Nobody knows if Scott Joplin knew Irving Berlin. In The Tin Pan Alley Rag, Mark Saltzman's well-meaning musical, however, the two composers not only meet cute (Joplin, disguised as a composer's agent, appears in the office where Berlin works as a sheet-music publisher), they reminisce, play tunes, and dip together into a bottomless well of musical genius. Indeed the show, which premiered last summer in Los Angeles and opens here in a new production as the first fall event at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, is patterned on the parlor game of conjuring up dead celebrities and imagining what might happen if they were to sit down together -- in this case, at a piano.
"Mr. Joplin, I presume," says the young Berlin (played by Miami native David Norona) to the old man (Andre De Shields) who has just wandered into his storefront in Manhattan's Tin Pan Alley. Berlin realizes the person playing the piano for him is the original "King of Ragtime" because Joplin's spirited presentation of his own song immediately gives him away. Joplin fesses up but retorts, "I've heard Irving Berlin called the King of Ragtime." In truth, Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899) launched the nationwide craze for ragtime music, while Berlin's popular "Alexander's Ragtime Band," a huge hit in 1911, exemplified the fluffy showtunes on which he built his career.
This fictional meeting is set in 1915, when, according to the program notes, both men were living and working in New York. Joplin was two years away from his death from syphilis at age 49, while Berlin (who died at age 101 in 1989) was a mere 27, a young composer who supported himself by selling other people's songs.
Joplin goes to Berlin's office in hopes of persuading him to listen to Treemonisha, an opera he's been trying to publish for four years. (The rising black middle class that would soon spark the Harlem Renaissance wanted nothing to do with an opera about sharecroppers, it seems.) Berlin asks Joplin why he's no longer interested in ragtime, so Joplin tells the story of his career in flashbacks. Joplin is curious why Berlin won't push himself beyond the lighthearted tunes that made him famous, so the two revisit Berlin's career, too.
Along the way they perform snippets and full versions of their best-known works, including Joplin's "The Entertainer," revived in the 1973 film The Sting, and Berlin's "I Love a Piano." They also reprise songs more or less lost in obscurity, including "Moishe Sings an Irish Song," which explains how Berlin got his start singing in saloons, and Joplin's "I Want to See My Child Tonight," from Treemonisha. (The opera was produced on Broadway in the mid-Seventies but is still unfamiliar to most of us.)
Their stories come to life on Loren Sherman's handsome set, which features one grand and one upright piano, both situated slightly in front of a gigantic picture window looking out at the lights of New York's turn-of-the-century music boulevard. Through doors at each end of the stage, a wide range of folks come and go, among them characters from Treemonisha, the young wives each composer lost to early deaths, plus song-pluggers, valets, and other extras, not to mention the performers in a Havana nightclub who deliver an Afro-Cuban rendition of "Everybody's Doin' It Now" while the Berlins are honeymooning there.
What happens when Scott Joplin meets Irving Berlin? The notion of fixing up two historical figures is irresistible, of course, but in The Tin Pan Alley Rag there's none of the electricity we'd like to imagine around the meeting of great men. Nothing here compares to, say, Caryl Churchill's play Top Girls, which throws together Pope Joan, the ninth-century figure who is thought to have ruled the Catholic Church for a short time disguised as a man, and Lady Nijo, a thirteenth-century courtesan-turned-Buddhist nun, and lets them talk about feminist politics while snacking on profiteroles.
What's wrong? Certainly not Larry Sousa's choreography. His dancers, particularly in "Maple Leaf Rag," move like balletic flamingos, gorgeous and awkward at the same time. The cast, especially April Armstrong and Kate Dawson in multiple roles, is charming and in good voice. But the lack of chemistry between principals Norona and De Shields is a major shortcoming in this production. If they can't be happy in one another's company, how can we experience the thrill vicariously?
More treacherous, however, is the static design of the show itself. It's presented as a kind of illustrated lecture with music. While it tosses out a few interesting ideas about the nature of genius, The Tin Pan Alley Rag possesses no dramatic energy of its own. Its characters are too flat -- too nice, really -- to be interesting. A boorish, laconic, or rude Scott Joplin would be preferable to the noble statesman Saltzman has created (and which Alan Bailey directs De Shields to be). Likewise, why not let Berlin be an obnoxious egomaniac rather than the adorable mensch played by Norona?
Such quirks could have been put to good use as storytelling devices. Ragtime, a symphony conductor says to Joplin, is the result of a special kind of fusion that happens when a popular art form is made classical by a genius: "A simple minuet composed by Mozart or a cakewalk written by Scott Joplin." He's right, of course, and American pop culture is full of dozens of such examples, and not only in music. Look at what simple pen-and-ink doodlings become in the hands of The New Yorker cartoonist William Steig, or how the lowly comic book has been transformed by Art Spiegelman.
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.
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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.