The Hope Mill Theatre open their 2019 season with Stephen Schwartz’s RAGS the Musical. It’s a heart-warming and powerful tale of a group of Jewish immigrants that embark on starting a new life in America.
The story centres around a young mother and her son, fresh from Ellis Island, who is searching for a new life as the 20thcentury beckons. I spoke to Olivier award-winning actor Rebecca Trehearn who is taking on the role of the young mother Rebecca in the show.
“My character Rebecca has turned up to New York after a really hazardous journey and the musical follows their trials and tribulations,” Rebecca explained. “We show the difficulties they face for not being American, even though America is a nation of immigrants. So we are dealing with a real melting pot of different cultures, there are Irish Americans, German Jews, Italian Americans and I think the centre of conflict in the piece comes from that. It’s these communities colliding and attempting to figure each other out.”
The style of Stephen Schwartz’s musical is a real mixture. “It really covers every genre because that is the story we are telling. You have your traditional big romantic ballads, love duets, traditional Jewish music, ragtime and even some Irish balladeering,” Rebecca explained. “We have four fantastic actor musicians too as part of the company and they are brilliant. It is so lovely to see them on stage and see the instruments they are working with.”
Rebecca is a Russian immigrant who has lost her husband in Russia, but arrives in America with her friend David and Bella who are immigrants too. “We follow Rebecca’s experience and her attempt to make sense of the world she has found herself in and naturalise and integrate without losing the traditions she has grown up with that are a huge part of her identity,” Rebecca said.
“What this version does is it places Rebecca’s story more at the forefront, in previous versions it was arguably trying to tell too many stories in one go so the focus is very much on hers and her son’s journey.
“She is a really interesting character because she is probably fairly uneducated, she has come from this very traditional small village that she has been forced to flee, yet she is very progressive in the way that she thinks. She is ambitious and fully prepared to use her skills to get ahead. Ultimately for her it is all about creating a better world for her son, that is her primary focus and everything is in service of him.”
This is Rebecca’s first time performing at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester. “I’d always been aware of the venue for a while despite it being relatively new, it seems to have made an impression very quickly which is quite something,” she said. “What’s exciting is that we are in a building that used to be a working mill, and it’s an area that I believe in Manchester had a lot of Jewish immigration in the period our show is set in. So there will be people in the local area that have lived this story and certainly generations above them have too.”
Known for her roles in Ghost, Dogfight, Show Boat and most recently Sweet Charity, this is a completely new adventure for her. “Vocally it’s challenging, it’s a big sing and a real mix of styles. It’s always a challenge to get under somebody’s skin. It’s an experience far from any experience I’ve ever lived, but that is the fun of being an actor,” Rebecca said.
Ultimately RAGS the Musical is a story of love, loss and hope. It’s a heartfelt and uplifting story that celebrates the multitudes of cultures that filled the streets of New York back in 1910.
“Primarily I want our audiences to have a great night, I think that’s always the main thing as we are there to entertain, but it is a very thought-provoking piece and if there are people out there that feel one way about immigration, I hope we are able to open their hearts and minds to it,” Rebecca said. “If people leave with more empathy than they arrived with then I think we’ve done our job.”
RAGS the Musical opens on Sat 2 March until Sat 6 April, tickets and information can be found on the Hope Mill Theatre’s website.