America, Set to Music

Coalhouse Walker Jr.
(Brian Stokes Mitchell),
a ragtime pianist brimming
with confidence and plans
for the future

America, Set to Music

By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor






into the

heart of


novel and

pulls out

a rousing,

epic musical

After the countless ads, fluff pieces and an advance press packet thick enough to choke a horse, the question hung in the celebrity-studded lobby of the Shubert Theatre last Sunday evening: Could “Ragtime” pull it off?

The answer is a resounding yes. Fans of “big” musicals who may have been unmoved by the direction the genre has taken in recent years will be heartened by “Ragtime,” a sweeping and ambitious $10 million production with a soul. Librettist Terrence McNally, director Frank Galati, musical composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens have created an epic musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel that places its stirring, human-scale narrative front and center.

The syncopated music made famous by Scott Joplin is the show’s central metaphor — marking the beginning of a new century humming with energy and the promise of big changes to come.

“Ragtime” begins in 1906, and the entire company is on stage for the stylish and rousing opening number that sets the scene: 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….”

It’s a smartly staged introduction to the three narrative strands that constitute the story. The gentry of New Rochelle, dressed in costume designer Santo Loquasto’s creamy Victorian whites and twirling lacy parasols, sings sweetly of their America, a smugly romantic place destined for a rude awakening. Their world was an affluent WASP idyll where, “there were no Negroes or immigrants….”

Suddenly, the African-American members of the cast twirl to the foreground, dancing with defiant joy to the syncopated new rhythms of rag, determined to bust loose into a new age. Both groups are then joined by a gaggle of immigrants. Jews in shtreimels and beards, babushkas and shawls, rush warily to center stage, only to huddle uncertainly in the middle. They glance back and forth between the black and white ensembles, which square off and face each other in a dance buzzing with tension and the threat of conflict. It’s a compressed, evocative tableau of American history, and one of many pleasurable moments in the play when Graciela Daniele’s inventive choreography adds dramatic punch to the proceedings.

Understandably, certain plot points from Doctorow’s sprawling, intricate novel have been cut. Even so, this “Ragtime” is a tapestry of interweaving stories that adheres more closely to the spirit and scope of the book than Milos Forman’s ponderous and lopsided film adaptation.

At the outset, “Mother,” “Father,” “Younger Brother” and “The Little Boy” live a charmed and bucolic life in New Rochelle. All of that is destined to change after Father (John Dossett), a pompous and hidebound traditionalist, leaves with Admiral Peary for a yearlong expedition to the North Pole. In his absence, the heatedly idealistic Younger Brother finds that his walloping juvenile crush on vaudeville sex symbol Evelyn Nesbit metamorphoses into a passion for radical justice, sparked by the fiery rhetoric of anarchist Emma Goldman one night in Union Square.

Meanwhile, Mother (Marcia Mitzman Gaven) has taken in a young and frightened black woman and her newborn son. It is Sarah (LaChanze), on the run from a failed romance with the handsome Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Brian Stokes Mitchell). Coalhouse, a ragtime pianist brimming with confidence and plans for the future, is unaware of the birth of his child and determined to find his lost love. After they reunite in all-white New Rochelle, Coalhouse takes to visiting Sarah at Mother’s house every Sunday, driving there in his beloved new Model-T Ford. The weekly specter of “the nigger” in his gleaming automobile, however, infuriates the men of the town’s largely Irish volunteer fire department. Seething with hatred, they destroy Coalhouse’s car, setting the story’s tragedy in motion.

Back in the city, the immigrant Tateh (John Rubinstein) and The Little Girl (Danielle Weiner) are trying to scrabble out an existence on the teeming Lower East Side. A struggling artist, Tateh cuts out silhouettes for a nickel apiece. But as he and his daughter sink deeper into poverty, his dream of life in the goldene medina rapidly darkens into a relentless nightmare. They flee New York, get caught up in a violent labor strike in a Massachusetts mill town, and finally find salvation through Tateh’s little handmade “movie books,” crude cutout images that seem to move as one flips the pages. After the books become a modest hit, Tateh invents a primitive film projector and scores success in the early movie business as director “Baron Ashkenazi.”

It’s a daunting mosaic of a plot, but McNally and company prove themselves up to the challenge. The real-life historical figures who peppered the original narrative — Goldman, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and escapologist Harry Houdini — are used artfully here, both as metaphors of an age and as bits of our collective past come to life. Only Evelyn Nesbit (Susan Wood), whose celebrity as “the girl on the swing” was sealed after her millionaire husband murdered her lover, architect Stanford White, fails to become a meaningful thread in this tapestry. Instead, she remains a free-floating bit of camp history, never resonating on a deeper level.

“Ragtime” producer Garth Drabinsky held exhaustive Los Angeles auditions for the cast, and, by and large, it’s a solid and able company.

The elegant Mitchell, a charismatic baritone who soars in his role as Coalhouse, is the sole holdover from the Toronto production. He infuses the doomed hero with feline grace and stiff-necked nobility. Coalhouse was always a compelling character, even if his early optimism about America is a bit of a puzzle. In lesser hands, Coalhouse could easily ring false, a maddeningly naïve riff on the Brother from Another Planet. But Mitchell’s expressive portrayal is, at once, specific and larger than life — a metaphor for how our best hopes of America persist in spite of everything. It makes his descent into rage and despair a fall that has consequences for all of us.

Some other performances stand out. The patrician-looking Gaven is luminescent as Mother. LaChanze, in the smaller role of Sarah, is able to stir the back row of the theater with her piercing “Your Daddy’s Son” and “The Wheels of a Dream.” As Tateh, Rubinstein is fine in “Gliding,” a bittersweet lullaby to his daughter flavored with Jewish melody. But he is most winning here as an actor. Despite his role as the archetypal immigrant, he studiously avoids any whiff of schmaltz, and is especially good in a boardwalk scene with Mother.

Flaherty’s musical score is blessedly free of the forgettable segue numbers that dilute much of musical theater. Ahrens’ lyrics neatly enrich the characterizations and propel the story forward with depth and style. They are moving but not manipulative — even in numbers where the temptation to woo us with false sentimentality may have been great. “He Wanted to Say,” “Back to Before” and “Till We Reach That Day,” an aching anthemlike ballad against racism, are vivid cases in point.

Eugene Lee’s fun and evocative set is money well spent. During the number “Success,” J.P. Morgan strides self-importantly along a catwalk that slowly descends to crush the hopeful plebes below. In a memorable Ellis Island scene that looks like a sepia photo come to
life, bedraggled immigrants rush forward with their documents at the ready, their hope impervious to the succession of barred gates that slam shut in front of them with each advancing step. They, like Coalhouse, Sarah and the rest, are looking for the country of their dreams. Instead, what they get in “Ragtime” is America — “a strange new music,” as powerful and dissonant today as it was a century ago.

“Ragtime” plays at the Shubert Theatre, 2020 Avenue of the Stars, Century City. It closes on Sept. 7. Tickets are available at the theater box office or by calling (800) 447-7400.

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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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