The curtain comes down on “Rags,” a musical about Jewish immigrants on the lower East Side in 1910, with the small and shabbily dressed heroine and her young son standing alone downstage. They are supposedly on the brink of a new and better life, and their fellow immigrants join them for the finale.
No matter. It remains a mournful image and one that seems to characterize last night’s new show at the Hellinger. For in the meantime, our heroine, Rebecca Hershkowitz (Teresa Stratas), has labored over a sewing machine in a sweatshop, witnessed the death of a close friend in a tenement fire and lost her husband to Tammany Hall.
For the most part, author Joseph Stein, composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Stephen Schwartz have been so deadly serious with their subject that we don’t feel they derived any enjoyment from dealing with it. So it is that an elderly Jewish pair, a widow wooing a widower, stop the show well into the second half with a cheery number called “Three Sunny Rooms.” Elsewhere, despite fleeting comic moments, the scene is almost baleful, right down to the admirably conceived but somewhat monochromatic sets, costumes and lighting.
Now Stratas, one of the opera world’s more accomplished singing actresses here making her Broadway debut, has a splendid voice. And Strouse has written expansively for it, mostly emphasizing the singer’s upper register but letting it dip into mezzo tones now and then.
But her flights of song strike an uneasy balance between operatic and show music, finally leaving very little impression on us. The title piece, though beautifully sung by Judy Kuhn (she’s the friend who dies in the blaze), is lively but unsettingly reminiscent of “Join the Circus” from “Barnum.”
We open on Ellis Island and close (it’s 1910 all the way) at Battery Park. Rebecca, who with her son has been taken in by the Cohen family, is seeking her husband, who came over before her, through most of the first act. But when the husband (Larry Kert, his talents largely wasted in the part) eventually shows up, he throws in with the political crowd while an ardent young union organizer (Terrence Mann, a sort of stand-in for Eugene V. Debs) has taken a fancy to her.
Dick Latessa, who joins with a hearty Marcia Lewis in the “Three Sunny Rooms” duet, offers the only really substantial characterization as an unbending Orthodox Jew. Weaving throughout the show is a winning performance by Lonny Price as the irrepressibly ambitious suitor of the young woman (Latessa’s daughter) who perishes in the fire.
Joseph Stein’s book, though unfocused like the rest of this disappointing evening, has its moments. But Stein was obviously a great deal more at home in Anatevka (“Fiddler on the Roof”) than he is on the lower East Side. Schwartz’ lyrics are well-turned, but again, like Strouse’s workmanlike score, they appear constrained by the heavy approach, much of it obviously in deference to Stratas’ vocal prowess.
Stratas (her flaming red hair does set off her mostly drab wear) is, in the end, and in spite of her singing, not very well suited to the part of this beset but spunky immigrant, and she never appears comfortable in it. Gene Saks’ direction and Ron Field’s musical staging demand respect, but we go home with minds as ragged as the valiant bunch we’ve left behind.
Teresa Stratas, the heroine of the hour, carries all before her, but there is also a grand and epic quality to the new musical “Rags” which opened at the Mark Hellinger Theater last night.
It is a quality reflected very clearly in the high seriousness of Charles Strouse’s ambitious score, the nimble passion of Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics, and in the very scope of Joseph Stein’s sweepingly panoramic story of Eastern European Jewish emigration to New York’s Lower East Side just after the turn of the century.
But it is also a quality much needed by a show forever teetering on the edge of banality and pretentiousness, finally saved on the brink by a superb cast.
They thrillingly make the evening a hard-won triumph, particularly with a stellar performance of almost forceful magnificence from Stratas, the opera diva making an unforgettable Broadway debut.
In shape, tone, and texture, “Rags” is like a sprawling pop novel set to music that strides with surprising confidence in the area bounded by the quasi-operatic and the solemn movie score.
In a saga moving from Ellis Island to the sweatshops of the Lower East Side, from Thomashefsky’s Second Avenue Yiddish Theater for a moment of cheap humor to protest demonstrations in Union Square for an instant of easy political rhetoric, Stein leaves no cliché uncliched, no tear unjerked, no passion unspent.
Rebecca Hershkowitch (the redoubtable Stratas, looking waiflike and Piaf-indomitable in a raggedy red wig over huge, liquid, accusatory eyes) comes to America with her son David to join her husband Nathan, who has gone ahead of them, and to escape the Cossacks.
Befriended on the pier by an Orthodox Jewish patriarch, Avram, and his daughter Bella, Rebecca discovers herself in the seething New York maelstrom of Jewish social and political life in 1910.
