"Rags" is one of those Broadway musicals famous for still having potential.
About the American immigration experience in the early 20th century, the show was created by a team of Broadway all-stars: book writer Joseph Stein ("Fiddler on the Roof"), composer Charles Strouse ("Annie," "Bye Bye Birdie"), lyricist Stephen Schwartz ("Godspell," "Pippin") and director Gene Saks ("Mame," "Brighton Beach Memoirs").
"Rags" ran for only 18 previews and four regular performances on Broadway in August of 1986. The show underwent numerous revisions at regional theaters. There was a notable reworking just three years ago in Florida.
Now "Rags" is renewed again. Strouse and Schwartz have reunited for extensive rewrites alongside a new book writer, David Thompson (Stein died in 2010) and director Rob Ruggiero. The show began performances at the Goodspeed Opera House Oct. 6 and is there through Dec. 10.
"I spent a year of my life in the making of this," says director Rob Ruggiero, in a phone interview following a September rehearsal. Ruggiero is perhaps best known in Connecticut as the producing artistic director of TheaterWorks, but Ruggiero has also been a regular director at the Goodspeed for the past decade.
"The Goodspeed suggested 'Rags' to me. It had the Goodspeed mission written all over it. We all believed it should be revisited. So we went to [Stephen Schwartz and Charles Strouse]. And they said no!" Ruggiero says, laughing.
The creators were only interested in a new production of the show if it underwent an overhaul.
"They said we could only do it if we didn't just rearrange the deck chairs. They wanted to pull it completely apart." Ruggiero, who has helped develop a number of musicals from scratch, including the hit "Ella," was happy to oblige.
This new version, which the creative team hopes could become the official version of "Rags" used when other theaters want to stage the show, has removed what were once central characters, dropped some songs and added new ones, changed the context or the singers for some of those songs, and reduced the size of the cast from 29 to 15.
It stars Samantha Massell as Rebecca, a young woman with a talent for needlework who is embarking on a new life in a new world. The central setting of the show is now a tenement apartment, which Ruggiero says is "like another character. The apartment is both a character and an interactive piece of scenery."
"We're seeing it though a more intimate lens," Ruggiero says. "The original had so many stories wanting to be told that it was fighting with itself a little bit. It was always meant to be Rebecca's story. She's still the heroine, and she's a younger woman and a fuller character."
When asked what parts of "Rags" remain the same, Ruggiero says, "At this point, it's hard to tell."
He describes the rewriting process as "very collaborative. We all got in each other's business."
Schwartz is best known as a composer, with such hits as "Wicked," "Godspell" and "Pippin." But he's also shaped American musical theater in other ways — as the co-librettist and director of "Working," for example. In a phone call from his home in Ridgefield, Schwartz talks about how he came to be the lyricist for "Rags."
"I was originally approached about directing it. I get sufficient opportunities to be the composer, I don't need to always be that. Working with Charles [Strouse], we realized that the story was best brought out through writing the music first, then doing the lyrics. It made sense for me to be that person. But I didn't want to be the director and the lyricist. I think I ultimately made a good choice.
"We've invented the word 'revisal' for this," Schwartz says. "There's a new book and a lot of changes. This is significantly different from the previous versions. It was enjoyable and exciting to go back to the basic story.
"The nice thing about theater is that it's a living medium. You can always change it. There were a bunch of things when 'Rags' first happened that made it difficult to solve. While there were wonderful things in it, we never did solve the structure."
Schwartz also reworked his 1976 musical "The Baker's Wife' in 2002 for the Goodspeed, and his musical/revue hybrid "Snapshots" in 2013. The Goodspeed's 2006 production of "Pippin" went on a national tour.
"I like them there," he says of the theater. "They're supportive. They get first-class actors, designers and directors."
The casting process for "Rags" was also collaborative, he says. He knew Massell from productions of his musical "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Sara Kapner, who plays Bella, appeared in Schwartz's musical for children "Captain Louie."
Just as the new "Rags" begins its run at Goodspeed, Schwartz finds himself "inconveniently simultaneously" working on an adaptation of the animated film "Prince of Egypt," which had its premiere Oct. 6 at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in California. He says he's been flying from coast to coast frequently to work on both shows.
He's insanely busy, but admits that now is the perfect time for a "Rags" revival.
"The impetus in Goodspeed's coming to us," Schwartz says, "is the obvious timeliness. We did a lot of research into the attitude toward musicals in the time that the show takes place, and it's extremely similar. There was literally a politician at that time who wanted to build a wall to keep the immigrants out."
Ruggiero, too, acknowledges the newfound relevance of "Rags."
"There's a lyric that goes 'Take our country back.' But we started working on this last September. All this material was written before it became current events.
"We never set out to do anything but to bring this story to life."
RAGS plays through Dec. 10 at the Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam. Performances are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m. There are also 6:30 p.m. Sunday evening performances through Nov. 5, and 2 p.m. Thursday matinees beginning Nov. 9. Tickets are $40 to $85. 860-873-8668, goodspeed.org.