Ragtime

The Director's Take

By Dennis Razze

Most people are familiar with the musical genre of ragtime because of the 1973 film The Sting, starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman. For the film, composer Marvin Hamlisch adapted the music of 1890s composer Scott Joplin, who was known as the “King of Ragtime” for his catchy compositions such as “The Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer.” Ragtime composers like Joplin found a way to combine the musical style of African-American jigs and cakewalks with the marches of John Philip Sousa.

Ragtime was primarily played on the piano and used a strict left hand alternating bass with syncopated or “ragged” melody lines played by the right. The effect of the two opposing rhythms was an almost hypnotic sound that made listeners tap their feet or get up on their feet and dance to this marvelous music. Ragtime further developed into scores for a small orchestra and became the most popular music in America up until the First World War. Who can forget Irving Berlin’s first major hit, the 1911 anthem “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”?

One of the great modern American novelists of the last century, E.L. Doctorow, used the term “ragtime” as the title of his 1975 novel, which is considered one of the best American novels of the 20th century. Doctorow’s novel was later adapted into a film directed by Milos Forman in 1981, which starred the incomparable James Cagney and a very young Elizabeth McGovern. In 1996, the novel was translated into a brilliant musical by composer Stephen Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, and playwright Terrence McNally.

Doctorow’s novel tells the story of three groups—a wealthy white family living in New Rochelle, New York, African-Americans living in Harlem, and a group of European immigrants arriving at Ellis Island and searching for the American dream in the ghettos of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Intertwined with the fictional characters of each group are real historical figures from the beginning of the 20th century, such as Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, Evelyn Nesbit, J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, and Henry Ford.

The new musical Ragtime was a huge and lavish show that first premiered in Toronto in 1996 and then opened the Ford Center for the Performing Arts on Broadway in 1998. Directed by Frank Galati and choreographed by the brilliant Graciela Daniele, it was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and introduced two performers to the Broadway stage who have since become legends in the American musical theatre—Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra MacDonald as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and the woman he loved, Sarah.

I recall seeing the original production in New York and being thrilled by the score and incredibly moved by the story. I saw that production three times and listened to the original Broadway cast recording over and over again until I wore out the CD.

Ragtime illuminates many of the same aspirations that we continue to wrestle with today—equity, diversity, and inclusion viewed through the lenses of immigration, economic opportunity, race, and gender. Although the musical treats serious social themes and is critical of the unevenly fulfilled promise of America as a melting pot and a land of opportunity, it is hugely entertaining, romantic, hopeful, and patriotic. This musical adaptation of Doctorow’s novel does not provide answers or solutions to the challenges that face our society, both then and now, but instead it holds a mirror up to the concept of America, allowing us to see ourselves in a historical continuum through the lens of a musical metaphor.

Stephen Flaherty’s marvelous score will provide many challenges for PSF’s cast of Ragtime. It uses rags, cakewalks, marches, and soaring ballads, as well as joyous dance music that is infectiously ebullient and at other times unabashedly romantic. The poetic lyrics by Lynn Ahrens are wonderfully evocative and powerful for actors to sing and are terrific examples of the best of what modern American musical theatre can be:

A strange, insistent music
Putting out heat,
Picking up steam.
It was the music
Of something beginning,
An era exploding,
A century spinning
In riches and rags,
And in rhythm and rhyme.

The people called it Ragtime...