“Our hope is that this compelling story of courage and self-affirmation will remind us that this great country was built by generations of immigrants, and enriched by the gifts they contributed to a young nation.”
By Judie Jacobson
When RAGS opened on Broadway in August of 1986, it had all the makings of a hit: a spectacular score by Charles Strouse (Annie, Bye Bye Birdie); lyrics by the incomparable Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin, Godspell); and an original book by the brilliant Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof, Zorba). Sadly – and surprisingly – no sooner did the curtain go up then it came down. Why? Who knows?
Still, some stories, it would seem, simply need to be told.
“As artists, there are projects that remain alive within us,” says Rob Ruggiero, who is the director a “refurbished” version of RAGS at the Goodspeed Opera House that opened last week and will run through Dec. 10.
“I give Stephen (Schwartz) the credit for his brave and inspired condition for producing this revival of RAGS,” says Rubbiero. “Goodspeed could produce it only if we really pulled it apart and re-visited everything. He was not interested in what he called a ‘rearranging the deck chairs’ revival – meaning strategic edits, a few small changes or cuts, rearranging things, etc. He wanted something more profound and meaningful: a complete re-working and re-examination of the piece. Originally, RAGS had all the elements of a great musical, but for some reason the show hadn’t been fully solved.”
Enter David Thompson, the talented playwright of several hit shows, including “Steel Pier,” “The Scottsboro Boys,” and “Prince of Broadway.”
With the endorsement of Joseph Stein’s widow, Elisa Stein, and the Stein Estate, Thompson penned a revised book for RAGS.
Then Thompson, along with Schwartz, Strouse, and Rubbiero, set out to chart a course for new and improved RAGS. Songs were repurposed or cut, lyrics were changed, new scenes written.
“Rags began as a screenplay Stein had written in the early 1980s,” explains Thompson, who calls the late writer one of his heroes. “It was a cinematic story about the Jewish immigrant experience in the early part of the last century. Joe wanted to explore what might have happened to the families who had come to America from Anatevka – not necessarily Tevye and his daughters, but the other families whose lives had been uprooted by the Russian pogroms.”
Set on the Lower East Side in 1910, Stein’s screenplay told the story of Avram and his three children, trying to find their way in America. But when he finished the first draft of his screenplay, says Thompson, he had second thoughts.
“He determined it wasn’t a film after all, but the book of a new musical. And so the journey of Rags began,” says Thompson. “Some of the characters receded into the background. Others, like the character of Rebecca, were added.”
Thompson never saw the original Broadway production and doesn’t know why, as he puts it, it “ran aground on the shoals of Broadway.” Still, he sees the story of the immigrant experience an important story to tell – and one that is relevant today more than ever.
“The fact that Rags failed in its original outing in no way diminishes Joe’s original desire to write a story about the immigrant experience in America,” says Thompson. “In fact, in the years since Joe wrote his initial treatment, the story has become even more relevant, more important and, in many ways, more needed. There isn’t a day that passes we don’t read another headline about an immigrant family coming to America, hoping to find a better life. Or even more sadly, an immigrant family who is turned away because of growing xenophobia.”
That reality motivated Thompson “to rediscover the original idea that sparked Joe’s imagination when he first sat down to write his initial treatment.”
“As I read several of Joe’s early drafts of the script, different themes kept merging,” notes Thompson. “One of the most powerful themes was the struggle of cultural assimilation. As a stranger in a new country, what do you keep? What do you leave behind? And how far are you willing to go to hold onto what is important to you. This conflict is at the core of Fiddler on the Roof. But it’s an idea that Joe explored in nearly all of his work – starting with one of his first musicals, Plain and Fancy, where he wrote about the struggles of the Amish in 20th Century Pennsylvania.”
It’s a theme that is also at the core of Thompson’s play.
“Every character must decide what’s to be gained – and what’s to be lost – in the New World,” he says. “In this new version, I have followed Joe’s example from other projects he has written and reduced the size of the story, making it much more intimate and personal. Instead of focusing on an entire tapestry of characters on the Lower East Side, I have chosen to write about a single “melting pot” family living in a small three-room tenement. In other words, big characters in small spaces – think Tevye in the small town of Anatevka. And I have given them the universal challenge: what would I do for my child in a new world? How would I guide them in a world full of unknowns? What can I bring to America that is uniquely my own?”
When Thompson, Schwartz and Strouse were done with their reimagined and reworked musical, the story still centered on a young immigrant named Rebecca as she struggles to build a new life in America; but her character was deepened and expanded to better serve who she was intended to be: a strong woman with aspiration, courage and a great capacity to dream.
“The story of American immigrants – of all ethnicities – is a profound reminder of the challenges and privileges we share as Americans,” says Ruggiero.
“When you tell a story like RAGS in 2017, you can’t ignore the opportunity (and responsibility) this musical provides to offer insight into the immigrant experience,” he adds. “Our hope is that this compelling story of courage and self-affirmation will remind us that this great country was built by generations of immigrants, and enriched by the gifts they contributed to a young nation. Like the many immigrants before her, our heroine Rebecca came to America hoping to find a better life, make a home for her family, and to realize her very own American dream.”