Monday, May 09, 2005

By Popular Demand: A Review of 'Ragtime'

Over the past few days, this blog has been getting an unusual number of hits from people seeking reviews of the Arlington Players' production of Ragtime. I have not seen that production, but I hope to satisfy these visitors' curiosity by reprinting my review of the version of Ragtime that was mounted at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 1998.

Before seeing the play, I had had the pleasure of being a guest at a Tony-Award-night party with the casts of Ragtime and Show Boat, then on stage at the Kennedy Center (both were Livent productions). I remember vividly when Ragtime failed to nab the trophy for Best New Musical -- the award went to The Lion King -- the young actor who played Edgar in the D.C. production exclaimed, or perhaps loudly sputtered, "We lost to a puppet show!?" Later, having seen Ragtime myself, I had to share those sentiments.

That cast was remarkably community-oriented. Later that summer, a number of cast members made a personal appearance at JR's, a Dupont Circle bar, to auction off some items, with the proceeds going to a local charity. I remember chatting with Michael Rupert (who played Tateh), mentioning that I remembered seeing him in the title role in Pippin (which made us both blush about our ages, since that company had toured in 1977-78), and thinking how amazing it is that he made his Broadway debut opposite Robert Goulet in The Happy Time and later appeared with Julie Andrews in the original cast of Putting It Together. The original Lancelot and Guinevere, linked together again by a former bit player from The Partridge Family!

On that night, my friend Dan Blatt (now GayPatriotWest) won, in a raffle, a Ragtime poster autographed by the entire cast. When Dan left for Hollywood, he gave that poster to me. I had it framed and it now hangs in a place of honor near my front door. It's one of the first things visitors see when they come to my house. As my review indicates, I was more impressed with Ragtime than I expected to be -- quite unusually and pleasantly surprised.

This review appeared in The Metro Herald on July 3, 1998:

Ragtime: Past, Present, and Future
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Ragtime is easily the best new musical I have seen since Sweeney Todd. This is so even though Ragtime is thoroughly conventional, breaking no new ground in the form. Yet the play is so expansive in scope, the book so tightly written, the score so lushly orchestrated, it is impossible to escape being moved by the work as a whole. (Keep that word -- "escape" -- in mind.)

I was hesitant to see Ragtime, and had low expectations, based upon the unrelenting hype that preceded it. Who can recall another Broadway musical that announces its post-Broadway national tour even before the show has opened on Broadway? What other Broadway musical releases a "concept album" even while rehearsals for the pre-Broadway tryouts are still underway? Has any other musical had a song-scene featured in the Kennedy Center Honors gala months before it opens? Such actions suggest one of two things: either tremendous confidence in a work of genuine worth, or a lack of such confidence that motivates reliance on a sophisticated publicity machine to generate ticket sales. Generally the latter is the case.

How untrue for Ragtime! Here is a play that does, indeed, live up to its advance notice.

The plot consists of three interweaving strands, each involving a different family in the environs of New York: established WASP suburbanites, recently arrived immigrants, and African-Americans transplanted from the South. The theme is how the "American Dream" affects each family. In that, Ragtime is a Socially Relevant Big Musical. Normally, such a designation would suggest disappointment and didacticism. The team that created Ragtime, however, has balanced their effort so delicately that there is no sense of preachiness.

What might justify this fear of undue Social Relevance begins with the naming of the main characters. Aside from certain historical figures who feature prominently in the play, the white protagonists have generic names, a device previously used in Marc Blitzstein's controversial leftist musical drama of the 1930s, The Cradle Will Rock. Thus, in the WASP family, we have Father, Mother, Grandfather, Mother's Younger Brother, and the Little Boy (who, we learn within the play, is actually named Edgar, the same as the author of the original Ragtime novel). Even the Jewish immigrants are named Tateh (which means "Papa") and the Little Girl. The "Negro" protagonists, however, have real names -- Coalhouse Walker, Jr., and his fiancée, Sarah.

By actually naming Coalhouse and Sarah, the authors, at least superficially, impute a more complete humanity to them than to the other characters. More importantly, though, it suggests an important subtheme: how each family relates to their past, present, and future.

Tateh and the Little Girl have no past. They have left their home in Latvia and have made a conscientious effort to forget Tateh's dead wife (the girl's dead mother). They have only a future.

The WASP family has neither past nor future. Ossified in suburban tranquility (in New Rochelle) and effortless economic success, tied down by Victorian convention, they have nothing to look forward to; nor do they have any particular nostalgia for earlier times. Having faced no obstacles on the road to comfort, they have no laurels to rest upon.

On the other hand, Coalhouse and Sarah have past, present, and future. Note Coalhouse's full name, including the suffix. He is always careful to introduce himself as "Coalhouse Walker, Jr." This implies that there was a "Coalhouse Walker, Sr." -- his father, a link to the past. And the baby borne by Sarah will be known as "Coalhouse Walker III" -- a link to the future. In the present, Coalhouse, in particular (Sarah's character is less developed on this point), is proud of his accomplishments and sure of himself. He has worked hard, earned an honest and lucrative living, and expects to be treated with respect. He is sorely disappointed.

In each case, the main characters seek escape from their current situation. This explains the presence in the play of Harry Houdini, a real historical character of the era in which Ragtime is set -- the early 20th century -- who was famous for his magical escape tricks. Houdini serves as a symbol of escape from self-imposed or externally generated oppression that affects each character.

