other shows, upon viewing it, the reasons for its failure become evident: Rags is one of those shows that proves, while great songs are nice, they are nothing without a great, or at least decent, book to back them up.
Rags has been described as being "Fiddler on the Roof: The Sequel" (or nowadays, "Ragtime Lite") as it tells the story of Russian Jews who immigrated to America in 1910. As Joseph Stein also wrote the book for Fiddler, that comparison is valid, if unfortunate. Unlike Fiddler, which has a strong central character around whom the events are focused and through whom we view the story, Rags is an ensemble show composed of archetypes and stereotypes rather than of actual characters.
The focus of the show vacillates; one moment it is centered around Rebecca, the "Every Immigrant Woman" character, and her search for her husband Nathan in America, while struggling to raise a son in a strange land. The next, it belongs to Bella, the spunky ingenue who seeks to discover love and adventure in the new world, but only finds destruction. Originally Bella was a secondary character, who by virtue of having the title song (and by being the most sympathetic character to boot) has had her part increased during the reworkings. This only adds to the lack of focus, especially since her increased stage time has meant that even less time is spent developing other characters, such as Nathan, who has no purpose now except to provide some second act conflict.
The show also falls into the trap of constantly having the characters discussing what they are going to do, then singing about it, then talking about it some more. Much of the action which should have occurred on stage is instead narrated to us by Rebecca's son, David, who acts as a Neil Simon-esque "Suffolk Street Memoirs" character, constantly interrupting the action to tell us about events.
The cast, however, makes the show worth seeing. Frances Leah King gives an incredible performance as Rebecca, and her powerhouse soprano is perfectly suited for what is an incredibly demanding score. She succeeds in making all the songs of this rangy part integrated in her voice, which is no mean feat, and a vast improvement over the performance on the Original Cast Album. Kristin Woodbury makes Bella the most sympathetic and real character on the stage. Other standouts include Frank Joachimsthaler and Betty Martin Williams (both providing the only humor in what is an incredibly laugh free show by playing Bella's father and his elderly paramour), Samuel Petit as Bella's love interest, Ben, and the woefully underutilized Frank Kohel.
Those familiar with Rags may be interested in the changes which have occurred since its four-day run on Broadway. More time is spent on the boat now than on Ellis Island. Rebecca and Bella have a duet, "If We Never Meet Again", which I believe has been reinstated from earlier workshops. It has the same melody as another song on the Cast Album, "Nothing Will Hurt Us Again," which is now cut. Ben now sings "Yankee Boy" on the boat to David, which leaves Nathan, the original performer of the song, with only one number in the second act. Nathan's return to the family, in fact, now occurs off stage during the intermission, rather than closing the first act. The entire scene at the Cherry Street Cafe (where Nathan was given time to develop some character and sing "Yankee Boy") is gone, replaced by a reprise of "If We Never Meet Again."
Overall, Rags is one of those frustrating flops. It has gorgeous music, quite possibly the best Charles Strouse has ever written with some of Stephen Schwartz's best lyrics. It has a cast album that makes it sound more attractive and revivable than it really is, and songs that beg to be sung. Unfortunately, between the troubles of its book, and the fact Ragtime now covers the same material, it is a show that should be regulated to concert productions, such as Encores! or REPRISE! and not reworked. The creators need to let go, and move on to new shows.