New revision of Broadway musical ‘Rags’ is a timely story of the immigrant experience

"This is, once again, a major new American musical, in the spirit of renewal and reinvention that has always made this country great.” The revised musical will play at the Center for the Arts at George Mason University.

Something’s coming: an exclusive opportunity to take in an award-winning creative team’s new adaptation of Rags, a hidden away musical gem. 

‘Rags’ ensemble cast members. Photo credit: Photography by Exposure.

If you are not familiar with it, “Rags is a special creature in the history of the American musical theater and in the work of its blue-ribbon creative team,” said Rick Davis, Dean of George Mason University, College of Visual and Performing Arts. “Joseph Stein (Stein passed away in 2010), who wrote the book for Fiddler on the Roof among other masterpieces, conceived of Rags as, initially, a cinematic sequel to Fiddler. The lyricist, Stephen Schwartz, had already triumphed with Godspell and Pippin. Composer Charles Strouse had Bye Bye Birdie and Annie to his credit.”

Alas, “if ever there was a recipe (and a pedigree) for success, this team had it,” added Davis. “And yet… the original production ran for only four performances on Broadway in 1986.” In spite of its short run, Rags did receive Tony Award nominations including for Best Musical.

But the creative team did not give up on Rags. They did not let others write off the show. Instead, they went back to work, assessing what went wrong and how to bring an updated stage life to Rags. 

In its revised version, it focuses on a smaller number of characters and their stories, particularly on one family and what happens inside their tenement apartment and outside of their safety zone when they venture outside of their home and into the streets. What happens to them when they meet resistance? What happens when romance finds a way into their lives and dreams? 

Now DMV audiences will have an opportunity to see the new show with a newly revised libretto by David Thompson (The Scottsboro Boys and Steel Pier with Kander and Ebb, and transformative revisions of the books for other works by that team such as Flora, The Red Menace and Chicago) and “a ravishing score,” indicated Davis. The production will be at the Center for the Arts in Fairfax, Virginia.

Rick Davis, Director of ‘Rags.’ Photo courtesy of George Mason University.

The setting of Rags remains 1910 as Eastern and Southern European immigrants flood into America. However, Davis noted that Rags is more than a look back at a past tale about one particular immigrant group; “the story is one of today” of those coming to America for a better life.

Although Rags is a musical tale about those from the past, those who once faced bigotry and likely reluctant acceptance, it also resonates with those who are now coming to America seeking a better life and facing similar conditions today. 

On the experience of working on the new adaptation, Lyricist Stephen Schwartz shared, “I have always thought that Rags was Charles Strouse’s best score, and it’s been a pleasure to work on it again, putting new lyrics to these great tunes so that the songs meld with David Thompson’s funny and poignant new book. And given what’s going on in our world today, the show seems far more timely than when it was first conceived.”

David Thompson, Librettist of ‘Rags.’ Photo courtesy of George Mason University.

Librettist David Thompson described Rags as “the story of the immigrant experience at the turn of the century. Rags is about the choices we make when we find ourselves at different crossroads in our lives. What do we hold fast? What do we let go? What defines who we are? And what shapes what we will become? More than anything, Rags is a celebration of what defines our collective American Experience as we are, in the words of lyricist Stephen Schwartz, ‘all children of the wind.’ ” For Thompson, the characters in Rags had universal challenges in coming to a New World to make a better life.

Rick Davis is directing the production. “I am fortunate to be directing a terrifically diverse, multi-national ensemble of George Mason University students, representing this universal story with passion and commitment while embodying the textures of our community and our times,” he said. Davis indicated that the GMU production will have about three dozen actors performing over two dozen musical numbers.

At the time of our interview, the production was deep in the midst of rehearsals, six times a week, about four hours per rehearsal. “As we have been exploring the world of the piece in rehearsals, we have found that it grips us instantly with the pulsating energy of the prologue and never lets us go until the last inspiring strains of the great ensemble finale. This is, once again, a major new American musical, in the spirit of renewal and reinvention that has always made this country great,” said Davis.

Joe Walsh is the Rags Music Director. As we chatted in a phone interview, what better way to come to know the music than to hear it played? Walsh provided snippets of music from Act I and Act II. As he spoke, I could hear the differences he verbally noted between the musical patterns in the Acts. As the immigrants portrayed in Rags spent more time in America, the music that Stein composed for Rags changed from the ragtime style of 1910’s to a more contemporary sound. There is also deeply felt music full of faith and spiritual values.

In the fully staged production, the “catchy tunes and dramatic harmony and melodies” will be played onstage by a four-piece Klezmer-like band with two violins, one clarinet, and an accordion. The Klezmer band members are also ensemble members. Unseen will be a five-member pit band with bass, drums, trumpet, and trombone.

Jessica Barraclough from ‘Rags.’ Photo courtesy of George Mason University.

As Walsh played, he spoke of how the music underscores what is going on in the characters’ lives. Furthermore, Walsh noted that the musical numbers “melt into each other. It is a fantastic way to tell a story, one full of many scenes.” Listening to Walsh play and chat, the music of Rags became an aural marker to me just as costumes can be a visual marker in a theater production. 

I also had the opportunity to speak with two of the GMU College of Visual and Performing Arts students featured in the production of the reconceived Rags.

Jessica Barraclough, a 21-year-old junior from Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, chatted about her personal connections to Rags. Her great-great-grandmother came to America from Italy in 1908. “I wanted to be part of a production about an immigrant’s story of coming to America. Then and now. The story is so applicable to now.”

Samuel Dunn III from ‘Rags.’ Photo courtesy of George Mason University.

Samuel Dunn III, a 21-year-old senior from Richmond VA, spoke of the turmoil in the lives of the Rags characters and the “hopes they brought in coming to America.” Dunn chatted about the current America “as a quilt with each one of us having a distinct thread, of being proud of who you are.”

Inviting audiences to Rags, Davis said, “We are honored indeed to be able to present the American collegiate (and DC-area) premiere of this new version…during its continuing evolution after professional productions in Connecticut and Manchester, England, and on its way to a planned London production sometime this winter.” 

“I am fortunate to be directing a terrifically diverse, multi-national ensemble of Mason students, representing this universal story with passion and commitment while embodying the textures of our community and our times. We look forward to sharing our story with you, and to your response.”

Rags plays from October 31-November 3, 2019 at the Center for the Arts at George Mason University, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax, VA. For tickets, go online.

2 COMMENTS

  1. David, thanks for a really wonderful piece! It is already being widely read and shared around our community. Just one correction – the performances are Oct. 31st through Nov. 3rd. (I probably gave you the wrong info during our interview!)

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