Mark Saltzman, the author of “The Tin Pan Alley Rag,” has imagined a meeting between two kings of American music: Irving Berlin (1888-1989) and Scott Joplin (1868-1917). Saltzman, a writer for “Sesame Street,” as well as for films and theater, makes no claim that such a meeting has been documented or is known to have taken place; however he has placed the meeting within the realm of possibility. That possibility is considered quite entertainingly under the direction of Stafford Arima (“Altar Boyz”). It’s an amiable show that is not unlike a primer on Berlin and Joplin, as well as on the circa 1911 era that was set to define American pop music. Michael Boatman as Joplin and Michael Therriault as Berlin are able to credibly personify these unique musical immortals, a primer in performance craft.
In the period prior to World War I, Berlin and Joplin were renowned and reigned supreme in their respective fields in an industry largely controlled by the music publishers along Manhattan’s 28th Street. Joplin, who had cornered a portion of the pop market with his ragtime melodies, had a huge hit with “Maple Leaf Rag.” Because he was classically trained he was not satisfied with his career and had a hope of being recognized for his classical compositions.
Berlin was riding high with songs such as “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabama,” “I Love a Piano,” and his most recent super hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” At the beginning of the 20th century the publishers’ offices were beehives of musical activity churning out songs by both aspiring and established composers of popular music. In a very amusing early scene we get to meet some of the considerably less talented but always hopeful hacks as they plug and perform their tortured rhymes and formulaic melodies. Sheet music was the medium then and it made fortunes for a few like Berlin. “The Tin Pan Alley Rag” takes place in one of these offices, whose walls (as impressively designed by Beowulf Boritt) have a way of moving and transporting us efficiently to many other locations.
The dramatic conflict centers on whether Joplin can convince Berlin to put in a good word with his publisher/partner, Teddy Snyder (Michael McCormick), that might help him get his ambitious and serious folk opera “Treemonisha” produced. And will Berlin be able to get his head together and write some serious music?
As you might expect in a show about Berlin and Joplin, the songs are recognizable, delectable, and danceable, the latter particularly graced by Liza Gennaro’s rag-timed choreography. The show makes generous use of early Berlin songs, as well as Joplin’s folk ballet scores as a bridge for flashbacks into their respective lives, but without the songs being consigned to defining character.
A fine supporting cast of singers and dancers often appears out of the ether to enhance a song as well as to play peripheral/multiple characters. Mark Ledbetter is standout as a vaudevillian. Think of the old bio film musicals like “Words and Music” and “Till The Clouds Roll By,” where the composer sat a piano and sang his song to the rich producer or to his lover and the scene would segue to the stage of a theater or other location.
There are segues to different places and Boatman and Therriault are quite good at pretending to play the two pianos. As each is seated at a piano (the keyboards faced away from the audience), Joplin gives the less musically sophisticated Berlin a lesson in counterpoint with “Play a Simple Melody,” a joyously executed duet. Michael Patrick Walker and Brian Cimmet should be credited as the accomplished but unseen pianists.
Therriault, who played Motel in the last Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” is an immediately engaging and lively Berlin — to whom he bears a striking resemblance. His performance gracefully distinguishes Berlin as a man conditioned by heartbreak but consumed by a need to succeed. Boatman is better looking than the serious and impassioned Joplin, but his performance as the man who worked his way up from being an itinerate piano player in brothels to “King of Ragtime” is very fine indeed.
While these titans of early American popular music were neither rivals nor adversaries during the heyday of the now legendary Tin Pan Alley, they each had distinctly different long-term objectives. Berlin, the son of Russian-born immigrants, couldn’t read music but he had drive, discipline, and an incomparable talent for writing hit songs. Although recognized as the most American of pop composers, his early songs (“Sweet Italian Love” and “Moishe Sings an Irish Song”) often capitalized on ethnic humor. There is a funny glimpse of that early part of his career with Berlin as a boastful and brash singing waiter on the lower East Side. These songs nevertheless catapulted him into the mainstream.
There is a touching moment in the play in which Berlin sits alone at the piano and attempts to complete a piece of music that would stretch his talent. We can also see how success at what he did best has its rewards. Amazingly (and not dealt with in this play), Berlin was destined to write memorable musical scores for “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Call Me Madam,” among others that, if not as lofty as an opera, could be said to be admirable expressions of his highest musical ability.
There is poignancy and shared-grief in the relationship between these talented men when they become aware that each has suffered a similar loss. Berlin’s first wife, the vivacious Dorothy Goetz (Jenny Fellner), died suddenly from typhoid fever contracted on their honeymoon in Havana, and Joplin’s second wife, Freddie Alexander (Idara Victor), a perky, well-educated woman with political aspirations, died from pneumonia only eight weeks after they were married.
Joplin, who suffered occasional seizures due to an advanced case of syphilis, died at the age of 49 in 1917. He didn’t live to see the first professional production of “Treemonisha” by The Houston Grand Opera in 1975, a production subsequently presented on Broadway and earning a Tony nomination as well as being awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1976. A short segment of the opera is presented in a climactic scene as an 87-year-old Berlin attends a performance. Joplin was to achieve his greatest recognition, however, when his ragtime music was revived for the 1973 film “The Sting.” Berlin was 101 when he died in 1989. This show is a loving tribute to the spirit of ragtime and to two of the 20th century’s most spirited composers. ***
N.B. There is no known family tie between the author of the play and the writer of this review.
“The Tin Pan Alley Rag,” through Sunday, September 6, Roundabout Theater Company at the Laura Pels Theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 West 46th Street. $75 to $98. 212-719-1300.