It’s Rags time at Theatre Lab
I never had a chance to see the 1986 Broadway production of the musical Rags because, with only 18 previews and 4 performances, it closed before I could use my tickets.
Five years later, a studio recording CD of the Broadway production was released (which featured Julia Migenes as Rebecca, replacing Broadway cast member Teresa Stratas), and I fell in love with the Charles Strouse/Stephen Schwartz score. It is filled with gorgeous melodies, and intelligent and powerful and emotional lyrics.
But the best news of all was in that same year the creators – composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Stephen Schwartz, and book writer Joseph Stein – reunited to rewrite the show for the scaled-down production of 9 actors who played all the roles at the intimate American Jewish Theatre. What they added in this ‘mini’ version was that Rebecca (played by Ann Crumb) had a new best friend, played by Crista Moore. I saw this production and loved it and was moved by the beauty of the score and the outstanding performances by the passionate and hard-working cast.
Since then, I have been waiting for DC area theatres to take a stab at Rags. When I heard that Theatre Lab was going to mount a new production in April 2011, I asked Theatre Lab co-founder Deb Gottesman to tell us why she and co-founder Buzz Mauro selected Rags.
“Buzz and I chose Rags because it offers such great acting opportunities – not only for the leading characters but also for everyone in the ensemble. I guess you could say we’re kind of obsessed with ensemble work. No one in a Theatre Lab production is ever just a generic person, a ‘third from the left.’ A big part of the training is that we spend a lot of time making sure everyone is grounded in the given circumstances and feels fully committed to pursuing what they want from the other characters, whether they have 10 lines or 100. So, in this play, the actors were able to explore the unique circumstances of recently arrived immigrants, and sweatshop workers, and assimilated Jews, and politicians, and peddlers, and actors – the whole Lower East side comes to life.
Rags is not an easy musical and what I love most about the process – as a teacher and a director – is that every student is challenging himself or herself to go beyond what’s safe or comfortable, which, in some ways, really mirrors the immigrant experience that the play depicts – these characters put themselves in a strange land, hoping to find a more meaningful life. I like to think that’s what going on for the students, too, and I find that really moving.
Rags is such a sweeping story. It really captures a singular moment in American history, but in a very personal way. It’s one family’s story but, like all good works of art, in some ways it’s every family’s story. The fact that it’s so timely – that it uses the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, whose 100th anniversary was marked t last month with events in New York and all over the country – gave us a terrific opportunity to delve into the historical moment; dramaturgical (research) material was everywhere we turned. And, of course, it’s great to do a musical that not everyone knows. Despite its impressive lineage, Rags was never a success on Broadway, so it’s something of an underappreciated gem. We feel that our student actors have managed to create something really special with this material and we’re excited for the chance to introduce the play to DC audiences”.
I jumped at the chance to attend a night of auditions, and on Thursday, January 13th, along with Alex Murphy who took the audition photographs, witnessed first-hand the god-like patience of Deb and Buzz who guided and encouraged everyone who auditioned. There were Theatre Lab students – some who appeared in past and recent productions – actors who hadn’t performed in a while, and ‘newbies’ from many different occupations – all there to ‘give it their best shot’ at landing a role. They were all brave souls. But there were four auditioners who I really enjoyed watching and hearing that night.
I loved Colleen Theresa Brown. She was feisty and funny. When she walked in and said, “I didn’t know there was going to be a piano!” I laughed. She started singing a song by NYC composer Joe Iconis called “Blue Hair” that none of us had ever heard before and she got stuck and tried once more and sang, “I want to dye my hair blue” and got stuck again. In sheer frustration she said, “I shouldn’t have auditioned with this!”. Buzz didn’t give up on her. He turned to her and said, “I am going to lower the key and slow it down”. I was rooting for her. And then she sang it again – slower and with more confidence.
When Deb and Buzz asked her to sing these lyrics from “Children of the Wind”:
‘There’s a morning I want someday to see
All the children of my children are there
And they’re very noisy
Running through my kitchen’
Colleen sang it beautifully. Her faced glowed, and I wrote down, “Yes!”
Asked later, Colleen told me “I think I should have chosen a song I knew better. I discovered this song this week, and I never really sang the song before”. I told Colleen that she ‘nailed’ it when she sang the lyrics from “Children of the Wind’ and she said, “Thanks, but I had trouble with the ‘E’!”. You gotta love her!
A confident Erin Michelle Jones walked up to the altar to begin her audition, and said “On a Good Day – I can hit a High C”. She sang “Goodnight My Someone” from The Music Man. Buzz smiled and then asked Erin to sing these lyrics from “Bread and Freedom”:
‘Ten thousand feet
O’er the land we tread
March for Bread and Freedom
Give us bread and freedom.’
