What interests Saltzman, a one-time writer for Sesame Street, is the meshing of immigrant and outsider cultures with American art forms. Joplin's background as a black man, influenced by slave customs, African-American music, and Jim Crow laws, is as undeniably a part of ragtime as Berlin's Russian-Jewish immigrant experience, in which his family traded the pogroms of the old country for tenement poverty in the new one.
Their lives have common threads, to be sure, but is there any reason to think Joplin and Berlin would have liked each other or wanted to share ideas? They might have been more interesting as hostile competitors. (One unarticulated but fascinating theme in the friendship between Berlin and Joplin is that it models the historic appropriation and popularization of black music by white artists.)
I think Saltzman is making a case for the idea that blacks and Jews created a great deal of our culture in this century. But the two men thrown together in The Tin Pan Alley Rag seem to have met for the convenience of the playwright. What he give us are two sterling specimens of these ethnic and racial groups (not to mention two hours of their music) and asks us to appreciate their talents. What he hasn't delivered are true characters.
The Tin Pan Alley Rag.
Written by Mark Saltzman. Music by Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin. Directed by Alan Bailey. Choreography by Larry Sousa. Musical arrangement by Brad Ellis. With David Norona, Andre De Shields, April Armstrong, Don Amendolia, Hunter Bell, Kate Dawson, Melissa Haizlip, Ron Hutchins, and Sean P. Watters. Through November 8. Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy; 305-442-4000.