When Scott Met Irving ... or Didn't


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ITS one of Mark Saltzmans favorite moments in his play with music, The Tin Pan Alley Rag, and he wont even take the credit.

Near the end of the show, which imagines a meeting between the composers Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin, Joplin responds to a painful memory by playing “Bethena", a ragtime waltz he wrote in 1905. And when he plays, nothing else happens. There are no words, no dances, no set changes. Theres just the sound of a classic piece of American music.

The Tin Pan Alley Rag is in previews at the Roundabouts Laura Pels Theater (it opens July 14), and for Mr. Saltzman, whos been a fan of Joplins ragtime for more than 30 years, the wordless scene is a risk that pays off. Its kind of rare in the theater for it all to boil down to a piece of music, Mr. Saltzman said. (That music is played live by offstage pianists while actors sit at pianos, hands obscured.) You wonder if people are going to be fidgety, or if they're going to say, We didnt pay for a piano concert.

Im so happy when I see that the audience is listening to this music as intently as if theyre listening to dialogue, he said. I feel some kind of personal triumph about that.

Yet despite the Bethena moment, The Tin Pan Alley Rag is not a jukebox musical (or Victrola musical) of hits from pre-Depression America. Mr. Saltzman and the director, Stafford Arima, have created a show about the lives, work and aesthetics of two influential songwriters without relying heavily on their songs.

Joplins and Berlins tunes do figure throughout the production, but they are often subservient to the plot. Joplin (Michael Boatman) might play a section of his “Maple Leaf Rag", but it underscores a scene about his past. The ensemble might sing “I Love a Piano", an early chestnut from Berlin (Michael Therriault), but the number is interspersed with dialogue.

Mr. Arima, who is best known for directing splashy musicals like Altar Boyz and (coincidentally) Ragtime, said he likes using the music this way. Our instincts in the musical theater are about buttoning the numbers or extending them, he said. By avoiding that musical comedy feel, we allow the audience to focus on the story instead of the greatest hits. I want them to discover who these men were and not just wait for the next song they know.

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