Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Directed by Frank Galati
Ford Center for the Performing Arts
42nd Street Between 7th & 8th Avenues / (212) 307-4100

Reviewed by David Spencer

E. L. Doctorow's 1975 novel "Ragtime" was, and remains, an astonishing tour de force. Though relatively short–a mass market paperback edition fits onto 334 pages–and though possessed of a literary style as compact as its length–long, omniscient narrative paragraphs, no quotation marks around dialogue–it has the sweep and scope of an epic. One of its prime fascinations is the way in which its historical era–in begins in 1902, just after the start of the century–is presented: In Doctorow's "Ragtime" universe, history and current events don't just happen around people. They ripple out, beyond their ostensible boundaries, and happen to people. The fingers of history ineluctably reach out to caress, push, and sometimes strangle others until they are forced to make a kind of history themselves.

Thus, when Henry Ford mass produces the car, a ragtime musician named Coalhouse Walker can acquire a machine that symbolizes his mobility–his upward mobility–as a black man in America. It is in fact the desecration of that machine by bigots that turns him into a vigilante.

Thus, when a Jewish immigrant who reinvents himself as Harry Houdini becomes the master illusionist of his day–possibly the master escape artist of all time–he becomes the standard bearer for one particular immigrant who, with nothing to hold onto but his young daughter and his imagination, envisions breaking the bounds of poverty and prejudice as something of an escape too.

Thus, when Evelyn Nesbitt becomes famous as the reason why Harry Thaw killed Stanford White, and parlays that fame into vaudeville stardom, she catalyzes the loss of innocence of a well-to-do American family.

In many ways, "Ragtime" seems a magnificent basis for a musical–and it is, the musical being rather magnificent too–but what seems just as fascinating is "Ragtime"'s place within the pantheon of American musical theatre. Because it has come along at precisely the right time for audience acceptance. For it too has been affected by forces that would at first seem to be outside its sphere. The following is an attempt to explain that.

Panoramas Lost

There those who will tell you that the sudden appearance of panoramic American musicals is a direct outgrowth of the Euro-musical–most particularly "Les Misérables"–and in fact a response to it, an attempt to reclaim the theatrical territory that was ours to begin with. That may be somewhat true as far as producers go: they assess what the marketplace will bear and they try to fill a niche, with various degrees of intelligence and taste. But–the anomaly of Frank Wildhorn aside–most working American musical dramatists wouldn't deign to respond to the Euro-musical. (Well, Gerard Alessandrini would; but then, "Forbidden Broadway" responds to everything.) The historical panorama, presented as musical theatre, has a gestation, and impulse, that is entirely home grown. That is always tied, somehow, to American history. And, I believe, a seminal influence so subtle and indirect that you would hardly think to credit it at all. Unless you looked at the American entertainment industry–beyond theatre–as a connected panorama too.

The panorama musical is–to put it mildly–a very tricky beast to assemble.

You enter its territory, as a creator, knowing that, structurally, it flies in the face of conventional musical theatre wisdom, which mandates that a musical essentially follows one central character's passionate journey or quest, and the effect s/he has on others in the wake of that mission. (Quixote wants to infuse the world with nobility, Tevye wants to hang on to tradition in a world that is changing too fast for him, Mama Rose wants to live vicariously through her daughter, Finch wants to succeed, Sweeney wants revenge, and on and on; almost without exception, the mainstream musicals that fail to conform to this formula are commercial failures.)

With a panorama, you have to keep multiple–and at first unconnected–storylines in the air, give them all more or less equal weight, and still make the audience care about what they're seeing, curious as to how the stories will merge.

At the same time you must also provide the audience with something of a history lesson–and a point of view about the period, since its effect on your characters will almost certainly be at the heart of the story.

At the same time, you must provide a varied, cohesive score that is emotionally, dramatically and musically gratifying.

An almost impossible task, because of the economy of musical theatre. Even when songs move the story along–as most do, these days–time slows: Song time moves more slowly than dialogue time. Musical numbers have to establish melody, setting, rhythm, a unifying thesis (the late lyricist Ed ["A Chorus Line"] Kleban would have called it "titleness"), and lyric patterns. And let's not forget choreography, an essential part of any historical-musical tableau.

Set aside intermission and any other part of the theatrical experience that isn't actually performance. Figure your actual playing time is two hours and fifteen-twenty minutes, tops. (This isn't only an artistic matter, it's a business matter. If a show that starts at 8:10 runs past 11:00, you're into union mandated overtime.) Your time to establish clear, complex narrative is no more than half to two-thirds of that. Not a lot of minutes in which to make an audience care about multiple characters in multiple developing storylines...for that matter, not a lot of minutes to let the audience simply get their bearings. And for many years, they wouldn't. Or couldn't.

The first genuine historical panorama arrived halfway through the 70s, when the concept musical was reaching heightened maturity and iconoclasm was in fashion: "Pacific Overtures". An absolutely stunning work, it lasted a little longer than half the season. Reasons for its commercial failure?