Mother, even though she is not fully conscious of it, seeks to escape from the control of her well-meaning but distant husband, Father, who prefers adventuring with Admiral Peary rather than participating in his family life (his own means of escape). When Sarah and her baby arrive unexpectedly, Mother makes the first important decision of her own life, for the first time asserting her own independence of mind and action. By late in the play, she sings "Back to Before" a gentle pre-feminist anthem ("Back in the days/When I let you make all my choices/We can never go back to before.") that also is one of the best ballads of love decayed and inadvertently lost since Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By."

Mother's Younger Brother first seeks escape through sensuality, lusting after vaudeville celebrity Evelyn Nesbit, who in her day no doubt fed the fantasies of thousands of other young men just like Younger Brother. Later, happening upon anarchist labor organizer Emma Goldman, Younger Brother escapes from the bourgeois stasis that controls his life by seeking fulfillment through political activism.

Tateh and the Little Girl must escape from poverty, or else they will both starve. A self-starter, Tateh is enthusiastic about the opportunities America presents to him. Over time, however, he grows disillusioned. When his own business -- selling silhouettes from a pushcart -- fails, he ends up working in a sweatshop and getting involved in a violent strike. By happenstance, he comes upon a new profession and becomes rich beyond his wildest dreams.

For Tateh, economic success is liberating. It ensures his Little Girl's safety. For Coalhouse and Sarah, however, economic success is neither liberating nor secure. Instead, it precipitates tragedy. Confronted by racist Irish immigrant firemen (who seem to have forgotten the "No Irish Need Apply" signs of just a few years before) who destroy his brand-new Ford Model T, Coalhouse is increasingly frustrated by the lack of response from the legal authorities, who refuse to grant him the justice that he feels is his due -- as an American citizen and as a human being. Sarah, trying to intervene on his behalf, is killed by government agents. Embittered, Coalhouse decides to seek his own justice and is driven from being a victim to becoming a terrorist, ensuring his own doom -- but not without making an impact. He will not go quietly into that good night, singing "Make Them Hear You," a song of stirring determination and religiosity that would not be out of place in a liturgy for Ascension Day or Pentecost.

Ragtime is wall-to-wall music. (The original cast album is 121 minutes and 47 seconds long, and comprises almost the entire play.) The music is, in a word, magnificent. The Tony awards won by composer Stephen Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, and orchestrator William David Brohn were well-deserved. Not only are there several song-hits destined to become standards (including "Wheels of a Dream," which is already becoming popular), but the complex score weaves a web of familiarizing and identifying themes, as well as repeated but not redundant phrases that link characters to each other. An example: whenever the Jewish immigrants appear, we hear klezmer-like motives in the underscoring. (Add a clarinet in a minor key and -- voila! -- instant yiddishkeit.) In less deft hands, this device could have been cloying and disrespectful; not here.

Having not read E. L. Doctorow's novel, it is hard to say how true to the original is Terrence McNally's Tony-winning libretto. Doctorow himself has expressed his satisfaction, especially after his disappointment at Hollywood's adaptation of Ragtime (notable for featuring James Cagney in his final screen role). Those familiar with McNally's work will recognize Ragtime as his, particularly in the way he has the major characters address the audience directly (in this case, in the third person), acting as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action and themselves.

Director Frank Galati and choreographer Graciela Daniele deserve commendation for staging and movement that successfully translates a literary work -- a historical novel, no less! -- from the dry page to a dynamic, multifarious form. In so doing, they have drawn out remarkable performances from their actors, including (but not limited to) Nathan Keen as the Little Boy and Amy Carrey as the Little Girl, Rebecca Eichenberger as Mother, and Alton Fitzgerald White as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. The sheer size of the supporting cast must have been daunting, yet director and choreographer have created controlled chaos from this talented mix.

Eugene Lee's sets -- more subdued than his Show Boat sets now at the Kennedy Center -- successfully recreate the turn-of-the-century atmosphere and practically transport us there.

I have but one quibble with Ragtime: It is clear from the context that about 12 to 15 years go by in the course of the play, yet it seems compressed to barely a year. The children remain about 9 years old throughout, Little Coalhouse is a babe-in-arms for what must be 5 or 6 years, and he is still a toddler at what should be more than a decade after his birth. This cavil can be set aside with an appropriate suspension of disbelief, but it is jarring at first, even if it does not really matter at the end.

If there is one message to take away from Ragtime, it is this: The "American Dream" is no chimera, it is vibrant reality. There may be bumps in the road, people and institutions may not live up to their own best values, but the Dream itself is worth the quest.

I plan to see Ragtime again -- not just once, but several times.

That last production proved true: I saw Ragtime once more at the National Theatre, once in New York, once in a bus-and-truck version at Wolf Trap Farm Park in Northern Virginia, and last summer at the Heritage Repertory Theatre in Charlottesville, for a total of five times -- so far.


Tim said...

It's not all that faithful to the novel. Most of the major incidents are covered, but the musical lacks Doctorow's depth and pessimism.

GayPatriotWest said...

I'm still Dan Blatt; I just blog as GayPatriotWest. :-)

And I'd forgotten all about that poster until I googled myself and hit this post. I wonder why I missed it last month.

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