After much difficulty, she eventually finds her husband – who has become a mealy-mouthed, glad-handing henchman to a corrupt Tammany boss – and falls in love with an idealistic Socialist union organizer. Imagine “Fiddler on the Roof” merged with Warren Beatty’s “Reds” and stuck together with “Pins and Needles.”
It is all predictable – too predictable. It is sweet – too sweet. It could have been a TV mini-series.
Strouse’s music, however, is unlike anything he has attempted before, and unabashedly reveals not simply his classical background but also his classical leanings and aspirations.
This, for the most part, is brilliantly successful, imaginative third-stream music, full of melodic interest and dramatic subtlety – superb theater music that absorbs Hebrew, Yiddish and ragtime influences to become more or less itself.
Despite all this, neither the score nor its orchestration is completely free from a certain portentous sense of its own importance – and there are moments when it sounds derivative, inflated and even pompous.
If only to keep its feet on the ground, this kind of music demands extremely fluid and fluent lyrics. These, with an easy, unforced wit and genuine poetic feeling, seem to have flowed from Stephen Schwartz, whose work I have not always wholeheartedly admired in the past. Here he scarcely mints a false word.
In the end, it is fundamentally the faded patchwork-quilt nature of Stein’s book that gives the work its particular manufactured air.
The manufacture – skillful rather than seamless – has been cleverly undertaken by its director, Gene Saks, and Ron Field, who was responsible for the musical staging.
Yet the valiant efforts of the cast are crucial to the show’s eventual success.
Dick Latessa’s wise and bigoted curmudgeonly Avram is as perfect as Larry Kert’s crisply observed and dashingly portrayed Yankee Doodle dazzler, Nathan, Judy Kuhn’s radiantly doomed Bella, and Lonny Price’s perkily eloquent Ben, the boy who loves her.
Other telling performances come from Terrence Mann as the romantic union organizer, Marcia Lewis as the benevolently amorous widow and that truly remarkable child actor, Josh Blake, as David.
But the show belongs to La Stratas. From her unobtrusively star-strewn entry to her final, Callas-style curtain calls, the woman commands the night.
She plucks out the truth in this tinsel, the passion in this pastiche and she acts and sings with a consummate, heroic identification she did not even bring to Berg’s opera “Lulu” at the Metropolitan.
Strouse’s music has ensured that vocally she has not had to go slumming – she herself is surely part of his fresh inspiration here – and her musical and dramatic genius, burning at its peak intensity, brings a new, thrilling dimension to the Broadway musical theater.
Broadway is not accustomed to her voice.
Teresa Stratas is one of those performers whose giant talent makes audiences forget just how tiny she is. That talent is to be found not only in her voice, which has entranced opera audiences for a quarter-century now, but also in her stage personality, which, like her looks, can sometimes recall the unstable mixture of street-tough sexuality and pathetic vulnerability that was Piaf. This quality has served Miss Stratas famously in her opera-house appearances as Berg's Lulu and Weill's Jenny, and it's just as well suited to her first starring role on Broadway. Rebecca, the heroine of the new musical ''Rags,'' is a Jewish immigrant determined to rise above the sweatshop squalor of the Lower East Side, circa 1910. Who better than Miss Stratas can make us believe that a frail wisp of a European woman might conquer the nasty, broad-shouldered new world?
It was a smart idea to cast this diva as Rebecca, all right - but, as the evidence at the Mark Hellinger suggests, a risky one, too. When the star's voice and spiritual fire blast out of her frame, the show must be ready to match her, eruption for eruption. The failure of ''Rags'' can be found in the simple fact that, for once, Miss Stratas seems as small as life from curtain-rise to finale. Rebecca may be able to rise above poverty, anti-Semitism and male scoundrels in ''Rags,'' but the star's performance, even when riding the crests of some soaring Charles Strouse music, usually remains planted in earth.
The evening's author, Joseph Stein, also wrote ''Fiddler on the Roof'' - a musical whose equivalent central figure, Tevye, was so richly conceived that the lesser actors who followed Zero Mostel into the role seemed to gain in magnitude merely by putting on the milkman's costume. Rebecca, who might well have been a refugee from the same Russian pogrom as Tevye, shackles Miss Stratas because she's not really a character at all. This heroine is instead a symbol of Indomitable Immigranthood - as opaque as the Statue of Liberty, that congenital scene-stealer who inevitably pops up in the musical's opening and closing sequences. While the plot gives Rebecca a husband (Larry Kert) and would-be lover (Terrence Mann) to bounce between, we never get a compelling sense of what she feels for them or they for her. A plaster saint, even when played by Miss Stratas, is sexless.