A show about Japan's reaction to the invasion of Commodore Perry in 1853, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, it gave us a series of historical vignettes. A returning thread between the vignettes was the changing relationship between Kayama, a xenophobic Samurai, and Manjiro, a fisherman who has seen the wonders of the western world. One can argue that it was a little too esoteric for the general public. One can argue that it had its proportions inverted: perhaps the vignettes should have been the connective thread, and the story the focus. There's no way of knowing for sure; what we do know is that it left many in the audience confused and cold, though it was told with devastating, and sometimes touching, clarity.

Most likely?: the public simply wasn't ready for it yet. Audiences sometimes have to be trained–and I don't mean that cynically or disrespectfully. A strong story told in a new fashion can hip an audience to a new theatrical approach...but when the story itself embodies the new fashion, is in fact the new have to catch the audience at a point of readiness. And in 1974, audiences weren't ready. A panoramic musical was too much to absorb all at once.

"1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" opened a year or so after. A history of the White House, it was so fabulous a train wreck, it even confused its authors, librettist-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Leonard Bernstein (who was so embittered by the experience that he forbade the recording of a cast album).

Save for a brief gasp in the early eighties with "Grind", which was too idiosyncratic and troubled to fit into this discussion, the historical panorama vanished in the American musical theatre until the '90s. When suddenly, "Titanic" and "Ragtime" became blockbusters.

What happened in between?

I believe it was a ripple effect the likes of which Mr. Doctorow outlined in his very novel. And if this isn't the whole answer, I believe to the depths of my soul that it's a large and important part of it.

Preparing the Panorama Path

What happened was Steven Bochco and "Hill Street Blues".

The pilot was broadcast on Thursday, January 15, 1981 at 10:00 pm. When the hour was over, television had changed forever.

Producer-writer Bochco's creation was a series about a beleaguered inner city police station, it featured
–over a dozen main characters
–jagged camerawork–
–a verité style–
–continuing storylines that developed week after week–
–and at the hub, holding all the strands together, the central figure of Captain Francis Xavier Furillo, as personified by Daniel J. Travanti; the moral center to whom you could return, to give the universe its sense of cohesion.

We in the audience had grown well accustomed to the mini-series, but that format was a long, sprawling affair, unfolding at a measured pace, spread out over several consecutive nights. Bochco and his folks on The Hill, though, were giving us something else–an intense shorthand: 44 minutes a week in which to keep track of a whole squadroom and a city in which it tried to keep the peace. We had to think fast to keep up. We had to be willing to shift gears several times before the act break. The show recalibrated the way we thought about drama: it crammed more information into less time, and counted on you to keep things straight, to go where it led, to stay clear and invested. And to return for more of the same the following week.

"Hill Street" became the template for many series to follow, until its structure became the norm. Even if you hated cop shows and never saw "Hill Street", you couldn't help but feel its influence. Continuing, panoramic storylines in popular media entertainment had ceased being the purview of cheesy serials, the stately Masterpiece Theatre and soap operas. Ensemble casts carrying multiple storylines had entered the genre vernacular, and very quickly the mainstream vernacular. (Not incidentally, the rise of computer literacy started to burgeon right around here too. Yet another major factor encouraging us to think in shorter, more compact bursts.)

"Hill Street Blues" ended its run in 1987, its effect on the media having had by then more than half a decade to operate. That same year "Into the Woods" opened. Shortly thereafter, "Grand Hotel" became an unexpected hit. Whether or not these musicals were consciously influenced by any of this is not just debatable, but doubtful, considering their creative histories. But I don't think the subconscious influence–the era in which they were developed–can be ignored. And I don't think it's a coincidence that, in spite of mixed reviews, audiences were primed for them in a way they hadn't been before.


Which leads, at long last, to the stunning successes of "Ragtime" and "Titanic". The latter is discussed elsewhere in these cyber-pages. As for the former–

"Ragtime" is very nearly as perfect a historical panorama as it can be. It is an exquisite synthesis of the changes in storytelling described above, with the vocabulary and techniques of musical once traditional and iconoclastic.

And it follows a template the audience is now very much at home with: it establishes a universe, it establishes three major story threads, and as the threads begin moving toward each other, one begins to dominate, and become the spiritual center. The real tour de force of "Ragtime" is that it maintains its historical perspective through all this while never defaulting to cool detachment. Where "Titanic"–a show I like and admire–is relentlessly cool in its panoramic approach, how does "Ragtime" generate its heat?

