Rags is a musical with a book by Joseph Stein, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, and music by Charles Strouse.
The Broadway production opened on August 21, 1986 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre with little advance sale and to mostly indifferent reviews, and it closed after only four performances (and 18 previews). Directed by Gene Saks and choreographed by Ron Field, the cast included Teresa Stratas, Larry Kert, Lonny Price, Judy Kuhn, Dick Latessa, Marcia Lewis, and Terrence Mann. Despite its failure, it garnered a good deal of attention during the awards season.
In 1991, Sony released a studio recording of the score. It featured most of the original cast joined by Julia Migenes replacing Stratas.
A few years after the Broadway closing, in 1991, the creators reunited to present a dramatically rewritten and severely streamlined production at Manhattan's Jewish Repertory Theatre. Later yet, they reworked the show again, staging it first at Florida's Coconut Grove Playhouse (February 1999) and then the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in November 1999. 1
This synopsis applies to the rewritten production and not the show that originally appeared on Broadway. As such, some musical numbers and subplots are not accounted for.
As a ship bearing hopeful immigrants steams toward Ellis Island, a lone passenger reflects on the life she has left behind ("I Remember"). Rebecca Hershkowitz, a Jewish woman, has fled Russia with her young son David, hoping to find her husband, Nathan, who left for America years before and never wrote back to his family. Rebecca has made friends with Bella Cohen, a teenager emigrating to America with her father Avram ("If We Never Meet Again"); her brother Herschel remains behind in Russia. Bella has fallen in love with Ben, another passenger, but Avram does not approve.
On Ellis Island, the unfeeling immigration officials treat the immigrants like animals ("Greenhorns"). With no male relative to claim them, Rebecca and David are in danger of immediate deportation until Bella begs Avram to rescue her friend. Avram pretends that Rebecca is his sister, and persuades his brother, who lives in a tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to let Rebecca and David stay for the night. Bella, Rebecca and David marvel at the strange new sights in the streets below ("Brand New World"). Rebecca still feels lonely, and wishes that she can give her son a real home ("Children of The Wind").
Rebecca searches for her husband and takes a job sewing in a sweatshop, while David helps Rachel, a widow, sell trinkets out of her market stall. Bella works at home as a seamstress; confined to the tenement, she pines for Ben. Ben pretended that he had a wealthy uncle who would provide for him, but in reality, he has no uncle and works in a cigar factory. Avram, though an educated man in "the old country," hawks goods as a street vendor. Even so, the new immigrants remain upbeat ("Penny A Tune"). However, the business owners in the neighborhood are preyed upon by Mr. Rosen, a greedy man who demands they pay him for protection from his thugs.
Saul, a union supporter, confronts Rebecca, urging her to open her eyes to her poor treatment and unfair wages; he suggests that he better herself through education. Saul teaches Rebecca and David how to speak English, and tries to instill American values in them ("Easy For You"). To broaden their horizons, he takes them to see Hamlet as performed by a Jewish theatre troupe ("Hard To Be A Prince"). Rebecca realizes that she is falling in love with Saul ("Blame It On The Summer Night").
Ben comes to visit Bella, and admits he is only a factory worker. He has a new plan, to sell gramophones, and demonstrates one for her ("For My Mary"). As they dance, Avram returns and throws Ben out, forbidding Bella from ever seeing the boy again. Bella flies into a rage and accuses her father of not allowing her to achieve her own American dream ("Rags").
Meanwhile, Nathan, Rebecca's husband, is contemplating his position in the ranks of Tammany Hall, where he is promised great things if he manages to secure the Jewish vote for an anti-union Democratic candidate ("What's Wrong With That?"). He believes his wife is still in Russia until he discovers that she has placed an ad in the paper seeking him.
At the street market, Mr. Rosen comes to collect his bribes from the shopkeepers. Emboldened by the Socialist doctrine Saul has taught him, David stands up for Rachel and is beaten by Rosen's thugs. Rebecca blames Saul for corrupting her son and vows that she won't be fooled by any more idealistic notions of America. Nathan suddenly arrives to collect his wife and son ("Nothing Will Hurt Us Again").
Nathan explains to Rebecca and David how he has managed to climb up from the ghetto of the lower East side to a better life ("Yankee Boy"). Rebecca is unsettled that her husband has given himself the American name "Nat Harris" and distances himself from the Jewish community; however, she also likes the idea of having a better life for her son ("Uptown"). She also longs for Saul, though they both realize their love can never be ("Wanting").
Avram and Rachel have fallen in love, enabling Avram to move out of his brother's house and provide Bella with a more stable family life ("Three Sunny Rooms"). Bella and David help Ben sell his "Magic Music Machine" to excited customers ("The Sound Of Love"). The three are natural salesmen, and Bella is delighted to think that soon they will have enough money to marry. To help out, she goes against her father's wishes and takes a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory ("Rags" reprise).
Rebecca accompanies Nathan to a costume party and feels unhappy with her husband, who acts ashamed of her. When David interrupts the party to tell Rebecca of a fire at Bella's shop, Nathan forbids her to leave. Knowing Bella is in danger, she goes anyway, but it is too late. Bella has jumped to her death from the burning building. Avram is destroyed by the death of his daughter, and Rebecca is confused and guilty ("Kaddish").
Rebecca leads the sweatshop workers in a strike protesting the unsafe conditions that lead to the deaths of the girls at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory ("Bread and Freedom"). As the demonstration reaches near-riot levels, Nathan shows up to try and persuade his wife to come home with him. Rebecca sees Saul in the crowd and knows she must follow her heart and stand up for what is right ("Dancing With The Fools"). She refuses Nathan.
Avram is still grieving for Bella and is planning to return to Russia and the son, Herschel, he left behind when Ben comes to pay his respects. He tells Avram that leaving America would mean Bella died for nothing and gives him the gramophone, which plays a recording of Bella's voice. While Rebecca sings of her new life with Saul and David, Rachel and Avram welcome Herschel off the boat as a new wave of immigrants arrive ("Children of The Wind reprise/Finale").
Songs marked with an (*) are not included on the Cast Recording. Songs marked with a (^) are not consistently included in later versions of the musical.
**This song was originally scripted to be sung by Ben almost immediately after "If We Never Meet Again", however it was changed for the original Broadway production.
Awards and nominations