“Fiddler on the Roof,” the great Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock, Joseph Stein musical, is kvelling again. It’s in Yiddish. A documentary about it is in movie theaters. A recent Broadway revival with reimagined choreography replacing Jerome Robbins iconic dances is now out on a national tour and set to make its Washington stop next month. Audiences can’t get enough of Tevye, his five daughters and the travails of the populace of fictional Anatevka.
But what happened after? A recent sequel, “After Anatevka” by Alexandra Silber, posits one set of stories. But long before that, the original book writer for “Fiddler,” Joseph Stein, had his own ideas.
Stein conceived and wrote the libretto for the 1983 musical “Rags,” set in the Lower East Side of New York in 1911, as a response to numerous queries about what’s after Anatevka. It tells the story of what happens to the people of the book — specifically the “Fiddler” book.
This weekend, a revival and revision of “Rags” will make its Washington-area premiere with a student cast from George Mason University’s School of Theatre.
While Stein didn’t actually follow Tevye, Golde and all the rest, “Rags” takes up where many Jews fleeing the pogroms ended up: on the Lower East Side working in the garment district.
This student production, directed by dean of the college of visual and performing arts Rick Davis, has been reimagined and rewritten by New Jersey-based playwright David Thompson (“The Scottsboro Boys”), with new lyrics and new songs contributed by composer Charles Strouse (“Annie”) and lyricist Stephen Schwartz (“Pippin” and “Wicked”).
Stein, who was the unofficial dean of New York playwrights during his heyday, originally wrote “Rags” as a screenplay, according to Thompson. “Somebody had asked him, ‘Hey, Joe, why don’t you write a story about what happens to the family in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ after they’ve left Anatevka?’ That was his original inspiration.”
Written in broad brushstrokes, it was a highly cinematic story about the larger Jewish immigrant experience. Stein explored what would have happened to families, not just Tevye’s family. “This was a look at any family that came from the pogroms at that time,” Thompson explained. After Stein finished his draft, he decided it would make a better musical.
Alas, “Rags” opened then closed on Broadway within four days.
“It was an enormous tapestry,” Thompson said with equanimity. “I didn’t know much about the piece other than the fact that people had always loved it, the score of it anyway, and, for one reason or another, it just didn’t land on its feet when it opened. That happens.”
When Strouse and Schwartz reached out to him to re-imagine and rewrite the show, Thompson said, “We jumped into it and made major changes to a good portion of it …. The story has been rewritten and the piece has been refocused using inspiration from Joe’s original stories and also from Stephen and Charles’s score.”
Instead of many family stories, “Rags” now focuses on one: Rebecca, who has fled Russia for the Lower East Side with her young son to build a new life. She finds herself in a small tenement with six other immigrants doing piece work — sewing projects paid by the finished piece. Like so many others, she longs to earn enough to open her own shop and move up town — away from the teeming streets and cramped, unhealthy tenements.
Thompson said he was inspired by a visit to the Tenement Museum and the depiction of the life of a Jewish family that did piece work to support themselves in a cramped apartment. “The story of ‘Rags,’” he added, “is all about how you grab hold of that American dream. Of course, as we know, it’s never that easy. No matter how much you want it, it’s not always there for you.” His script remains under development during this George Mason production, following a 2018 run at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut and Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, England.
Thompson noted how relevant “Rags” central premise remains today. “The Lower East Side in the early 1900s was very vibrant,” he explained. “You’re not only looking at an extraordinary number of people moving in and the emergence of a completely new workforce. But also coming out of this is a true passion for social justice; those were early days of the labor movement, especially when you get to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911.” The devastating and infamous fire plays a role in the musical.
The premise of “Rags” following up on “Fiddler on the Roof” can’t be more relevant today, Thompson said.
“During that period of time there was a lot of unrest against immigration, which is — and I can’t underscore this enough — why we found this story so compelling and important to tell now. Because it’s that American immigrant experience that defined us, and is so much in the news today, although for all the wrong reasons.”
“Rags,” for Thompson, draws on that Jewish experience to tell this undeniably American story.
“Rags,” Oct. 31-Nov. 3, George Mason University School of Theater, Center for the Arts Concert Hall, 4373 Mason Pond Dr., Fairfax; $15-$30; call 703-993-2787 or visit cfa.gmu.edu/tickets.