Rags In Rehearsal: Rich and Resonating

by Rob Lester
Photos by Kerry Long

Eden Espinosa
Onstage she looks miserable. But Eden Espinosa is supposed to be looking miserable - she plays an immigrant 17-year-old girl jealous of others' opportunities and building up the courage to confront her strict father. Offstage Eden is anything but miserable. She bubbles with excitement about working on the December 11th concert version of Rags, a fundraiser for the Joey DiPaolo AIDS Foundation and its Camp TLC program for teens with the HIV virus, and for worldwide AIDS education. "Getting to know the show has been great," enthuses the actress whose concert castmates include Carolee Carmello, Gregg Edelman, Lainie Kazan, Lewis Cleale, Michael Rupert, John Treacy Egan and David A. Austin. The show's writers, Stephen Schwartz (lyrics), Charles Strouse (music) and Joseph Stein (book), have reworked the piece for various productions since its short Broadway run and are actively involved in the new version, continuing to tweak, by moving songs around and editing. Eden is excited about the struggles of her character "who is coming to New York not by choice, getting out there to be an American, meshing the old traditions and the American way." And she gets to sing the searingly emotional title song and cry out the lines:
... You gave me dreams of such a golden place,
Silk and lace
Milk and honey
Oh, that's funny
Lies! That's all it seems
And now the dreams have flown

A few days earlier, Stephen Schwartz introduced her and the song at a press preview. Eden is doing double Schwartz duty, also starring in his musical Wicked as the allegedly bad and emerald-complexioned witch. "It's so nice to hear her sing something without green all over her," he commented before singing her praises and having her sing his words - and she did so quite powerfully. It gave a hint of the treats in store this coming Monday, as did the performances by Lewis Cleale and Carolee Carmello. Composer Charles Strouse looked very pleased as he listened to his soaring melodies treated with such care. Commenting on the title of the song "Children of the Wind," he praised this metaphor for the refugees at the heart of the story of their musical: "I can't think of anything that would express the tribulations of immigrants then ... and today."

"It really resonates with what's happening now in our country," Eden says at rehearsal, describing a common feeling among those involved in the show. The action takes place in 1910 and the musical was on Broadway 20 years ago, but the universal elements of the story don't age. Nor does the music feel locked in time. Eden's word is "refreshing," and pianist Charlie agrees and elaborates, "It's deeply dramatic, soaring and tuneful. There are unexpected styles, including some good old Americana, but nothing feels extraneous."

Carolee Carmello
It is a marvel to watch Carolee Carmello develop her complex character of Rebecca, and her emotive voice serves the music well as she refines each change of feeling. Carolee asks for the details she needs to know and discusses possible character motivations and reactions with director Stafford Arima, who also directed last year's well-received World AIDS Day concert of The Secret Garden. A stranger walking in would never guess they were preparing for a one-night only concert. Nobody seems to think of it that way. They spend a good chunk of time on the major song "Blame It on the Summer Night" as Carolee's voice rings out:
I keep rememb'ring his eyes
Fiery pale in the moonlight
But I'm not to blame
It's just the shameless summer night.
Spinning my heart into an endless flight

Stafford Arima and Stephen Schwartz
Much time is spent with what could seem at first to be an incidental idea: the entrances of two non-speaking pairs of lovers in the background. Should they notice Rebecca? Should she notice them and, if so, what is going through the mind of this woman who hasn't seen her husband in a long time? "It's a man. It's that opposite sex thing," says the director. "You see that fire in his eyes." On what lines should they enter and exit? They try several different versions and get something that really makes a difference and deepens the moment. Several times they polish how the song should end - the musical "button" - and go back to it when they later do the dialogue that follows it. "The most rehearsed button in the show!" laughs Carolee. A moment later she's embroiled in an intense, tearful scene comforting her character's son, David, played by energetic and good-natured 12-year-old Struan Ellenborn who played bedridden Colin The Secret Garden concert, also a veteran of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and a musical version of Frankenstein he says was "fun."

