Thoughts on Immigrants Then and Now, Thanks to Rags: An American Musical

I encourage you to go quickly to see Rags: An American Musical (by Joseph Stein-book, Charles Strouse-music, Stephen Schwartz-lyrics, and David Thompson (revised book) now playing at the Goodspeed Opera House. There are only a few days left, but it is worth shuffling your schedule around to experience this timely story about immigrants coming to America. Though it is set in 1910 on the Lower East Side, one can see how it applies with immigration issues today.  I sincerely hope “Rags” runs at other venues because it is one of those shows that every American needs to see!

The “melting pot” of characters–especially leads Samantha Massell, (Rebecca),Sean MacLaughlin (Sal), Adam Heller (Avram), and Sad Kapner (Bella)— show us their struggles, their tenacity, their cultural assimilation, their traditions. How they had to deal with prejudices of earlier waves of immigrants and the “elite” in society.  They were so brave!

I won’t tell too much more as I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the plot, the score, and the stage designs will make you stand-up and cheer for your own immigrant ancestors no matter what time period they came to America. Thank you, Buzzi and Ossola family from Italy, Sammuelson and Granat family from Sweden. Thank you, Richards, Way, Knight, and Morse families from England!

I want to share this quote that was in the playbook by one of the authors, David Thompson who shared a passage he read in one of the guidebooks immigrants were given at Ellis Island:

“Holdfast, this is most necessary in America, forget your customs and your ideals. Select a goal and pursue it with all your might…You will experience a bad time, but sooner or later you will achieve your goal. If you are neglectful, beware the wheel for fortune turns fast. You will lose your grip and be lost. A bit of advice for you: Do not take a moment’s rest. Run, do, work and keep your own good in mind. A final virtue is needed in America—called cheek.  Do not say, ‘I cannot, I do not know.'”

I wonder if any of my relatives or yours read this pamphlet? From what I’ve researched and hear through family stories, many of the self-made could have indeed read this and taken this advice to heart.

Thank you— authors, producers and cast of Rags for this truly timeless production. The ending especially made me stand up and cheer for immigrant folks coming into the United States today! They face the same hopes, fears, prejudices as did our ancestors. Maybe even more so with talks of building walls and deportation.

Whether or not you get to see Rags: An American Musical, what more can we do as individuals and as a society to be more welcoming and helpful to those coming in?


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