Buzz asked her to sing it again because the last note went up instead of down the scales and asked her for more power. Well, she started too high. Buzz asked her again to sing it, and Deb said, “Just do it with power”. She walked up to the altar and – praise the lord – she did it!
Erin told me that after she sang “Goodnight My Someone” Buzz and Deb said it was very good. “They asked me to be more powerhouse! I tried it three times. Then Deb said, ‘Go up there and make them give you that bread!’ And I did. And I saw you pumping your hand and that helped me get that power out.” I told her I wasn’t supposed to do that but I couldn’t help myself – because I knew she could do it. Forgive me Deb and Buzz!
Lena Graber was cool as a cucumber. She leaned on the lectern and was relaxed when she sang “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid. She sang softly and beautifully. Buzz said, “That was pretty, and now I need loud!”. Lena sang it louder. Buzz then had her sing from “I Remember/Greenhorns”:
‘I remember summer evenings
Sitting You and I
While the cranes were calling
In the Eastern Sky’
With a little coaching from Deb, Lena sang it well and with much feeling.
Lena is an immigration lawyer in DC, she later told me. “Doing theatre projects lured me here as well as the theme of the show. I have done a lot of theatre on the side and a lot of dance. I’m doing this for fun because I love theatre”.
When debonair Paul Horan walked in – in his suit and tie and began to sing “Come Home” from Allegro, I wrote down two words – he’s perfect! He exuded class and his voice was strong and beautiful. Buzz handed him a copy of the score and asked him to sing a section from “Uptown”:
When I’m someone and on my feet again
Then we’ll never see Suffolk Street again
No more two-room flat, charity
Chicken fat, glass of tea
Take it in a cup
Like our neighbors uptown
No more living where life embarrasses
For the Harrises
No more sweltering on the stoop again’
Paul learned it quickly and sang it with conviction. And then Buzz asked him to sing from ‘What’s Wrong With That?”:
‘If you get ’em votin’ Democrat
What’s wrong with that?
What’s wrong with that?’
And that was that! He had to be their Nathan!
Paul has performed mostly in Theatre Lab shows and has taken Theatre Lab courses. “I did Jane Eyre, Parade, and outside of Theatre Lab did an interesting piece called My Comic Valentine at the DC Arts Center”, he told me. “Our script was photo copies of a romantic 1950s script of a comic book. Auditioning is always so much fun”.
Now that they’ve made it through auditions and rehearsals, and are about to hit the stage on Opening Night (April 14th ) – I’ve asked Colleen, Erin, Lena, and Paul to share their journey with us.
Joel: Who are you playing in Rags and when were you notified that you had the role?
Colleen Theresa Brown: I am a member of the ensemble – and quite honestly this is the most fun I have ever had as an ensemble member. This show calls for the ensemble to carry many different roles – quite a challenge because we have to develop completely new backstories, and concrete motivations for actions that I never really had thought to develop before – a simple cross in a complex street scene, Deb really hammers specificity, high stakes objectives, even for a simple cross, that the entire experience has been so much richer for me as an ensemble member than I ever thought possible.
Among my ensemble characters, I play a Jewish immigrant from what used to be Poland, a Jewish immigrant street peddler, an Irish immigrant who has been in America for some time already, Mrs. Sullivan, the wife of the powerful Tammany Hall Boss Big Tim Sullivan – both real historical characters – and a Yiddish Theater actress (such fun research for that role). And some characters repeat themselves in the show.
Erin Michelle Jones: I am playing 6 different characters: an aunt, a recruiter, a Democratic club attendee, a townsperson, an audience member, and one of the main characters named Klezmer. I auditioned on one of the last audition calls and Deb contacted me by email the next day. I could not wait to be a part of a cast again.
Lena Graber: I play eight different characters in Rags: a Russian immigrant, a street musician, an actor, an aspiring politician, a grumpy old woman, a grieving man, a striker, and another immigrant. Several of these I was notified about on the first day of class/rehearsals, and others popped up along the way.
Paul Horan: I’m playing Nathan Hershkowitz, a Jewish immigrant who has been in America for about 6 years prior to his family’s arrival. We don’t meet Nathan until Act II, so I also play a variety of ensemble roles in Act I – including a Yiddish version of Hamlet! I was cast the very next day after the initial auditions, which you attended.
Talk about your roles and how you relate to these characters you are playing. What songs do you sing in the show?
