the cast stands in front of an American flag looking awestruck
From left: Rebecca (Kyra Miller) and son David (Jonah Broscow), along with Avram (Donald Corren) and Bella (Julie Benko), come to America in “Rags.” (Photo/Courtesy Courtney Heimbuck-Kevin Berne)

From Russia to ‘Rags’: Immigrant story resonates in current climate

If “Fiddler on the Roof” is the quintessential story of life in the shtetl, then “Rags” could be the musical-theater embodiment of Jewish migration from towns like Anatevka to the promise and challenges of life in America.

“Rags” was created by three titans of musical theater — composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Stephen Schwartz and writer Joseph Stein — and was nominated for a Tony Award for best musical when it debuted in 1986. Robert Kelley, who is directing the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of “Rags,” which opens Saturday, April 8, in Mountain View, calls it “one of the great scores of American musical theater.”

Yet it lasted just four performances on Broadway, bogged down by its own grandiosity and lukewarm reviews. The version Kelley is directing has been trimmed after several rewrites by its creators.

“Rags” is the story of Russian Jewish immigrants arriving at New York’s Ellis Island and their struggles to adjust to America. It focuses on their lives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and their work in the garment industry, and it includes a visit to a Yiddish theater as well as the klezmer music they brought with them.

“Fiddler on the Roof” is set in 1905, and “Rags” takes place in 1910. Stein wrote the script for both shows.

“It’s not the same family and the same village; it’s not a sequel, but you leave ‘Fiddler’ heading for the ships and this show begins with ships arriving from Russia in the same era,” Kelley said. “If anyone ever has the opportunity to play the two shows back to back, it would be the most amazing experience. There’s a definite link thematically between the two shows.”

For Kyra Miller, who plays the main character Rebecca Hershkowitz in the TheatreWorks production, the story resonates because both of her grandfathers came through Ellis Island at about the same time that “Rags” is set.

“It feels very personal to me. It’s all part of the stories I grew up with,” said Miller, who brought her young family to the Bay Area from their home in Brooklyn. “All of the details are so blurry about why [my ancestors] left. But you just know it was various shades of bad, and how excited and scared they were to arrive.”

TheatreWorks also performed “Rags” in 1989, and Kelley said he’s wanted to do the show again ever since. When the company was selecting titles for this season, immigration was a key issue in the presidential campaign; Kelley said its relevance made this the right time for an encore.

“There was all this talk about immigration and questions about America’s attitude toward immigrants, and that was like a huge wake-up call for me that this was the time to do ‘Rags’ again; we had to do it,” he said. “Everything that happens in the play feels like it has some sort of resonance now.”

“Rags” opened on Broadway on Aug. 21, 1986, and closed on the 23rd. The New York Times called it the “disarray of a project whose noble ambitions never cohered into a focused theatrical vision.”

Strouse, who earlier had won Tony Awards for “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Applause” and “Annie,” said in a 2014 interview with the New York City Center that the quick demise of “Rags” felt like a close relative had died. Schwartz was so upset that he vowed never to work on another musical — luckily, he changed his mind, going on to write “Wicked.”

“It was a very, very big show. It had enormous sets, enormous expenses, a huge cast and they imagined it as a great American opera,” Kelley said. “It was trying to tell too many stories. And it was just too expensive to do unless it became an overnight hit.”

Distraught cast members, who offered to defer their salaries in hopes of keeping the show alive, organized a parade though New York’s theater district to show support for the show on its final day — but it was already too late.

Kelley first heard about the show when he saw accounts of that cast parade, and he “fell in love” with the music. He brought a rewritten version to the TheatreWorks stage in 1989 with a cast of more than two dozen. (It was also a hit at Contra Costa’s Willows Theatre Company in 1996 and 2011.)

“There was a lot of scoffing because of its difficulties on Broadway, and it turned out to be our greatest hit at the time. People loved it,” he said. “It was about real people and their very real experiences, which turned out to be shared experiences for many people in our community.”

The current TheatreWorks version has a cast of 15. Kelley said Schwartz is working on another revision of “Rags” that Connecticut’s Goodspeed Musicals will debut in October.

“In this climate we’re in, it’s a good time to be telling a story about immigrants and refugees,” Miller said. “It’s an exercise in empathy.”

“Rags,” April 8-30 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St. $35 and up. my.TheatreWorks.org

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Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster is J.'s senior writer. He can be reached at rob@jweekly.com.