Nobody knows if Scott Joplin ever knew Irving Berlin. In The Tin Pan Alley Rag, Mark Saltzman's well-meaning musical, however, the two composers not only meet cute (Joplin, disguised as a composer's agent, appears in the office where Berlin works as a sheet-music publisher), they reminisce, play tunes, and dip together into a bottomless well of musical genius. Indeed the show, which premiered last summer in Los Angeles and opens here in a new production as the first fall event at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, is patterned on the parlor game of conjuring up dead celebrities and imagining what might happen if they sat down together -- in this case, at a piano.
"Mr. Joplin, I presume," says the young Berlin (played by Miami native David Norona) to the old man (Andre De Shields) who has just wandered into his storefront in Manhattan's Tin Pan Alley. Berlin realizes the person playing the piano for him is the original "King of Ragtime" because Joplin's spirited presentation of his own song immediately gives him away. Joplin 'fesses up but retorts, "I've heard Irving Berlin called the King of Ragtime." In truth Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899) launched the nationwide craze for ragtime music, while Berlin's popular "Alexander's Ragtime Band," a huge hit in 1911, exemplified the fluffy show tunes on which he built his career.
This fictional meeting is set in 1915, when, according to the program notes, both men were living and working in New York. Joplin was two years away from his death from syphilis at age 49, while Berlin (who died at age 101 in 1989) was merely 27 years old, a young composer who supported himself by selling other people's songs.
Joplin goes to Berlin's office in hopes of persuading him to listen to Treemonisha, an opera he's been trying to publish for four years. (The rising black middle class that would soon spark the Harlem Renaissance did not want anything to do with an opera about sharecroppers, it seems.) Berlin asks Joplin why he's no longer interested in ragtime, so Joplin tells him the story of his career in flashbacks. Joplin is curious why Berlin won't push himself beyond the lighthearted tunes that made him famous, so the two revisit Berlin's career, too.
Along the way they perform snippets and full versions of their best-known works, including Joplin's "The Entertainer," revived in the 1973 film The Sting, and Berlin's "I Love a Piano," as well as songs more or less lost to obscurity, including "Moishe Sings an Irish Song," which explains how Berlin got his start singing in saloons, and Joplin's "I Want to See My Child Tonight," from Treemonisha. (The opera was eventually produced in the mid-'70s but is still unfamiliar to most of us.)
Their stories come to life on Loren Sherman's handsome set, which features one grand and one upright piano, both situated slightly in front of a gigantic picture window looking out at the lights of New York's turn-of-the-century music boulevard. Through doors at each end of the stage, a wide range of folks come and go, among them characters from Treemonisha; the young wives both composers lost to early deaths; plus song-pluggers, valets, and other extras, not to mention the performers in a Havana nightclub who deliver an Afro-Cuban rendition of "Everybody's Doin' It" while the Berlins are honeymooning there.
What happens when Scott Joplin meets Irving Berlin? The notion of fixing up two historical figures is irresistible, of course, but in The Tin Pan Alley Rag, there's none of the electricity we'd like to imagine around the meeting of great men. Nothing here compares to, say, Caryl Churchill's play Top Girls, which throws together Pope Joan, the ninth-century figure who, disguised as a man, is thought to have ruled the Catholic Church for a short time, and Lady Nijo, a 13th-century courtesan turned Buddhist nun, and lets them talk about feminist politics while snacking on profiteroles.
What's wrong? Larry Sousa's choreography certainly isn't. His dancers, particularly in "Maple Leaf Rag," move like balletic flamingos, gorgeous and awkward at the same time. The cast -- especially April Armstrong and Kate Dawson in multiple roles -- is charming and in good voice. But the lack of chemistry between principals Norona and De Shields is a major shortcoming in this production. If they can't be happy in one another's company, how can we experience the thrill vicariously?
More treacherous, however, is the static design of the show itself. It's presented as a kind of illustrated lecture with music. While it tosses out a few interesting ideas about the nature of genius, The Tin Pan Alley Rag possesses no dramatic energy of its own. Its characters are too flat -- too nice, really -- to be interesting. A boorish, laconic, or rude Scott Joplin would be preferable to the noble statesman Saltzman has created (and who Alan Bailey directs De Shields to be). Likewise why not let Berlin be an obnoxious egomaniac rather than the adorable mensch played by Norona?
Such quirks could have been put to good use as storytelling devices. Ragtime, says a symphony conductor to Scott Joplin, is the result of a special kind of fusion that happens when a popular art form is made classical by a genius: "A simple minuet composed by Mozart or a cakewalk written by Scott Joplin." He's right, of course, and American pop culture is full of dozens of such examples, and not just in music. Look at what simple pen-and-ink doodlings become in the hands of New Yorker cartoonist William Steig, or how the lowly comic book has been transformed by Art Spiegelman.