Goodspeed stages rewritten version of 1986 Broadway musical "Rags"

Director Rob Ruggiero guides the cast of “Rags” during a rehearsal. (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)
Director Rob Ruggiero guides the cast of “Rags” during a rehearsal. (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Director Rob Ruggiero sees a clear connection between a scene in the musical “Rags” and the work that he and his team of creators have taken on in an attempt to reimagine the show for a new revival at the Goodspeed Opera House this fall.

“Our main character, Rebecca, comes to America with the skill to sew. And in the story, one of her notable moments was when she refashions an ordinary department store dress into something more stylish and contemporary,” Ruggiero says. “I like to think that, in a way, this is a really good metaphor for the journey that we are on. We have taken something that was kind of put away in a drawer for a while and has now been totally taken apart. All the materials that were there were used, and now it has changed into something else.”

It's been a little over a year since the Goodspeed decided to take on the production. And since then, both Ruggiero and book writer David Thompson (“The Scottsboro Boys,” “Prince of Broadway”) have worked closely together to completely rewrite "Rags," which premiered on Broadway in 1986. They say this new version is “a scaled down, focused take on the original.” It premiered Friday at the theater and will run until Dec. 10.

In its rebirth, the story has transformed to be equally about the past as it is about the present, as the writers drew inspiration from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and related what they saw there to immigration today.

“We look at the many things that were happening during the time — the unionization of sweatshops, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, immigrants coming with nothing but a certain skill to get them by,” Thompson says. “All of this informs the story. But at the end of the day, rewriting this musical has become about taking a focus on a set of characters and telling a heartfelt story.”

The original “Rags” is remembered for the stories that it told — a complex epic of sorts that depicts the lives of Russian immigrants living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the turn of the century. It is also remembered for the man who wrote it — the late American playwright Joseph Stein (“Fiddler on the Roof”) — and for the theater greats who helped create the original score: renowned Broadway composers Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked,” “Pippin”) and Charles Strouse (“Annie,” “Bye Bye Birdie”).

Despite receiving mixed reviews and only completing four performances on Broadway after 18 previews, it also earned several Tony nominations, one of which was for best musical. In the years since, “Rags” has undergone several revision attempts, but the daunting, complicated structure has prevented new renditions from high success.

That, though, didn’t stop Michael Gennaro, executive director of the Goodspeed, from reimagining its potential.

“He called last summer and proposed reworking ‘Rags,’” says Ruggiero, who is remembered for directing “Carousel” and “La Cage Aux Folles” at the Goodspeed. “Rags” will be his 10th production with the theater. “He wanted to pull in Stephen and Charles back into the reworking. Stephen, however, first said no. He didn’t want to do a ‘rearranging of the deck chairs’ type of show. He was only interested if it was an opportunity to re-examine everything and to pull it apart. So Michael said, ‘Okay, well, what if it we went at it?’ Then Stephen was onboard.”

From there, Ruggiero collaborated with Thompson to rewrite the book, while Strouse and Schwartz worked to fit the original score into the new narrative. Stein’s wife, Elisa, also helped to rewrite the story.

“There was a kernel of a very good idea that we needed to hold onto, and that’s what we wanted to get back to,” Thompson says, referring to the original musical that he describes as “a very big story, with an enormous amount of characters.”

Part of that “kernel” was found within the character of Rebecca Hershkowitz, the 27-year-old Jewish immigrant played by Samantha Massell, who fled the pogroms of Russia with her young son David, played by Christian Michael Camporin. In the new rendition, however, the mother and son live and work within a tenement in the Lower East Side throughout 1910-1911 — an idea that was drawn after Thompson went to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum last year. After Thompson’s visit, Ruggiero also went.

“Going to the Tenement Museum was an ‘a ha’ moment. It was totally like the lights went on,” says Ruggiero, who visited the museum three times over the course of rewriting the story and took trips to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

“In the original, there was a tenement apartment where they lived, and factories where they worked. But it didn’t have the sweatshop in the tenement. It was our idea to bring the lens of the play in and focus it all within the tenement,” Ruggiero says, while also explaining how the set itself will work perfectly with the small stage dimensions of the Goodspeed.

“In our version, the tenement apartment becomes a character in itself really. You have this group of people living and interacting within this tight space. And it’s the presence of the apartment throughout the show that starts to become something of a character. It becomes the place that brought this group of people together.”

Over the course of the year, however, the themes of the musical had shifted from a strict retelling of times past, and inevitably can be related to the current political discourse surrounding immigration.

“There was no way to avoid the understanding that doing this show in 2017, considering the current sociopolitical climate in America, would have a different relevance,” Ruggiero says. “One of the biggest themes we tried to look at was the idea of assimilation. What exactly does an immigrant need to let go of in order to assimilate, and what do they keep? We wanted to look at that decision for Rebecca.”

In the original, Rebecca was forced to assimilate by her then-husband, who has since been removed from the presentation. But in this version, Rebecca at once embraces her newfound home and continues to live with the memories, personality aspects and skills gained from her past life.

“One of the great things in America is the idea of this melting pot and the idea that the gifts that these people bring create very intricate and complex and beautiful fabric of cultures that make us unique. And we as Americans struggle with remembering that,” Ruggiero says. “This (story) helps remind us of that, in a beautiful way, in a non-threatening way, and not in an in-your-face political way. This is a Jewish story and everyone’s story, really.”


Rob Ruggiero works with Samantha Massell, who plays Rebecca Hershkowitz, and Christian Michael Camporin, who portrays her son. (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)
Rob Ruggiero works with Samantha Massell, who plays Rebecca Hershkowitz, and Christian Michael Camporin, who portrays her son. (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)

If you go

What: "Rags"

Where: Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam

When: Through Dec. 10; 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sun. (Sun. evenings through Nov. 15), 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed. and Thurs. (Thurs. matinees start Nov. 11), 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat. Check website for Thanksgiving week performances.

Tickets: $34-$81

Call: (860) 873-8668



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