From the Archive: Stephen Schwartz Discussed His Then-Upcoming Musical Rags | Playbill

From the Archives From the Archive: Stephen Schwartz Discussed His Then-Upcoming Musical Rags Schwartz sat down with Playbill before Rags opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre August 21, 1986, to talk about the new musical and how, in some ways, it continued the story begun in Fiddler on the Roof.
Judy Kuhn and Lonny Price in Rags Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

“The timing,” says Stephen Schwartz, lyricist for the new musical Rags, “is totally accidental. We wanted to open ages ago.”

It’s not unusual for the rewriting and financing of a show to trudge on for years (three in the case of Rags), but for once the delay, instead of proving a detriment, transformed itself into Broadway serendipity. This show, about an immigrant woman striking out on her own in new York’s Lower East Side (previews begin July 29), coincides nearly with the celebration of the 100th birthday of the Statue of Liberty.

But Schwartz, whose other Broadway credits include Godspell, Pippin, and The Magic Show, said theatregoers heading for the Mark Hellinger Theatre shouldn’t expect a Colonial Williamsburg extravaganza glorifying America.

“We are being clear-eyed about the fact that basically immigrants were brought over here as cheap labor. But on the other hand, the people who survived and transcended the experience made a life for themselves and for generations after them that is probably the best life anyone has in the world. Obviously there is a great deal of heart in the show. You see Ellis Island, you see the Statue of Liberty. But I don’t think Rags is about flag-waving.”

In the leading role of Rebecca is opera singer Teresa Stratas. Stratas has sung at the Met and has made a specialty of recording music by another immigrant, Kurt Weill. He co-star in the show is Larry Kert, who played Tony in the original Broadway production of West Side Story.

Rags begins in 1910 when Rebecca and her young son flee a pogrom in what was then the Polish part of Russia and come to America. She hopes to meet her husband who emigrated before her. But when Rebecca lands in New York, there’s no husband at the dock to greet her. IN her search for him she begins a process of change and discovery. A song called “Brand New World” expresses her wonder at the strangeness of the bustling new city.

Who’s that lady?
What has she got on her head?
No more scares here
It’s feathers and fruit instead.
So many noises, colors, mixed up and swirled
Into a brand new world

“Rebecca grows and assimilates in unexpected ways,” says Schwartz. “And in the end she becomes an American. She lands looking for safety and realizes ultimately there is no safety—but there is freedom.”

Teresa Stratas, Josh Blake, and Terrence Mann in Rags Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

The story if the creation of librettist Joseph Stein, best known for having written the book for Fiddler on the Roof. Fiddler ended with a group of Russian breaking the confines of their tiny village and scattering to the four points of the compass to escape violence and oppression. Rags opens with the arrival of a very similar Russian by boat at Ellis Island. Schwartz belives that, spiritually, Rags is a continuation of Fiddler—“though none of the characters are related. Also this show is much harder-edged. Rebecca is in a different place, a tougher, more jangly place.”

The title of Rags has two meanings. Many immigrants arrived with little more than the rags on their backs, and “rags” were the first popular songs they heard in America. Not surprising then that Ragtime, an early form of jazz, is the foundation of this new score by Charles Strouse, the composer of such hits as Annie; Bye, Bye Birdie; and Applause.

Schwartz said Strouse wanted to demonstrate the clash of New World and Old World music, and to show the way Old World music was assimilated into the new. A number titled “Penny a Tune” opens with an onstage five-member klezmer band playing on the sidewalk for coins. Said Schwartz, “The idea of the song is that the sounds and noises and the rhythm that were created in the Lower East Side evolved into American jazz. So though the klezmers start very Old World, by the end they are playing jazz.”

The concept of the old being reforged into the new is one that both Stephen Schwartz (who at press time is supervising the production) and choreographer Ken Rinker are emphasizing in their staging of Rags.

It was the job of set designer Beni Montressor an costume designer Florence Klotz to create the almost claustrophobic feeling of the Lower East Side in the early 1900s. Said Schwartz, “Whether the setting is the Yiddish theatre, one of the artists’ cafes or a street full of pushcarts, there were always lots and lots of people.” The cast is a relatively large one—21, plus the five klezmers.

“Throngs are expensive and Schwartz admits that though producers Lee Guber, Martin Heinfling and Marvin A. Krauss have tried to keep the pressure down, “it’s difficult not to sit there and think about all that money.” (the show is capitalized at $5 million.)

It was partially the anxiety of having so much money riding on a show that dissuaded Schwartz from writing any more musicals after his 1978 Working. But in 1983 when Stein (who had been librettist for Schwartz’s 1976 musical The Baker’s Wife) asked him to do Rags, he was intrigued. The show seemed to offer an opportunity for him and his collaborators to express their feelings about ehat freedom really means. “We began to see that it is a double-edged sword. When you have choices, you are forced to choose. The real opportunity America has always offered is the chance to be what you want to be and escape being what you don’t want to be—though sometimes it’s like the line from a song by The Eagles: ‘We live our lives in chains and never even know we have the key.’ I believe that aspect of freedom is as true now as it was when the immigrants arrived on Ellis Island.”

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