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THE TIN PAN ALLEY RAG IN THE BERGEN RECORD

Roundabout Theatre Company’s THE TIN PAN ALLEY RAG is currently playing at the Laura Pels Theatre and opens officially on Tuesday, July 14th

The Bergen Record

June 21, 2009

 

http://www.northjersey.com/entertainment/48696932.html

 

A tribute to two music men

 

By ROBERT FELDBERG

“In his 20s, he was a mega pop star,” says Saltzman, author of the new musical “The Tin Pan Alley Rag.”

 

“He was like Prince; he had that kind of fame and wealth. That’s been a lost story.”

 

Saltzman’s show, now in previews for a July 14 opening at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, is a joint biography of Berlin and Scott Joplin, featuring the music of both composers.

 

It’s Saltzman’s contention that Berlin’s great early popularity as a songwriter – well before he wrote “Annie Get Your Gun” and his other Broadway hits – was partly a result of very familiar marketing techniques.

 

This would be circa 1911, the year Berlin published his huge hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and the principal medium was not recordings but sheet music.

“All the rules of popular culture that we play by were invented then,” says Saltzman.

 

“It was a laboratory where things were invented.”

 

The pitch was for home entertainment, songs that could be enjoyed by the whole family without having to go out to a theater.

 

“The hardware you needed was an 88-note keyboard; the software was the sheet music,” says Saltzman, who began his career writing material for the Muppets and has written extensively for film and television in addition to theater.

 

Although not classic ragtime, Berlin’s lively compositions, which included “I Love a Piano” and “Play a Simple Melody,” were, in their way, a precursor to jazz.

Throughout his life, Berlin knew his market, becoming fabulously wealthy creating popular songs that caught the public’s fancy.

 

Joplin, the king of ragtime, had a different ambition, and his career had a different arc, from popularity to obscurity.

 

“He wanted to push forward,” says Saltzman. “He wanted to write an opera, symphonies.” (Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha” was not performed in its entirety until 1970, more than a half-century after his death.)

 

Joplin (1867-1917) was a generation older than Berlin (1888-1989), but Saltzman notes that, despite the many contrasts in their lives, they also had things in common, including fame and personal tragedies.

 

At the core of the show (Saltzman prefers to call it a play with music, since the songs are performed as they would be in life rather than as expressions of the characters) is a fictional meeting between the two men.

 

Although there’s no record they ever crossed paths, Saltzman says it wouldn’t be surprising if they did.

 

“They had offices in New York that were near each other, and the music business was a fairly small world.”

 

He notes that the two men turned stereotypes on their heads.

 

Joplin, the black man, was a conservatory graduate, while Berlin, the white man, had no musical training and couldn’t even read music.

 

Says Saltzman: “He was just touched by the finger of God.”

 

E-mail: feldberg@northjersey.com 

 

 

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