By Bill Hirschman
Few Broadway shows can equal the track record of 1986’s Rags: closed after four performances, rewritten, remounted, rewritten again, remounted, rewritten again. It keeps resurrecting for yet another rewrite. There are at least 10 scripts. But something about the drama about immigrants on the Lower East Side keeps artists and audiences coming back.
And now, once again, Rags has been overhauled; a new version will get its world premiere this week at The Plaza Theatre in Manalapan.
The secret to its longevity is a soaring and moving score with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Wicked, Godspell) and music by Charles Strouse (Annie, Bye Bye Birdie) preserved in a 1991 studio recording. On the debit side is what has been described as an unmanageably sprawling script by Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof).
Its creators tried repeatedly to come up with a show that completely worked but it never has by some assessments – even though audiences reportedly cheer each iteration.
Enter Alan Jacobson, founder of the Plaza, who fell in love with the show when he mounted it 18 years ago at the Florida Jewish Theatre in West Palm Beach with his wife, Melissa Jacobson, in the lead as Rebecca, a young mother who escapes to the Lower East Side after a pogrom.
“I don’t believe (the script problems) stopped audiences from enjoying the show,” he said Monday. “When we did the show, the audience was absolutely enraptured.”
The show has been rewritten so often – including a 1999 version that bowed at Coconut Grove Playhouse — that it was difficult to find “the best” script to work from. When Jacobson and director Andy Rogow finally found a script, it wasn’t even the one that Jacobson had used 18 years earlier.
So, Jacobson tried to contact the creative team about a new version. Stein had died in 2010. Attempts to reach Schwartz and Strouse failed last year because they were mounting a “showcase production” of it. Finally Jacobson tried a long shot: He emailed Schwartz through his promotional website.
Schwartz and Strouse sat down separately for more than two hours with Jacobson and Rogow last summer.
Even with its faults, Rags is a piece close to the hearts of the original creative team, Strouse wrote in an email Wednesday to floridatheateronstage.com. “I’ve always felt that Rags was one of the best things that Stephen, Joe and I had ever done. Joe particularly felt it was superior to Fiddler. It’s a funny thing about Broadway – it would seem to be a thermometer of all things artistic. Time will tell. Certainly, it’s showered a fair share of wealth on me – but Rags’ failure on Broadway has always remained a ‘stickler’ to me in this regard…. But I think it’s a beautiful piece, I hope the new production will carry the spirit of it forward.”
Jacobson said, “Basically, we got their blessing to do what we liked to make the show work, according to their vision.” Schwartz, who is busy with several projects, had limited contact after that, but Strouse consulted on the proposed changes, even offered to write a new song, although that did not come to pass.
Schwartz recommended talking with Richard Sabellico – a New York director and actor who had helmed a 1991 revamp. He was hired to take another shot at it.
When Jacobson asked if he had any scripts, Sabellico said, “I have five.” And he’s certain there’s another five out there. So the group started with Sabellico’s version for his 1991 streamlined production at the American Jewish Theatre, which some people think was the strongest.
Jacobson thinks the major problems with the earlier scripts were their complexity and scope. But Sabellico said a crucial problem is that most versions depict Rebecca reacting to events occurring to her rather than being proactive. “This (version) makes her much more of a person more than a… garbage heap that everyone dumps on,” Sabellico said Wednesday. For instance, in some versions, Rebecca finds her husband Nathan who abandoned her overseas and has reinvented himself as a pragmatic wardheeler. She virtually runs back into his arms. In this version, her romance with union organizer Saul when she first arrives shows her she has an alternative to consider.
Among the changes Jacobson listed:
—A pruning of the number of characters and stories that diluted the audience’s attention from the main players. The original cast size of 30 has been over the years reduced to 15 and now 10.
–A stronger ending to Act One.
–The restoration of some upbeat numbers like “Yankee Boy” that had been cut from earlier versions, cuts that left Rags a dark ballad-heavy show.
–A slightly new beginning and significantly amplified ending, essentially an epilogue.
— Moving songs to different places in the show, notably the famed ballad, “Children of the Wind.”
Sabellico is still not certain all the problems have been solved,
This involved significant amounts of work including listening to recordings of cut songs and transcribing them to sheet music.
The 2 ½ week rehearsal period has been difficult as tweaks were made. Expense aside, the period couldn’t have been longer because several actors were appearing in the local productions of Pippin and 42nd Street that just closed last weekend. As a result, The Plaza is instituting one week of preview performances.
The current cast includes Melissa Jacobson as Rebecca; James Cichewicz as union organizer and love interest Saul; Sheira Feurstein as Bella; Randy Charleville as Rebecca’s missing husband Nathan; Mike Westrich as Ben; Troy Stanley as Big Tim Sullivan; also in the cast are Larry Bramble, Gail Byers, Abby Perkins and Eli Jacobson.
Even cut down, Rags is a step up in the development of the two-year-old company operating in what used to be the home of Florida Stage.
“I specifically wanted something that could compete with what some of the other theaters were doing” like The Wick and The Maltz Jupiter Theatre, but with a much smaller budget and a show that could fit the smaller auditorium, Jacobson said.
Whether the show will succeed is a gamble, but Jacobson is already seeing optimistic signs. “Our advance is already as big as it was for (the last show) My Life On A Diet. We’re already in black on the show.”
Rags runs Feb. 20-March 16 at the Plaza Theatre, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan. First week is previews. (The Ocean Boulevard bridge is finally open). Performances 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets $45. For tickets and more information, call (561) 588-1820 or visit ThePlazaTheatre.net.