Unless you’re an extreme fan of musical theatre, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of ‘Rags the Musical’. But its list of creators runs like something of a supergroup: book by Joseph ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Stein, music by Charles ‘Annie’ Strouse and lyrics by Stephen ‘Wicked’ Schwartz. On its 1986 Broadway premiere, however, it flopped hard and closed after only four post-preview performances. This version, at the Park Theatre, uses a heavily revised book by David Thompson.
Set in 1910, ‘Rags’ follows the fortunes of a set of Jewish immigrants who have left Eastern Europe and Russia for a new life in America. Rebecca Hershkowitz, a young widow with a small child, is taken in by the already settled family of Bella Cohen, a woman she befriends on the boat to New York. Rebecca ends up staying with the group once her superior sewing skills make her a serious asset for the family business – and because they’re nice and don’t want to throw a single mother out on to the streets.
Bronagh Lagan’s production, which originally played at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, is entertaining and an easy watch. Snippets of klezmer and era-appropriate ragtime percolate through the score, and the songs come thick and fast. Carolyn Maitland, in particular, is excellent as Rebecca, with a voice as clear, sharp and enjoyable as a classic martini.
But as a whole, the musical never quite escapes the fact that the lyrics are generally unmemorable, or that the characters’ personal storylines are underdrawn.
It does, however, achieve something else. This revival feels timely and then some. Firstly because of the anti-Semitism and anti-immigration abuse and rhetoric faced by the characters and their Italian neighbours. Secondly as a reminder of what America, and its ‘dream’, once represented to millions of people fleeing the worst moments of recent European history: a land of genuine freedom, equality, possibility and… yeah, end of sentence.