Music: Charles Strouse
Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Rags was originally conceived by Joseph Stein, book writer of Fiddler on the Roof, as a response to the question of what happened to that show’s characters when they reached America. Though it doesn’t follow the same characters, in its exploration of the lives of Jewish immigrants in New York, it is a sequel of sorts. Incorporating a Jewish Klezmer band onstage and starting with a solo violin, its debt to Fiddler is clearly acknowledged.
The show has been through many changes since the original production flopped on Broadway in 1986. Despite receiving a Tony Award nomination for best musical, it received generally negative or indifferent reviews and closed after 4 performances. Seen as too ambitious and sprawling, subsequent versions have tried to trim it down and focus on fewer characters. This version was presented at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester and Park Theatre, London Carolyn Maitland in 2019 and has a heavily rewritten book by David Thompson. Of course, the CD gives us only the songs, well-packaged with a booklet of productions stills and lyrics.
A cast of 16 tells the story of an interlinked group of immigrants, struggling to triumph over prejudice, poverty and exploitative employers. Carolyn Maitland, as Rebecca, leads the cast with her strong, flexible voice and authoritative interpretation. Martha Kirby, as Bella is also impressive.
The songs are a well-written and skillfully blended mix of Jewish melodies, musical theatre standards and ragtime. It is this last element that sets the show very firmly in its time. Reviews of the production mention the timeliness of its story – and recent events make it even more so. However, without the setting, the sheer number of ragtime melodies give the recording the air of a quaint period piece, rather than a show for a modern audience.
That is not to say the score doesn’t have its gems. Children of the Wind, movingly rendered by Maitland, is a soaring song of hope and determination. Blame it on the Summer Night, on which she duets with Alex Gibson-Giorgio’s fluid baritone, is an engaging love ballad. In Three Sunny Rooms, Rachel Izen and Dave Willetts give a quirky account of an unorthodox courtship. If We Never Meet Again is a moving account of female friendship, convincingly portrayed by Maitland and Kirby.
The vocal performances throughout are effective and the orchestrations by Nick Barstow serve the songs well. An album can only record the songs and this serves as an entertaining document of this latest production, which may yet not be the final incarnation of this ever-evolving show.
Rags the Musical 2020 London Cast Recording is available from Ghostlight Records now.