By MIKE CHAIKEN
As the story goes, when the musical “Rags” opened in 1986 on Broadway, its arrival and departure was swift.
The show lasted all of four performances after a dozen and half previews in this incarnation. The show, with compositions by Charles Strouse (“Annie”), lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked”), and book by Joseph Stein (“Fiddler on the Roof”), has had a few revivals since. But even Schwartz himself has had problems with the attempts to revive the show.
“There is much I am very proud of in ‘Rags,’” Schwartz says on his website (StephenSchwartz. com), “and I think Charles Strouse’s score for it is actually his best, which is saying a lot. But for me, despite the fact that there have been several very successful and even award-winning productions of the show, I still think it has some structural and story-telling problems.”
But St. Paul Performing Arts is tackling the show this month. And cast members are excited about the opportunity to add their own touch to the musical—and perhaps improving upon it in ways that would even impress the show’s composer Charles Strouse.
The show focuses on the story of Rebecca, who comes to America from Europe in the early 20th century to meet her husband. And when he isn’t there upon her arrival, she must find a way to help herself and her young family survive in America. Besides the personal story, “Rags” touches upon the rise of labor unions in the garment district.
Tessa Coleman of Southington, who plays the character “Rachel Halpern,” said, “It feels like amazing to be able… to perform a show that nobody has done well… It feels good to bring something new to the musical and show everybody what we can do with it.”
“It feels so cool (to have the opportunity to put a St. Paul twist on the show),” said Dana Wilton of Torrington, who plays the character, Bella Cohen. “It feels like we’re workshopping a new show. But it’s not new.”
“I think it’s sort of amazing,” said Chiara Giampietro of Meriden, who has taken on the lead role of “Rebecca Hershkowitz. Since the rehearsals do feel like a workshop, Chiara said, “It makes the atmosphere feel so much more professional. And it’s kind of a taste for what we will get in the real world.”
St. Paul’s performance is even attracting Strouse himself to a performance on April 24.
Dana said the fact that the composer will be sitting in the audience at the Sunday matinee will “put a little bit of extra pressure on us. We have to make sure we do this right because no one ever does the show right.”
“But if you watch what we’re doing we’re doing it right this time,” said Dana. “We’re not messing around.”
“This story is an epic drama,” said Chiara. “It’s very different from ‘The Sound of Music.’ It’s very different from ‘Little Princess,’” citing two other musicals performed by St. Paul. “It has a lot of twist and turns. And it’s very historical.”
“I like the play because I have connections with my family being immigrants so the play means a lot to me,” said Anthony DiPietro of Southington, who plays “Big Tim Sullivan.”
“The story is fantastic. I love it,” said Dana. “It provides a glimpse into that time period and why we have certain labor laws… I love the trueness and the raw reality of all the characters.”
“I like my character a lot… because she’s something I aspire to be,” said Chiara of Rebecca. “It’s easy to play her. It’s amazing to play her because you can put on a character that you want yourself to be. It’s really inspiring.”
Anthony, like the other students interviewed, also is drawn to the music of “Rags.” Anthony said, “I think the music is wonderful and fits well with the play. Charles Strouse really did a great job with the music.”
“This is music is very classical. So it’s based on opera, which is really, really difficult,” said Chiara. “At the same time, it’s amazing because you get to show off parts of your voice that you wouldn’t get to show off in other musicals because it goes so high and so low. It shows everyone’s range in a totally different way.”
“It’s so pretty,” said Dana of Strouse’s compositions. “It’s very complex. The music is not an easy type of music to perform… It’s in a very weird part of the voice.”
“It’s unlike any other show I’ve listened to,” said Tessa. “When I listened to the album back in the summer when I heard we were doing ‘Rags’… I was just so excited to do the show. It’s so different and not a lot of people know it, so I was so excited to work on it.”
When audiences leave the auditorium, Tessa said they will have a smile on their face. “The story is very heartwrenching but the story ends with a sense of hope that the characters in the story are going to find justice or find happiness.”
“Everyone knows America has been built from immigration. We all began as immigrants…Everyone sitting in the audience will see the story of their ancestors and will see what they overcame to get where they are. It’s going to warm so many people’s hearts.”
Audiences will enjoy the sense of hope in the story, said Dana. “It’s not only the hope for the characters themselves but for the hope for… the success of the country.”
“Rags the Musical” will be presented by St. Paul Performing Arts from April22 to 24. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at 2 p.m. at St. Paul Catholic High School, 1001 Stafford Ave., Bristol. Tickets, which range from $15 to $20, are available at SPCHS.com.