Struan finds Rags to be very emotional, and it reminds him of The Secret Garden in that way - "where there are loads of people crying at the end, saying, 'Oh, that's so beautiful.'" He predicts a similar reaction because his considered opinion of the cast is, "I think everybody is very good." He thinks the show can be appreciated by anyone "because everyone has problems of some kind. It's really interesting to see how these immigrants reacted to the world. It's kind of confusing being in a new world, but they get through it with a bunch of friends." Asked for something else he thinks is memorable, Struan says, "definitely that kissing scene!" He is glad to work again with this director. "Stafford doesn't force things on you. He gets your opinion and gets everybody involved."

This is a concert production, but by no means one with people sitting with their heads buried in scripts. There is staged movement, but the parties involved work with the reality of actors holding scripts and having music stands and microphones. Props are minimal, and there isn't major dance due to the very limited rehearsal time. I asked choreographer Patty Wilcox about her approach, noticing how carefully she was attending to character walks and the look of the stage movement. "When Stafford approached me about staging Rags, we knew we wanted it to breathe in a very human way. Because this is a concert, we decided to embrace the held script so it becomes a sewing machine, a conveyer belt - it becomes a device," she explains. "And because of the lushness of this work, it was impossible not to pull out a few sequences to move in a more fully realized way."

Stafford has clearly worked out details but remains open to suggestions, concerned with options that would make a performer as comfortable as possible and still retain consistency in the motivations and feelings of the character. "What I like about this scene," he tells a performer, "is that it's about girl friends," comparing it to other relationships the character has in other scenes. Seeming not to take a moment to switch gears beyond thanking the actors, he's on to a comic relief scene where an actor he worked with in Altar Boyz, David Josefsberg, and Lisa Jolley of Hairspray play an outrageous bit as hammy lead actors in a Yiddish theater musical version of Hamlet attended by the characters. (Following the oy vey version of "to be or not to be," two choices Hamlet calls "both bad," his Ophelia responds. "Why so upset?" she asks with a thick accent and a shrug, "You're still a prince.") Stafford polishes this and moves on to another scene of a deeper nature.

"Rehearsals have been filled with such inspiring moments," he reports. "To have the opportunity of working with such passionate and theater artists has been such a joy and blessing. There is an amazing cast of over 85 who are sharing their talents for this stunning musical." He calls it a "treat" to help bring to life the premiere of a new version of the piece. "Rags touches me on so many deep levels. This is truly an important story about the human spirit and the importance of finding one's voice."

Lewis Cleale, who has a commanding stage presence in rehearsing scenes with increasing tension and emotions that brim over, didn't know the piece before, but, like others previously unfamiliar with Rags, he was excited by it right away once he dove in and saw its riches. All of the performers seem to have fallen in love with it. "I am really humbled to be the new kid on the block," says David A. Austin (I Love You Because) who hasn't been in one of the concerts before. "I get to be the plucky little Jewish guy," he grins.

(top, l-r) Patricia Wilcox, Eden Espinosa, Stafford Arima, David A. Austin, Greg Edelman, Carolee Carmello; (bottom, l-r) Stephen Schwartz, Jamie McGonnigal, Joseph Stein, Lewis Cleale, Strouse

Jamie McGonnigal, tireless producer of this fourth World AIDS Day concert, is happy to again be working with Stafford and a cast which includes Broadway performers Max Von Essen (a returnee from last year)Stacia Fernandez, Adam Heller, Colin Hanlon, Peter Lockyer, Stuart Marland, Anne L. Nathan and John Schiappa. And he's thrilled to be working with Strouse, Schwartz and Stein whom he calls "national treasures." Musical director Mark Hartman conducts the orchestra with a score that has had changes and challenges, including a scavenger hunt of a search for the missing overture which had been once cut. Nobody seemed to have a copy. "I had no idea when we started that we would also be assembling and dissecting scores from 20 years of rewrites," remarks Jamie about the musical he says "has managed to capture hearts and minds for a generation."

McGonnigal cuts to the chase. "It's going to be ridiculously good."

Rags will be presented on Monday, December 11 at 7:00 p.m. The Nokia Theatre on Broadway at West 44th Street. For more information, see the website www.WorldAIDSdayconcert.org. Tickets through www.Ticketmaster.com or by phone: 212-307-7171. VIP seating and after party: call 347-431-9102. For more on the Joey DiPaolo AIDS Foundation, see www.jdaf.org.

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