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Syncopated Stories

Date: Aug 03, 2009


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By Linda Buchwald

Two men living in New York in 1915-one a Jewish Russian immigrant with no musical training, the other an African-American Texan who learned classical piano. Each called himself the King of Ragtime. The two men were Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin and The Tin Pan Alley Rag, playing at the Laura Pels Theater through September 6, explores what might have happened had these two geniuses met. The Roundabout Theatre Company production is presented in association with Rodger Hess Productions, Inc. and directed by Stafford Arima.

Mark Saltzman, writer and creator of the musical, is also a song and screenwriter, perhaps best known for his work on Sesame Street. Though most of The Tin Pan Alley Rag features Berlin and Joplin tunes, Saltzman was able to put his music background to use. The show begins with songwriters plugging their songs, which Saltzman wrote with Brad Ellis, to Berlin (Michael Therriault). "The songs I wrote to Brad Ellis's music were intentionally bad so that the onstage publishers could reject them," he says. "We really had a great time writing them with no worries at all."

Irving Berlin was always an inspiration for Saltzman ("I grew up knowing his music like most Americans"), as was Scott Joplin, once he became aware of him in college. The idea for the musical came to Saltzman while researching the early 1900s for the television film Mrs. Santa Claus starring Angela Lansbury. He was surprised to discover that Joplin and Berlin both lived in New York around 1915 and wondered if they ever met. There is no record of such a meeting, but Saltzman came up with a fictional encounter that involved Joplin (Michael Boatman) going to Berlin's office to pitch him the ragtime musical Treemonisha and the two discovering they have more in common than just talent. They both lost wives to illness shortly after their marriages. "I didn't fictionalize the biographical material of Joplin or Berlin. I didn't have to-it was very dramatic to begin with," Saltzman says.

Saltzman himself has a few similarities with the composers. "I'm closer in age to Joplin, so I suppose I relate to him more. And I still have to pitch my projects, the way Joplin does in the play," he says. "But ethnically, I'm New York Jewish with Russian Jewish roots, like Berlin. In fact, my father, like Berlin, lived on the Lower East Side."

A constant theme in the show is the struggle between art and commerce. In the play, Joplin is concerned with publishing his masterpiece, while Berlin is preoccupied with making a buck, which at that time meant selling tight, 32-bar sheet music. "It seems like something everyone working in the business has to struggle with. How do you make a living doing what you love to do? How much will you compromise? It's on our minds all the time," Saltzman says. "What was interesting about Tin Pan Alley is that it was the first place where musical art was turned into commerce, into a mass consumer item. Before there were iPod downloads, before vinyl records and 78s, there was sheet music for sale, which was the product that Tin Pan Alley produced. But the marketing rules haven't changed very much in music."

He speaks with authority about the time period, the result of extensive research. "The research continued sporadically, right up until the Roundabout production which had a whole new scene added, set in Little Rock in the 1890s," he says. The scene referred to involved bread pudding with bourbon sauce, which Saltzman says was "particularly pleasant" to research. "Scenes were rewritten constantly, right up until opening. We were trying to get the opening and the finale perfect. I hope we achieved something close to that," he says.

Though this is the New York premiere of the show, it debuted in Los Angeles in 1997 and has toured the country. "Sometimes it takes New York a little time to catch up with California," Saltzman jokes. "To tell you the truth, I don't know why it took so long. The audiences have been enjoying this show, and we just need some sort of cosmic alignment for the New York debut. The specific stars that aligned were Rodger Hess and Todd Haimes [creative director of the Roundabout] and I'm happy for that. I'm a native New Yorker, born in the Bronx, and Tin Pan Alley Rag is a particularly New York story, set as it is on West 28th Street, so I'm very glad that this show and its playwright have finally come home."

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