Volume 79, Number 7 | July 22 - 28, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Theater

Photo by Joan Marcus

Michael Boatman, left, as Scott Joplin and Michael Therriault as Irving Berlin

High above Tin Pan Alley, Joplin and Berlin meet

Imaginary scenario unites two musical greats

BY JERRY TALLMER

Come on and hear,
Come un and hear :
Alexander’s Ragtime Band,
Come on and hear,
Come on and hear:
It’s the best band in the land!
They can play a bugle call
Like you never heard before,
So natural that you want to go to war
That’s just the bestest band what am,
My Honey Lamb!
                  ***
Come on along, come on along,
Let me take you by the hand
Up to the man, up to the man
Who’s the leader of the band,
And if you want to hear
The Swanee River played in ragtime
Come on and hear,
Alexander’s Ragtime Band  

If you hear that music and those words, or approximately those words, come soaring in (or soaring up) toward the end of “The Tin Pan Alley Rag,” your heart should leap along with mine just thinking in cold print about the miracle of Izzy Baline.

A basically fatherless product of the far Lower East Side, he’d been born in Russia in 1888 and left us 101 years and 1,000 songs later — words and music, by a guy who couldn’t (and never learned to) read music.

In my mercifully distant younger days, I used to think Irving Berlin was square, and thought anyone who liked Berlin-penned songs such as “God bless America!” to be equally square. Turns out I was square. Irving Berlin is part of every living person’s bloodstream. Just face the music and dance.

Scott Joplin is — nowadays — an acquired taste, though he and his Ragtime was far more than a casual influence on Berlin himself in the years leading up to World War I. That, in fact, is the nexus of ‘The Tin Pan Alley Rag” — in which writer Mark Saltzman imagines a seminal face-to-face between the young white Jewish and the 20-years-older black post-slavery prodigies.

Saltzman, who was born in the Bronx and grew up in Yonkers, well remembers the first person who raved to him about Irving Berlin.

“It was my Uncle Simon, a subway conductor on the IRT. He, like a lot of Jewish New Yorkers of his generation, considered Irving Berlin a folk hero — especially after Berlin’s courtship of the beautiful Princess in the fairy tale” — Ellen McKay, Berlin’s second and thereafter lifelong wife, to whom and for whom he wrote “I’ll be loving you, always.” Ellen McKay hasn’t come into Berlin’s life yet in “The Tin Pan Alley Rag,” which ends with the death of Scott Joplin — at 49 — in 1917; just as the United States is about to enter World War I.

“It was when I started taking piano lessons,” says Saltzman, “that people started giving me sheet music,” much of which bespoke the songs of The Hero. “And then you hear ‘White Christmas’ every year” — willy-nilly, Jewish or not.

Back to World War I, my own father’s war. It was my father who throughout my early childhood would sing “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” from the Army show “Yip Yip Yaphank,” where he and I believe Pvt. Irving Berlin had been stationed.

I never thought that song would be running through my head every day at reveille during the bigger war — my war — that followed. Or that it still rings in my head almost every early morning during all the years since, and now.

“And the saddest part of all is to hear the bugler call: ‘Ya gotta get up, ya gotta get up…’”

Square? I do not think so.

“War,” says Saltzman, “was always good for the music business. Like any other business.” So when did Mark Saltzman first become aware of the ragtime of Scott Joplin?

“Let’s see. Probably in the early ’70s (Saltzman was born in 1951), though not with ‘The Sting’ (the 1973 Newman/Redford/Robert Shaw film that rediscovered Joplin’s ragtime), but from a 1970s album by Jonathan Riskin where he plays rag as classical music — plays it with such love, and devotion, and care. That was the first time I ever heard ragtime as serious music.”

He was turning 20 at the time.

And when did Saltzman put two and two together and get four? That is, that there could be theater in the fictional meeting of a Berlin and a Scott Joplin in a tin-pan music-publishing office (Snyder & Berlin) on cacaphonic Tin Pan Alley circa 1915?

“Not as a blinding flash, more as a slow bleed. Starting around 1997 when I started wondering what could make these two characters be in the same room at the same time.”

And hit upon (1) Joplin’s long-frustrated desire to get someone to look at and stage and publish the score of “Treemonisha,” Johnson’s ragtime opera about life and loss that had to wait 50 years after his death for that in fact to happen; and (2) the happenstance that the beloved first wives of both these men were snatched away by the grim reaper before each marriage had fairly begun.

“I started writing it in 1995, had a reading at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1997; then, a production most recently in Jupiter, Florida — and am still trying to get it right,” said good-humored Saltzman the day before opening night here in NYC. “We had to reach all the way to Toronto to find our Irving Berlin [Michael Theriault], but I was already a fan of Michael Boatman [the show’s Scott Joplin]  from television’s ‘Spin City.’ ”

Saltzman, who is closing out his 50s, has done some television and film writing of his own — which is why he and his domestic partner, computer whiz Ron Gutierrez, now are “temporarily stationed” in Los Angeles. “I’m a social climber,” Saltzman even more cheerfully adds.

He was particularly pleased when Irving and Ellen Verlin’s two daughters, Mary Ellen Barrett and Linda Emmett, came backstage and said nice things after a preview. Uncle Simon has yet to be heard from. He’s been over there on a seat of the Upstairs Rapid Transit, schmoosing with his pal Oiving.

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