Start with Terrence McNally's book. It's selective: each story thread is informed by one historical event at a time, so the lines of influence are cleanly perceived. Furthermore, while "Titanic" is primarily about individuals assembling, each story thread in "Ragtime" is about family, so warmth is endemic to each story; and we enter each story with the familial relationships already in progress, so there's a certain ability to identify and empathize even before the exposition is fully completed. A simple overview of the threads makes the point:

Thread 1: Features the well-to-do New Rochelle couple (Marrin Mazzie and Mark Jacoby), her younger brother (Steven Sutcliffe) and the couple's young son (Alex Strange). They are bound together only by a sense of propriety that is soon to be shattered. For Mother is about to find a black baby abandoned by–

Thread 2: Sarah (Audra McDonald) poverty-stricken and panicked, estranged from her husband, a Harlem ragtime pianist, Coalhouse (Brian Stokes Mitchell). He doesn't know he's a father; she doesn't know he plans to return for her. And nobody from either thread yet knows of–

Thread 3: The immigrant Tateh (Peter Friedman), his small daughter (Lea Michelle) and his quest for respectability and a niche of his own.

Midway through the first act, Coalhouse Walker becomes the moral center, the other characters tracked in relationship to his progress. How this happens precisely is something I leave you to discover. But it's a structural coup unique to "Ragtime" and a watershed development.

Hovering on the periphery of all this, as I say, are the historical figures of Henry Ford (Larry Daggett), Evelyn Nesbitt (Lynette Perry), Harry Houdini (Jim Corti), Emma Goldman (Judy Kaye) and Booker T. Washington (Tommy Hollis). The truly amazing thing here is, though they are but passing figures in a huge landscape, they are as vivid, if not as dimensional, as the main characters. But "not as dimensional" doesn't mean without dimension. Essences of what they stood for and who they really were are communicated in smart, savvy bursts that sometimes go by like something out of a staple gun. If McNally's book is responsible for placement and juxtaposition in this matter, the score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) is what combines symbolism and humanism with razor sharp focus. You don't need much more than Ford singing, "Speed up the belt, speed up the belt, Sam," in jazz syncopation to understand his ruthless psychology as well as his genius for innovation. When Evelyn Nesbitt sings, "Harry's in trouble and Stanny's in heaven and Evelyn is in vaudeville" you wonder if you should admire her pluckiness or condemn her opportunism–it's only later that you realize it has all been communicated in little more than a quatrain.

Which is not to say that these little sound bytes are the main strength or feature of the score, which, in its larger moments, displays a lush generosity. In some corners, the score has been criticized for being overly anthematic, but that, to me, glibly overlooks the landscape of the evening, which is to personify a country, and a century, in the throes of social and technological upheaval–and surviving it. The sweep of the score reflects the sweep of the nation. There cannot be a more organic–or again humanist–rationale behind a grand musical gesture than that. (And it pays to add: the score has its contemplative moments too.) The overwhelming impression the score leaves, if you key into its true soul, is one of a restless American spirit–by turns hopeful, violent, yearning and optimistic–refracted through the prism of multi-culturalism. "Ragtime" comes by its anthems honestly.

Director Frank Galati's production expertly highlights the humanism within the tapestry even more. Astonishing when one considers how technical the production is (prior to "Ragtime"'s Toronto opening, it required an unheard-of–and planned–six-week tech rehearsal). In tandem with choreographer Graciela Danielle and his design team–Eugene Lee (sets), Santo Loquasto (costumes), Jonathan Deans (sound) and Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer (lighting)–Galati has merged symbolism with humanism, and the broad strokes of a Broadway extravaganza with the intimate maneuvers of cinema. You not only always know where to also know the context in which to perceive what you're looking at. There are no wasted effects here, no gestures that exist for their own sake.

And there's simply not enough room to praise the cast adequately–or the casting. Each player in the ensemble seems the very essence of his archetype, the authentic original. I will merely say that while Brian Stokes Mitchell deserves every plaudit he gets for his muscular and invigorating portrayal of Coalhouse Walker, as do the other extravagant performances–given by the amazing Peter Friedman, the heart-rending Audra McDonald, the fiercely nurturing Marin Mazzie and others–there is one performance that seems overlooked to me. That of Mark Jacoby as the staunch upper class Father, unable to absorb the "strange new music" of the changing world. There's no flash in the role, just as there's no flash in the man, so Mr. Jacoby can never emerge as an audience or critics' favorite. But watch his/Father's face, the emergence of confusion, the sense of being haunted by something he hasn't the imagination to define. If Mr. Mitchell is the beating heart of the show, Mr. Jacoby is quietly its anchor. Because he provides the contrast against which the others shine.

All that said, is "Ragtime" flawless? No. But no musical theatre masterpiece is. There are choices you can question...but you can't question the intelligence, taste, craft and dedication behind them. At best, they're fodder for some lively discussion–but they don't diminish the enormous accomplishment...which is to pave the way for bolder experiments in musical theatre storytelling. Or at least create a historical ripple.

Kind of a cool thing to do, as the millennium approaches...

The Broadway production of "Ragtime" moved to New York from Toronto, where it originated.
Go to critic Joel Greenberg's
Toronto opening week review and/or his piece on Ragtime Revisited, in the wake of post-opening revisions made to the show.

After the Toronto company opened, a Los Angeles company followed, into which even further changes were incorporated (these changes were absorbed into the original production when it was remounted for Broadway). As of this writing (1/24/98), the Los Angeles production is still running.
Go to critic John Flynn's
Los Angeles company review

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