Written by: Michael Darvell
How could three of the most commercial creators of musicals manage to produce one that was an immediate flop and has resisted success ever since?
The show is Rags and the people involved were author Joseph Stein, lyricist Stephen Schwartz and composer Charles Strouse, all three responsible for some of the most popular musicals seen on Broadway and West End stages. Yet, when they came together to work on Rags, the magic touch eluded them. In fact Rags has a lot going for it, but in 1986 New York it just didn’t appeal to a wide-enough audience. Apart from a much revised, scaled-down version in 1993 in Los Angeles and another staging at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 1999, Rags has rarely seen the light of day. There was a concert version for World AIDS Day in New York in 2006, and it briefly appeared in London in the late-1990s at the Spitalfields Market Opera House. The season, like the venue itself, was short-lived.
However, a student production is nigh – by the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. I was at one of the performances at Spitalfields. There were rows of empty seats. Among the small audience was Trevor Nunn. I found out later why he was there – more anon. Rags seemed to be a continuation of the story of Fiddler on the Roof, although not with the same characters. It featured the lives of the Russians who fled the pogroms to emigrate to the US. As they arrive at Ellis Island, we are introduced to the characters. Rebecca recalls that her husband Nathan had left Russia years before for America but never contacted her. She is now with her son David, hoping to locate him. She has made friends with Bella who is with her father, Avram. On the boat Bella has fallen in love with another passenger but her father does not approve. The officials treat the immigrants badly and threaten to send Rebecca and David back as she has nowhere to stay. Avram pretends they are related and that mother and son will stay with them. Rebecca takes on work at a rag-trade sweatshop and David helps on a market stall. Bella works from home as a seamstress. Gradually they settle into their new lives and become part of the New York Jewish community, with their successes and their problems – all the more surprising that the Broadway audience did not take Rags to its hearts.
The creators of Rags had a list of successes that would be the envy of most theatre producers. Joseph Stein’s credits include Plain and Fancy, a show about the Amish; Zorba, an adaptation with Kander & Ebb of Zorba the Greek; Mr Wonderful, with Sammy Davis Jr; Take Me Along, a musical adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah! Wilderness; a revised version of Irene, with Debbie Reynolds; and, far from least, Fiddler on the Roof, which initially ran for a record 3,242 performances in New York. Stein had his flops though, so we need not dwell on the likes of Juno, based on Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock; Carmelina, a musical of the film Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell, or So Long, 174th Street, taken from Carl Reiner’s semi-autobiographical novel, play and film Enter Laughing. Stein also collaborated with Stephen Schwartz on The Baker’s Wife, the 1976 adaptation of the Marcel Pagnol story, for which Schwartz wrote the music and the lyrics. It flopped on Broadway and in 1990 had a short run in London when it was directed by Trevor Nunn (the Spitalfields connection).
Schwartz is no stranger to success having had long runs with Godspell, and Pippin. Although Children of Eden – the book of Genesis stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah’s Ark – received a terrific production in London in 1991, it lasted only three months and never reached Broadway. However, Wicked has confounded all expectations. The story of the witches from The Wizard of Oz is stilling running in New York and London. Next year we are promised Schwartz’s version of the Harry Houdini story. Schwartz is also noted for writing songs for films such as Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Prince of Egypt, and Enchanted. Charles Strouse is also a film composer – Bonnie and Clyde; The Night They Raided Minsky’s; and Ishtar, an all-time flop! Strouse was also responsible for the long-running, constantly revived Annie. His Bye Bye Birdie, a delicious skit on the life of Elvis, ran for over 600 performances. Nonetheless, Strouse has also had his disappointments. In 1978, A Broadway Musical closed after 14 previews and one performance. Charlie and Algernon (1980), about a mentally retarded man and his mouse, had played in London with Michael Crawford the year before under the title of the original book, Flowers for Algernon: it lasted 29 performances in New York. Dance a Little Closer, written with Alan Jay Lerner and featuring Lerner’s wife Liz Robertson, had 25 previews but closed on opening night: the show was dubbed “Close a Little Faster”.
But let’s not dwell on failure. Although Rags had the same writer (Stein) as Fiddler on the Roof but was perhaps seen as a sequel, maybe it was destined never to work. However, it’s still a good show and you would be advised to catch it at the Guildhall School if only because of its rarity value, as you may never get to see it again. Guildhall School has a great reputation for injecting new life into old shows, having worked wonders with, yes, Bye Bye Birdie, and also Cabaret, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Curtains (Kander & Ebb), Damn Yankees, City of Angels, My Favorite Year, and Kiss Me, Kate. And it was Guildhall School that put Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along back on the road to success. With director Martin Connor, choreographer Bill Deamer and Musical Director Steven Edis, the students of GSMD could well be about to do the same for Rags.