REVIEW: Rags - Original London Cast

Recording CoverIt’s not impossible that somebody could spin a doctoral thesis out of picking apart all the various revisions that have been made over the years to Rags, the four-performance 1986 Broadway flop with a Charles Strouse-Stephen Schwartz score. That score, which contains a great deal of Strouse’s best music, is the reason so many people have tried to fix a show that stubbornly refuses to work; the 1987 studio recording, which features most of the Broadway production’s cast with Julia Migenes standing in for original leading lady Teresa Stratas, is one of the most glorious musical theatre albums of its decade, and gives the impression of a show that very much deserved to be a hit.

That 1987 recording, though, is the reason people approaching this new London cast recording of the most recent revised version of the show might want to manage their expectations: the show has undergone many revisions over the past three decades, and there are significant differences between the version of the score heard in the now-standard version of the show and the version represented on the studio album.

In all versions of the show – and there are many different versions of this show – the central figure is Rebecca Hershkowitz, a woman fleeing Russia with her young son David, and the plot follows a group of Jewish immigrants as they arrive in New York in 1910(ish) and try to establish themselves as new Americans living in tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Reading the Broadway production’s reviews, it’s clear there were too many subplots surrounding her; this rewrite, with a new book by David Thompson (Joseph Stein, who wrote the show’s original book, having died in 2010), premiered at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 2017, and it does a reasonably good job of paring back the show’s various plot strands into a clear, coherent narrative that is driven by Rebecca’s struggle to build a life in New York for herself and her son. Alongside this new book, though, Strouse and Schwartz have taken scissors to their score, and the result is not an improvement.

Some of the musical changes, indeed, are baffling. Children Of The Wind, the show’s biggest statement about what it means to be an immigrant, has been awkwardly split into two, so that the verse is heard in the first act under the title No More Nightmares and the refrain is held back until almost the end of the show – with the result that No More Nightmares sounds like a verse in search of a chorus, which is exactly what it is, and the song’s big anthemic refrain seems to appear out of nowhere, and brings the show to a grinding halt. A new sequence about the labour movement, Take Our City Back, mixes the verse melody from a song called Dancing With The Fools – Rebecca’s eleven o’clock aria in the original version of the show, which has now been completely cut – with the chorus melody from Greenhorns, a song heard early in the show as the new immigrants are processed at Ellis Island; it feels like a rather slipshod cut-and-paste job, and both melodies were better served in their original contexts.

If you don’t know the original recording, though, you may have an easier time of it. This production, which was directed by Bronagh Lagan, was first seen at the 120-seat Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester in March 2019, and it transferred, with several cast changes, to the 200-seat Park Theatre in Finsbury Park in London at the beginning of this year. In a venue as tiny as Hope Mill, at ticket prices well below what you’d expect to pay in the West End, you’re never going to get Michael Starobin’s magnificent original orchestrations: this is a chamber production, and the recording reflects that scale (and budget).

Instead of the 1987 album’s large orchestra, there are five (backstage) musicians plus a four-piece onstage klezmer band drawn from members of the chorus. Nine musicians are never going to sound like a symphony orchestra, but Nick Barstow’s new orchestrations give the score a grittier sound that suits the Lower East Side setting very nicely. Carolyn Maitland’s Rebecca doesn’t have Julia Migenes’s soaring soprano – and for that matter, also doesn’t quite manage to equal the tremendous warmth Rebecca Trehearn brought to the role in Manchester – but she’s a powerful singing actress, and she and Alex Gibson-Giorgio give a lovely rendition of Blame It On The Summer Night, which for my money is probably single finest song Charles Strouse ever wrote.

The supporting performances, unfortunately, are characterised by a set of Mittel-European accents that seem to have got stuck at the WizzAir desk at Luton Airport, and – in one instance – an Italian accent so overdone it arrives dripping with molten mozzarella. Maitland aside, there’s a strong whiff of Middle-Class Actors Putting On Accents, and the material really needs a far more persuasive sense of authenticity than it gets here.

The biggest issue, though, is simply that the score has always been Rags’s biggest asset, and this recording reflects a set of revisions that do not do that score any favours – and on a recording, some of those revisions sound (even) more awkward than they did during the performance I saw at Hope Mill. This is apparently now the standard version of the show, and it’s useful to have a recording that accurately reflects all the various changes – and this recording is handsomely packaged, and includes a booklet with a comprehensive synopsis and printed lyrics for every song – and it’s genuinely wonderful that a tiny revival of a show with such a complex history should receive a cast recording at all. In the end, though, in tidying up the show’s book, this version of the show seriously diminishes some of Charles Strouse’s finest music. It’s a worthy effort, but the result, inevitably, is a disappointment.


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