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Cherished Tintypes

The Melting Pot Theatre revives the beloved, 1981 collection of American songs from the late 19th century through the First World War. logo
Michele Ragusa, Mark Lotito, Johmaalya Adelekan,
Josh Alexander (front), and Christine Rea in Tintypes
(Photo: Kevin Fox)
Had artistic director Larry Hirschhorn had his way, Tintypes would have been the first show presented by his Melting Pot Theatre when the Off-Broadway company formed six years ago; but, at the time, he couldn't secure the rights to the 1981 Tony-nominated musical. In the days before the September 11 terrorist attacks, however, Hirschhorn had to decide to replace an original musical that wasn't quite ready to be staged. He considered bringing back the company's much-heralded production of Woody Guthrie's American Song, but opted instead to do Tintypes shortly after the Twin Towers fell.

A musical potpourri of American songs from the post-Civil War era through World War I, Tintypes opened Off-Broadway in 1979 and transferred to Broadway the following year with a cast that included Jerry Zaks (later a director of note) and Lynne Thigpen (later a Tony Award winner for An American Daughter). Although the show contains its share of flag-waving, patriotic songs including "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "You're a Grand Old Flag," it has a darker side as well; numbers such as "She's Getting More Like the White Folks Every Day" and "When It's All Goin' Out and Nothin's Comin' In" examine the racial and economic gap that divided the country at the turn of the century.

"I think it has a little more resonance and will probably have more impact right now," Hirschhorn says. "There are some patriotic numbers, but the show also explores the terrible bigotry and racism of the time and the horrible working conditions in the factories. It's about the loss of innocence. Back then, everything was a discovery, everything was new. The beginning of World War I is when the country really started to change in many ways."

Director Nick Corley and choreographer Jennifer Paulson Lee were struck by how much that era parallels our own, especially in light of recent events. "The turn of the century was this hugely optimistic time, very much like the late 1960s-early '70s," says Corley, his enthusiasm showing in his piercing blue eyes as he takes a moment to discuss the show in a hallway outside a rehearsal room at Second Stage Theatre. "Then followed the decade of industrial revolution, the equivalent of the technological revolution in our time. The turn of the century gave way to an era of greed, when the haves and have-nots separated in a very large way; the tone of a lot of stuff became very ironic and edgy, just like the humor of the late 1990s, but then World War I made them put a lot of that aside. The fabric that was pulling apart came back together. Well, the same thing happened to us: A lot of the issues and ugly things that were in the papers right before [September 11] disappeared and everyone came together." As a result, Corley and Lee have opted to put added emphasis on the World War I era at the end of the show.

Another change in the ending has nothing to do with the current political climate: The creators are now able to use the song they originally wanted for the finale, Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which they couldn't get the rights to 20 years ago. (Tintypes previously ended with a number called "Smiles.") "Being quite an irascible old fellow, [Berlin] insisted that he was going to do a revue of his own work himself and that he didn't want to let anything out," recalls composer Mel Marvin, a member of the Melting Pot advisory board, who created Tintypes with Mary Kyte and Gary Pearle. In the last 20 years, however, the song has entered the public domain.

For the most part, rights weren't much of a problem for the creators even 20 years ago; all but six of the show's 40-plus numbers were in the public domain back then, according to Marvin. But Tintypes is more than the sum of its songs, as Corley and Lee discovered through their exploration of the show. They were grateful for the opportunity to meet with the three creators and discuss the significance of individual numbers to the unfolding drama. As an example, Lee points to the second act opener, "The Ragtime Dance." On the surface, it's a jaunty, playful tune; but, as it's used in the show, it also functions as a preview of tough times ahead. During the song and dance, tension mounts between the five characters as they begin to size each other up and compete to see who will end up on top.

"Frankly, it's been a great learning experience," observes Lee as she finishes off her lunch. "The show also deals with the psychology of what we think America is and what we learn that it really is. There is no simple, one-sentence description of this country."

The show is most often classified as a revue, but loosely woven narratives involving the five characters emerge between numbers. At various times, the actors represent immigrants, the working class, and people of privilege; but they also play notable public figures from the period, including Teddy Roosevelt, musical comedy star Anna Held, and anarchist Emma Goldman. "We at one point called it a revusical," Marvin says. "It's really a musical, except it's done in a sort of revue format." He proudly points out that one of Tintypes' Tony nominations was for Best Book of a Musical. "We loved that, because we had plotted this thing so intricately."

Although his primary field is composition, Marvin--whose other credits include the musicals The Book of Candy and Great Expectations--was invited to join the Tintypes creative team at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where the show was developed. Already an expert on turn-of-the-century American music thanks to his grandmother's old 78 records, he used the Library of Congress as a resource to search for period songs, many long-forgotten, that would be appropriate for the show.

"The way we wrote is that we sat down and talked about the era, what it was about," Marvin explains. "We were very interested in Teddy Roosevelt and jingoism, and what Emma Goldman's political force said as the opposite of that. We were also interested in events like the opening of the Panama Canal, the war in Cuba, and the Ziegfeld Follies." Along the way, songs were reinterpreted to fit the authors' purposes. For example: A Victor Herbert ditty called "I Want What I Want When I Want It," about a man's desire for women, is sung in Tintypes by Teddy Roosevelt to express his yearning for the Panama Canal.

If finding a correlation between the past and present came easily for Corley and Lee, casting was another story. Over the last two decades, musicals have taken on a more serious tone and have often embraced a contemporary pop sound, so it wasn't easy to find performers who could master the show's style. "I was amazed at all the people who auditioned who didn't have a musical comedy song [in their audition repertoire]," Corley says. "You ask someone if they have something funny and they sing a Beach Boys song. We needed people bigger-than-life performers, not just actors. It's really five stars working as an ensemble."

The cast that Corley and Lee finally came up with features a quintet of Broadway veterans, including Johmaalya Adelekan and Michele Ragusa (Ragtime), Josh Alexander (Taller Than a Dwarf), Mark Lotito (Marie Christine), and Christine Rea (Jesus Christ Superstar). Corley himself has been very busy working two shifts, directing Tintypes even as he rehearsed and then began to perform the role of Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.

Perhaps it's inevitable that he would find similarities between the two shows. "There is a tie-in," he says. "Both Tintypes and A Christmas Carol say that the quality of our lives is about the people we touch during our time. It's that energy that moves us forward."

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