Mr. Doctorow’s many books often freely drew on real history for their plots and people. "The Book of Daniel" was a fictionalized version of the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs, and "Billy Bathgate," set during Prohibition, has gangster Dutch Schultz as one of its main characters. "Ragtime," published in 1975, was Doctorow’s best known title and his most adapted, having been made into a film in 1981 and a musical in 1998. A pageant of upheaval in the early years of 20th-century America, its figures included Stanford White, J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, Henry Ford and Emma Goldman, whose lives were interwoven with the main fictitious characters.
The musical Ragtime was composed by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens with a book by Terrence McNally. The show, which was presented in a lavish production directed by Frank Galati, was largely praised and ran for two years at what was then called the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. It was nominated for several Tony Awards, and won for Best Book, Best Score, Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Audra McDonald and Best Orchestrations for William David Brohn. It won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Musical.