The men are bland symbols as well. Mr. Kert stands for the opportunist, assimilationist immigrant (he's Sammy Glick as a party hack) while Mr. Mann is the idealist (a union organizer). Nearly every character is similarly archetypal, and no wonder: ''Rags'' wants to cover so much ground that there isn't time for people who don't pull their thematic weight. The show recklessly tries to encapsulate the concerns of Henry Roth's ''Call It Sleep,'' Abraham Cahan's ''Rise of David Levinsky'' and Jerome Weidman's ''I Can Get It for You Wholesale.'' It earnestly attempts to touch on everything from the heyday of the Yiddish theater to the birth of the I.L.G.W.U., the origins of ethnic machine politics, the conflicts between first- and second-wave immigrants, the advent of feminism and the virtues of both Marxism and capitalism. The milieu may be melting-pot America, but the show itself is a stewpot in which the multitudinous ingredients either cancel or drown each other out.
The only way so many major topics can be packed into a conventional Broadway musical is superficially. In the case of ''Rags,'' the potentially moving content is abridged into triviality by archaic romantic subplots (some of them hand-me-downs from Tevye's daughters), theater-party-targeted jokes (with which Miss Stratas seems ill at ease) and fudged melodramatic jolts (preposterous reunions, ill-explained vigilante episodes, a death). So lax and, at times, chaotic is the structure that the placement of songs seems arbitrary. Why, for instance, does Rebecca stop to sing of her traumatic past (''Children of the Wind'') just at the moment when the book belatedly gathers its first present-tense force?
The ''Rags'' that might have been is best heard in Mr. Strouse's score, galvanically orchestrated by Michael Starobin. It's no secret that the composer of ''Bye Bye Birdie'' and ''Annie'' knows how to concoct first-rate show tunes, and this musical has its share of those. Yet, perhaps inspired by his subject or by the presence of Miss Stratas, Mr. Strouse has really stretched himself here. Evoking composers as diverse as Joplin, Sousa, Weill and Gershwin, he uses his music to dramatize the evolution of a vernacular American pop music, much of it fostered by immigrant Jews during the period in which ''Rags'' is set. Sometimes Mr. Strouse's ambitions run away with him, and sometimes he retreats from his own scheme to Broadway basics (as in a pandering Act II comic duet for a flirtatious middle-aged couple). Still, this music is worthy of further hearing - doubly so when the star is expressing the churning excitement of heady new urban experience in fragrant songs like ''Brand New World'' and ''Blame It on the Summer Night.''
By contrast, Stephen Schwartz's lyrics, however professional, contain few surprises; like much of the plot, they can be heard coming a clunky beat or two away. (Jews didn't emigrate to America ''to be hurt again'' or ''to be dirt again,'' we're told.) The supporting cast is in the same vein -competent and predictable. Mr. Kert, Mr. Mann, Lonny Price (as a putative William Paley), Marcia Lewis (a yenta), Dick Latessa (a stern peddler) and Rex Everhart (an Irish pol) are cast so exactly to type that one begins to think they're re-creating roles in a revival. Judy Kuhn's angry solo in the title song transcends the general level, while Josh Blake's self-absorbed portrayal of Miss Stratas's son falls below it.
Gene Saks, the director, joined the production after it was cast and designed (unimaginatively by Beni Montresor, with apt Florence Klotz costumes and buckets of red lighting by Jules Fisher). While Mr. Saks keeps the show coming at the audience - disconcertingly so when transitions are missing - he can't give it drive or cohesion. Indeed, in the nearly static second act, the director rhythmically alternates often unrelated scenes and songs as if he were dispassionately adjudicating equal-time demands of the book and score. The choreographer, Ron Field, seems hardly to have gotten a word in edgewise: There's scant dancing, and the one attempt to force-feed a Cohan-like hat-and-cane number for Mr. Kert peters out just as it begins.
Miss Stratas, however, does launch a brief hora later on. As she bounces nervously about, a tentative smile curling up to her spectacularly red hair, one sees the ghost of another Weill champion, Lotte Lenya, whose Broadway turn in ''Cabaret'' 20 autumns ago was marked by another charming party dance choreographed by Mr. Field. Miss Stratas, like her predecessor, is an unexpected and highly welcome immigrant to the popular stage. But life on Broadway, unfortunately, is not always a cabaret.