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  • Rags synopsis
  • Rags Revisited: a richly relevant musical tribute. Includes comments by lyricist Stephen Schwartz, composer Charles Strouse, and book writer Joseph Stein
See also the main RAGS the musical page for recording information, sheet music, and more

Synopsis of Rags

Ellis Island, 1910: boatloads of immigrants land in America, awestruck by the sights and sounds. But lurking around every corner are those who would take advantage of the immigrants by hiring them to work under horrible conditions for low wages. Among the newcomers are Rebecca Hershkowitz and her son David.

Six years ago, Rebecca's husband Nathan preceded them to America, but he has not come to meet them. Mother and child are about to be sent back when two strangers, Bella and her father Avram, also immigrants, overhear Rebecca's plight and pretend to be her kinfolk. Rebecca places a newspaper ad to locate Nathan. In the meantime, she and David stay with Bella and Avram.

Rebecca is hired to sew at Bronstein's shop. She meets Saul, who is trying to unionize workers against Bronstein for better pay. Rebecca and Saul are attracted to each other but Rebecca resists her feelings. Meanwhile, Bella hopes to marry the industrious Ben, but her father disapproves. Avram also refuses to allow Bella to work in a shop. Against his wishes, Rebecca secures Bella a job in a shirt factory.

Nathan is finally reunited with his family, but they find him greatly changed. He's involved with the political corruption at Tammany Hall. As the announcement is being made about whether Nathan will get a coveted political job, news arrives about a fire in the factory where Bella works. Rebecca flees to her friend ... is Bella safe?

Later, back at Bronstein's, Rebecca demands better wages. She leads her co-workers in a public protest. Nathan warns his wife that anti-union thugs will quash the uprising. He gives her an ultimatum: abandon her cause or lose him! Seeing Nathan's true colors, Rebecca and David are ready to pursue their dreams without him.

Rags Revisited: a richly relevant musical tribute - From Walnut Street Theatre - used with permission

"We really feel this show has made a strong statement wherever it's been produced," said librettist Joseph Stein of the powerful musical Rags. A tribute to the courageous immigrants who thronged to America at the turn of the 20th century, Rags had a short Broadway run in 1986. Yet this inspiring musical has enjoyed tremendous success in regional theatres, most recently at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse.

From time to time, its creators have revisited the show - adding, cutting and enriching - striving always to make it better. "Now we have it where we want it," Stein said with confidence. "The Walnut Street Theatre production will probably be the definitive one."

When Stein said "we," he was referring to his esteemed collaborators, composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Stephen Schwartz. There's no shortage of accomplishments here. Stein's Broadway credits include Fiddler on the Roof, Zorba and Plain and Fancy. Strouse scored Annie; Bye, Bye, Birdie; and Applause. Schwartz wrote songs for Godspell, Pippin and The Magic Show.

This award-winning trio recently reunited to work on Rags once again for its run as the Walnut's 2000-2001 season opener. Stein, Strouse and Schwartz were unanimous in their feeling that the Walnut production is extremely important, and they were enthusiastic about being in Philadelphia during the rehearsal process.

"Rags continues to be a 'living organism'," Schwartz said of his willingness to keep improving the show. "Some of the recent changes we've made are based on what we learned from the Paper Mill production, while others are simply a return to our original choices."

According to Stein, the Walnut staging, directed by Bruce Lumpkin, will differ only slightly from the Paper Mill version. "We've been refining the characters and their relationships, strengthening the scenes," he explained. While the topic of immigration is indeed a broad one, the creators of Rags have personalized it and made it very compelling by focusing on a particular young mother and her son. They land at Ellis Island with nothing, but through sheer fortitude and with the help of a few good friends, they survive to pursue their dreams.

"This is a woman's story, how America happened to her," Strouse explained. "She loses a husband and a friend, struggles to learn a new language, and even has a sexual awakening. I've tried to reflect all those feelings in the score." Rich with soaring melodies and haunting lyrics, the score is one of the main reasons Rags is having a life after Broadway, according to Strouse.

After the show closed, a cast recording was made. It has sold steadily ever since, keeping the interest in Rags alive. Strouse is proud of the variety and combination of musical styles in Rags. There's an intentional "melting pot" of music, with melodies and rhythms from Europe, Africa and the Middle East, he said. "All these sounds were getting together in the early 1900's, the time of Rags, and the music was bubbling in the streets. I heard some of those early recordings and went crazy with their spirit. It's that spirit I was after in Rags."

"We are indeed a nation of immigrants and I've always been intrigued with their experiences, so rich in drama. These are stories that needed to be told," Stein said when asked what inspired him to write this show.

Strouse concurred. "These were our grandmothers' journeys and they are very important to us." The Walnut production of Rags "will have the gleam of something new" now that it's been reworked, according to Strouse. "We hope the Walnut production is the zenith of what this show can be!" Copyright © 2000 Walnut Street Theatre. All Rights Reserved.

Go to the main RAGS the musical page for recording information, sheet music, and mor