By KWAPI VENGESAYI, Community Engagement Specialist
On December 8, 1996, Ragtime, a musical based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, had its world premiere at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. Fourteen months later, it would make its Broadway debut. Staged in the newly opened Ford Center for the Performing Arts, January 18, 1998 marked the beginning of what would be a two year run: 27 previews, 834 performances, 13 Tony Award nominations and 4 wins, including Best Book of a Musical and Best Score.
“The original production was glorious,” says Peter Rothstein, director of the much-anticipated production of Ragtime at The 5th. “It had a huge and incredible cast, it was an epic production, it was theatrically thrilling.”
Peter Rothstein is the Founding Artistic Director of Theater Latté Da based in Minneapolis, and in fall of 2016, directed a new reimagined version of Ragtime. With a scaled down cast of just 14 actors—11 adults and three children—this production presented a new take on the original musical.
“I intentionally said there would be no chorus. The production would engage just the principal characters.” For example, in the opening number when the immigrants are introduced, the entire cast is onstage singing, but the event is focused in such a way that the audience observe only the Jewish immigrant Tateh and his child rather than a full chorus of immigrants. As a result, the central characters are given more attention, more focus.
These principals then serve as the ensemble, chorus and narrators of each other’s story—when inside Coalhouse’s story and he is purchasing a Model T, you’ll see Tateh, Mother and the rest of the principals playing the factory workers. This allows the audience to spend more time with each actor than they would in a more traditional production. It also underlines a central metaphor in the piece. “As a community, as a nation, we are personally responsible for each other’s story. I believe that.”
“Ragtime is about our core values of a nation.” At a time in which the nation’s social and political climate has been abrasive when it comes to conversations about identity, Rothstein felt that Ragtime was a production that would inspire dialogue. Anchored in the narratives of three separate characters—a Jewish immigrant, an African-American musician and a woman—this musical weaves these three stories in a profound and beautiful way as it explores the different relationships each character has with the power structures of the nation.
Ragtime music dominated the early 1900s. Its syncopated rhythm—placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn’t normally occur—and solo piano style originated in the African-American community and became a part of the mainstream thanks in part to composers such as Scott Joplin who helped popularize it, playing to large crowds and venues. It’s these very characteristics, and its cultural significance, that not only made Ragtime the perfect title and metaphor for Doctorow’s novel and the symbol of change, but the piano that becomes a kind of icon in this reimagined production.
“Doctorow felt the left hand in piano playing represented the strict order of the old guard,” Ragtime composer Stephen Flaherty once said in an interview. “And against it were these wild new rhythms by the right hand that were very anarchistic and which represented the new rhythms of the 20th century that were pulling away from—and almost tearing against—the old.”
This production features a grand piano center stage, and it is the only object onstage when the audience enters the theater; throughout the performance, it “transforms” into different scenic elements.
“Piano is the primary instrument for ragtime music, and so throughout the course of the evening, that piano becomes Coalhouse’s Model T, Sarah’s hearse at the end of act one, Tateh’s movie dolly in act two, Goldman’s speaker platform—it takes on these various purposes throughout the production, constantly pointing back to Doctorow’s central metaphor of the piece.”
Ragtime tells a story that is as relevant today as it was when E.L. Doctorow sat down to write this captivating and thought-provoking piece of historical fiction in 1975. And when Terrence McNally collaborated with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens for the musical adaptation decades later, they created a theatrical phenomenon that would be reproduced and reimagined by others who found inspiration in its compelling music and profound story.
“The fact that the musical can withstand different interpretations is a testament to the original book. At the heart of the show is a relevant narrative, complex characters and a really great drama,” Rothstein said.
To those familiar with Ragtime, as well as those experiencing it for the first time, Peter Rothstein’s reimagined production is a creative, powerful and timely interpretation of a classic. Its score, story and the directorial decisions help deliver a moving and compelling piece of social commentary that allows us to explore who we were, are and strive to be as a people and as a nation.