Colleen: As ensemble, we sing many huge numbers: very complex music taking inspiration from a tapestry of music styles present in the melting pot of turn of the century New York. We also all get little break-out solos here and there, which gives great texture to a lot of the ensemble numbers. One of my favorite songs is “Aint Nothing Wrong With That” – the number from Tammany Hall. The lyrics are delicious turn-of-the-century political pragmatism, almost straight out of Senator George Washington Plunkitt from Tammany Hall, for those political science majors out there. Great fun!
Erin: It’s hard to pick just one character but I really enjoy being a Klezmer. I think my character is a very exciting, energetic person who loves music and loves to help others appreciate the joy music can bring. I relate well to my character because I believe that music can enrich and touch apart of our souls that nothing else can quite compare to. The way music can bring laughter, or tears, and make you think of memories from your past. Plus music is just so much fun, and my character who I have named Harold loves to have fun.
All my characters bring a different aspect of me to greater life and I am having a blast exploring what it means to be so many different people. Finding what drives them and makes them completely unique and different from one another. The songs I am apart of are “Greenhorns”, “Penny a Tune”, “The Sound of Love”, “Bread and Freedom”, and ‘ “Finale”. I love all of these songs because each holds a different key about the show in the lives of the characters but my favorite is “Bread and Freedom” because there is a bigger since of just you and your character, it’s about so much more
Lena: I play eight different characters in Rags – a Russian immigrant, a street musician, an actor, an aspiring politician, a grumpy old woman, a grieving man, a striker, and another immigrant. Several of these I was notified about on the first day of class/rehearsals, and others popped up along the way.
Most of my characters are very fun to play. As a street musician I get to dance, sing, cajole, and entertain. As a striker I draw on the excitement of unity in a public space and the passion that brings people together over their rights. It’s odd to play an immigrant because professionally, I am an immigration lawyer, suddenly finding myself playing the part of those I represent. I am constantly aware of how little the story of immigration has changed even since 1908. People still come here for ‘The American Dream’, often very poor and fleeing persecution, they work incredibly hard and struggle against some incredible adversity, and just like in 1908, our country depends on them as much as a car depends on wheels.
Paul: Nathan is a loving husband and father, but his time in America has changed him. He’s found a way to survive and prosper in this new world, but at a cost. In the song “Uptown”, he dreams about becoming a ‘real American’, and leaving the slums of the Lower East Side behind. In the song “What’s Wrong With That?”, Nathan and Tammany Hall boss Big Tim Sullivan (Shawn Perry) gleefully sing about getting ahead through their misdeeds and exploitation of the immigrant population.
Why did you want to play this role and audition for the show?
Colleen: I have done theater since I was 9 years old, many community theater productions as well as studying theater at Loyola University Maryland. When I went to law school at the University of Pennsylvania, I was able to continue theater with the Law School Light Opera Company – which I ended up directing for my last two years of law school. And then since becoming a lawyer, I hadn’t been able to do a full length production since graduating. Now any theater junkie can tell you that almost 4 years without a show is just an unpleasant kind of withdrawal. So I started looking in earnest for something that could work with my work schedule. I took a solo performance class at Theater Lab last fall, and then learned about this class. I came in and auditioned and have been trilled ever since.
Erin: I wanted any role Deb and Buzz would offer me. I am new to the metropolitan area and I really wanted to be apart of a cast again. Just to help get connected to a brand new community of people. I love the roles I get to play in Rags and am so thankful to Deb and Buzz for letting me be apart of such a rich, amazing show.
Lena: I didn’t audition for a particular role; I just thought it would be fun to do a musical. I haven’t worked on a full theater production in many years, although last year we did create a musical from scratch in 24 hours, for which I was the choreographer.
Paul: The best characters often have some level of internal conflict, and Nathan is a very conflicted person. He wants desperately to provide a nice life for his family, but it’s got to be on his terms. He’s realized that to get ahead in America, he’s got to leave his Jewish heritage behind, and he’s grown almost ashamed of it. Despite all that, he’s not an evil person. I’m only second-generation American myself, so I was drawn to this role immediately. There’s a bit of Nathan in me, and I’ve enjoyed bringing him to life.
What have you learned about yourself as an actor from the auditions through the rehearsal process, and what have Buzz and Deb taught you about preparing for your role(s)?
Colleen: I have learned so much as an actor in this class. I was rusty. And from many years of directing, I had also lost a little bit of the ability to detach and dive into a role without any self-consciousness. I was too analytic, had my director’s hat on too much. Nobody wants to watch that. I think I have really connected back to that immersion that first drew me to acting as a little girl in love with make believe and story telling. But I have also learned so much that I will take with me into my next director project – whenever that might be. Deb and Buzz are both geniuses. I sometimes forget myself in rehearsals and just watched them do what they do.
