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THE TIN PAN ALLEY RAG in the NY Times

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 New York Times 

Arts & Leisure 

July 5, 2009

When Scott Met Irving … or Didn’t

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

IT’S one of Mark Saltzman’s favorite moments in his play with music, “The Tin Pan Alley Rag,” and he won’t even take the credit. Near the end of the show, which imagines a meeting between the composers Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin, Joplin responds to a painful memory by playing “Bethena,” a ragtime waltz he wrote in 1905. And when he plays, nothing else happens. There are no words, no dances, no set changes. There’s just the sound of a classic piece of American music.

“The Tin Pan Alley Rag” is in previews at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater (it opens July 14), and for Mr. Saltzman, who’s been a fan of Joplin’s ragtime for more than 30 years, the wordless scene is a risk that pays off. “It’s kind of rare in the theater for it all to boil down to a piece of music,” Mr. Saltzman said. (That music is played live by offstage pianists while actors sit at pianos, hands obscured.) “You wonder if people are going to be fidgety, or if they’re going to say, ‘We didn’t pay for a piano concert.’ ”

“I’m so happy when I see that the audience is listening to this music as intently as if they’re listening to dialogue,” he said. “I feel some kind of personal triumph about that.”

Yet despite the “Bethena” moment, “The Tin Pan Alley Rag” is not a jukebox musical (or Victrola musical) of hits from pre-Depression America. Mr. Saltzman and the director, Stafford Arima, have created a show about the lives, work and aesthetics of two influential songwriters without relying heavily on their songs.

Joplin’s and Berlin’s tunes do figure throughout the production, but they are often subservient to the plot. Joplin (Michael Boatman) might play a section of his “Maple Leaf Rag,” but it underscores a scene about his past. The ensemble might sing “I Love a Piano,” an early chestnut from Berlin (Michael Therriault), but the number is interspersed with dialogue.

Mr. Arima, who is best known for directing splashy musicals like “Altar Boyz” and (coincidentally) “Ragtime,” said he likes using the music this way. “Our instincts in the musical theater are about buttoning the numbers or extending them,” he said. “By avoiding that musical comedy feel, we allow the audience to focus on the story instead of the greatest hits. I want them to discover who these men were and not just wait for the next song they know.”

Strangers to the history of American music can learn from the show. Mr. Saltzman may have invented the relationship between his lead characters, but he includes facts about their troubled personal lives and their enormous influence on the nascent pop-music business, which was often boosted by sheet-music sales of a Joplin rag or a Berlin hit. 

Mr. Arima said he feels that highlighting the composers’ lives could instill new appreciation for their music. “If all you know of someone is that they were perfect and they wrote perfect music, then they’re untouchable,” he said.

Click here to read the full article:

 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/05/theater/05blan.html?_r=1&ref=theater

Click the links below for multimedia features:

Photo slideshow & Ragtime documents:

http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2009/07/05/theater/20090705_RAGTIME_SLIDESHOW_index.html

Tin Pan Alley historical background:

http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2009/07/05/theater/20090705_RAGTIME_GRAPHIC.html 

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