October 21, 2018

Keeping in Rhythm

The Creative Team: from left; Producer Garth H. Drabinsky, Choreographer Graciela Daniele, Playwright Terrence McNally (above), Composer Stephen Flaherty, Original Novelist E.L. Doctorow, Lyricist Lynn Ahrens and Director Frank Galati. Photo by Michael CooperE.L. Doctorow was wary when the call from Toronto came four years ago. Garth Drabinsky, the maverick theater producer who runs his company like a 1930s movie mogul, had a proposition: He wanted to turn Doctorow’s 1975 best seller, “Ragtime,” into a musical. Drabinsky had won Tonys and made millions with “Show Boat” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and wanted to repeat with “Ragtime.”

But Doctorow didn’t like adaptations of his work; at least, he had intensely disliked Milos Forman’s 1981 film version of “Ragtime.” The novel interweaves the stories of three turn-of-the-century families (one African-American, one Victorian WASP, one immigrant Jewish) with a parade of historical figures. The book, like its title, is a “rag bag,” a tapestry, Doctorow has said; unravel one thread, and the pattern disintegrates. But Forman, alas, chose to focus upon only the Harlem family, so the movie was, in Doctorow’s opinion, a disaster.

Nevertheless, the author agreed to meet with the persuasive, heavyset, gruff-voiced Drabinsky over a long lunch at the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan. Over blinis, the goateed, soft-spoken novelist and college writing professor administered a two-part quiz. What did the producer think of the movie, he wanted to know. How did he interpret the novel?

Drabinsky passionately spoke of the book’s sweeping scope and social issues, and, apparently, passed the test with an A. Within the month, Doctorow had granted his permission. What clinched the deal was that he would get to approve the selection of the librettist, composer, lyricist and director. He would also be encouraged to give notes on the work-in-progress. “And he is being paid well,” wryly says Marty Bell, senior vice president, creative affairs, for Drabinsky’s Livent Inc.

Upon closer examination, it is not surprising that Doctorow was taken with 47-year-old Drabinsky. The producer, after all, has said that he intensely identifies with the Jewish immigrant character of Tateh, who braves black despair before realizing the American dream.

Drabinsky, himself of humble Jewish immigrant stock, was stricken with polio at the age of 3. He endured operations for each of six summers and grew up with one leg almost an inch shorter than the other. As a result, walking is difficult and his back sometimes causes him agony.

But it was this setback that prodded him to achieve, to fly, to “escape from the incarceration of his body,” “Ragtime” director Frank Galati told The New Yorker. Like the fictional Tateh, Drabinsky transformed himself into that most American of paradigms, the show business impresario.

By the age of 32, the visionary, sometimes controversial, entertainment lawyer had produced six movies and had co-founded the movie theater chain Cineplex Odeon, which he turned into a billion-dollar enterprise, according to The New Yorker. In 1989, he co-founded his theatrical production company, Livent Inc., which he has structured like an old Hollywood film studio. Today, it develops, markets and exhibits all its own shows, in stark contrast to the conventional Broadway limited partnership. It gleans almost one-quarter of the North American theatrical box office and earned 1996 revenues of $332 million, The New Yorker says.

“Garth Vader,” as he is sometimes called, is known for doing things his way, and that is how he put “Ragtime” on the stage. After securing playwright Terrence McNally (“Master Class,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!”), he had eight composer-lyricist teams actually audition for the job by writing songs on spec. Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens won the competition; next aboard was director Galati, who is known for dramatic adaptations of books such as John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Over a year and a half, two readings and a workshop, the creative team tackled the daunting task of adapting Doctorow’s book. Particularly challenging was drawing out the emotions behind the novel’s terse, reportorial, utterly unsentimental prose, as was winnowing down the sprawling narrative and the large cast of characters.

Protagonists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were ultimately cut from the saga, to Doctorow’s slight disappointment.

“He’s always seen ‘Ragtime’ as the story of an era, while we wanted to focus on that central image of the melting pot, on how the three [families] ultimately become one,” Flaherty says.

The composer was “incredibly nervous” when Doctorow arrived for a staged reading, but he need not had worried. The author was “visibly moved” by the production and, afterward, declared that he was honored by how faithful it was to the spirit of his book.

For Flaherty, the most difficult and frustrating endeavor was composing music for the Latvian Jewish immigrant character of Tateh. “I’m an Irish-Catholic from Pittsburgh, a former altar boy, and Eastern European harmonies just weren’t in my musical vocabulary,” he says. Flaherty studied books on klezmer music, listened to scratchy, vintage recordings and attended Drabinsky’s Passover seder with the rest of the cast and creative team. “But whatever I wrote sounded like bad ‘Fiddler on the Roof,'” he says.

Then, Flaherty’s revelation came: Tateh is struggling to become an American, so his music should reflect both the Old World and the New. Thus, we hear klezmer instrumentation with the syncopated rhythm of ragtime. But by the time the émigré has become a successful filmmaker, in the second act, the Old World clarinet-and-fiddle sounds are gone.

Meanwhile, the actors, in both the Toronto and Los Angeles productions, were immersed in research of their own. In the vast concrete Debbie Reynolds Professional Rehearsal Studio in North Hollywood, Galati’s office was transformed into a library about the “Ragtime” era.

The some 55 actors spent a morning sitting on the floor and sharing their immigrant roots: “Frank [emphasized] that that was how we were going to find our way into the story,” says Judy Kaye, who portrays the anarchist Emma Goldman and is the granddaughter of Jewish émigrés. Kaye read Goldman’s 1,000-page autobiography, but she skipped Forman’s movie because Doctorow didn’t like it.

As for what exactly is at stake in Los Angeles, that depends upon whom you talk to. Bell, for one, is nonchalant: Sure, some $10 million is on the line, but the Toronto show has run to terrific reviews and nearly sold-out houses. “Ragtime” will go on to San Francisco and Vancouver, so the musical “will not live or die by what happens in L.A.”

Kaye sees it differently. “This is the American première, in a show-business town, and we will be under as much scrutiny as we will be in New York, maybe more,” she says. “For Garth, it is his reputation that is on the line. He is also very emotionally attached to this story.” She pauses, then says, “It is his story.” n

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