Erin: What I hope they have learned about me is that I am willing to do whatever it takes to bring a show to life. I am a dedicated, hard working, caring actor who loves the whole rehearsal process. One thing I have to be completely honest about is I don’t care for the audition process! That’s where Deb and Buzz came in though. I was nervous about auditioning in Washington D.C. because up until now the only shows I had auditioned for were in Alaska and Ohio. And though I was nervous for those shows somehow the thought of auditioning in our nation’s capitol scared me to death. In fact when I went to audition I thought the auditions were at 9 AM not 9 PM, so I made the long drive/subway trip twice.
From the first time I walked through the doors at the Theater Lab in January – Deb and Buzz eased my fears and made me feel so welcome. I felt so at ease with both of them and they made the audition fun! From the first day until now I have grown as not only an actor but a person. Deb and Buzz are so awesome at what they do and make it look so easy – from improv work at the beginning of rehearsals to writing things about our characters and making them real people, and asking questions like, “Who is this person”, “What do they want”, “What drives them to why do they say or sing what they do?”
They really pour passion into the entire cast and make you want to get better a little more each time. It is such a challenging musical and Buzz has taught us and offered great advice as far as hearing the key changes and being able locate you next note. Deb has been so encouraging and letting us explore what it means to be these people from 1911, and what it would mean to be starting a new life in a different country. I could go on and on about all the time and energy Deb and Buzz have put into this show and what they have done not only for me but the entire cast, but ‘Thank you” does not even cover the half of it. It’s really been a great experience.
Lena: I’ve learned that louder is better than sweet, and that I can belt songs louder and higher notes than I thought. Also that my jazz choir training holds strong in the face of some very challenging harmonies. I’ve gotten a lot of good practice at making specific actions and directed movement that has a clear purpose. I’ve been able to apply my dance background not only to dance numbers but to developing those specific objectives and making them bigger.
Paul: This is the third Theatre Lab musical I’ve been cast in, the others being Parade and Jane Eyre, and I love working with Buzz and Deb. They’re both amazing teachers and coaches, and even though the cast is largely inexperienced, we never felt overwhelmed or intimidated by the material. Deb helped me find the “humanity” in Nathan, and to play him as a real person, not as a stereotype.
Why should local theatregoers come and see Rags?
Colleen: First of all – this is a fantastic show! I especially love historic shows, because I love seeing a reflection of the way we were, especially when it is a mirror of how America got to be America today. So fascinating. But additionally, this is a great production. The quality of the performances is fantastic, largely because of the full commitment of the actors in all the roles. The stage is vividly alive, charged with need, sometimes brimming with conflict. And music critics will be pleased with the sound as well. We have amazing voices in this show, and the ensemble sound is rich and moving.
Erin: Locals should come see this show because it’s a part of our history and how we became who we are today. Without our ancestors picking up and choosing to create better lives for not only themselves but for their families, without them we may not be apart of this wonderful country that is America. This show embodies so many of the challenges of what our ancestors may have had to face and I think it is relevant for today’s society as well. It has so many wonderful complex characters from lovers, to friends and family and the challenges it takes to keep relationships going, and choices that we make effect not only us but others. This is a very powerful show and it’s funny, moving and inspiring. This show makes you feel proud to be apart of something bigger than yourself, it makes you feel a since of community. Everyone should comes see Rags because there is a little something for everyone – both kids and adults alike.
Lena: It’s a really ambitious musical and I think we have a fabulous cast, especially for non-professionals. The music is good and despite having a clear historical setting, the story is timeless. We’re still having the same social struggles today.
Paul: It’s a great story, and I think Rebecca and David’s journey of survival and self-discovery is one that audiences will really connect to. The show is a great mix of beautiful, heartbreaking, and comedic moments, and the music is really wonderful.
Rags plays at The Theatre Lab School of Dramatic Arts – 733 8th Street NW, in Washington, DC. Performances are on April 14, 15, 16, 20, 21, and 23 at 8 PM. Purchase Rags tickets here.
Watch Judy Kuhn and Dick Latessa perform the title song of Rags at the 41st Annual Tony Awards here
Read about the history of Rags here.
Listen to musical selections from the Broadway Cast CD of Rags here.
Purchase the Broadway cast CD here.
Tim Treanor’s article Theatre Lab to train, cast novices for big musical on DC Theatre Scene here.