Preparing Ragtime for the Big Time

Preparing Ragtime for the Big Time ON THE ROAD -- January, 1997

Canada's air carriers on the run between New York and Toronto became Broadway locals over the December 7-8 weekend as a multitude of New York theatrical biggies trooped up to this prime theatre center to attend the world-premiere engagements of the new musicals Jane Eyre and Ragtime.

While both Broadway-bound musicals were respectfully received, Ragtime, based on the E.L. Doctorow novel, generated a frenzy of superlatives from the Canadian critics and cautious enthusiasm from New York media, with the exception of one or two naysayers. "The Cup is back in North America," exulted Bernard Gersten, the executive producer of New York's Lincoln Center Theater at the glittering premiere party in the lobby of the Apotex Theatre at the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts. The allusion, of course, was to the top yachting prize, but he was really pointing to the theatrical rivalry between New York and London. The Brits, lead by master helmsman Andrew Lloyd Webber, have been heretofore leaving the Yanks in their wake. But the critical and commercial consensus is that Ragtime has the makings of an American musical theatre classic, equal to, if not superior, to Les Misérables or

The Phantom of the Opera.

The lavish $8.5 million Ragtime is the fruition of a two-year collaboration of a dream team brought together by Canadian producer Garth Drabinsky (Show Boat): librettist Terrence McNally (Kiss), lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty (Once on this Island), choreographer Graciela Daniele and director Frank Galati (Grapes of Wrath). Marin Mazzie, Peter Friedman, Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell are among the cast in this intermingling of stories among immigrant Jews, upper-middle class WASPS, and Harlem blacks colliding culturally in turn-of-the-century America.

A double cause for celebration is that Ragtime is an original musical that was methodically and carefully developed. Before opening on December 8, it was given two fully cast readings, a six-week workshop and nearly two months of rehearsals prior to bowing at the Apotex Theatre at Ford's. "We took our time," said a clearly elated Drabinsky surrounded by well-wishers at the reception. "We nurtured it. We loved it. We let it touch us, and we honored Doctorow. From the beginning what was key was the necessity to protect the integrity of his work."

In fact, the esteemed writer was a copious note giver through the development process, according to Drabinsky. On opening night he pronounced himself "enormously gratified" by the "gifted people who had made it a fount for their own creativity." Both McNally (Master Class) and Galati said that they found the novel to be a surfeit of riches. "It was a well that never ran dry," said McNally. "You were never in a position where you had to exaggerate or invent emotions that weren't there. It's material that just sings because it is so personally felt."

And Galati found similarities in the subject matter not only with Show Boat but also with his Tony Award-winning dramatization of The Grapes of Wrath. "Like both of those works, it is about the American family and our ability, as a people, to face ourselves in times of crisis and dig deep for what is best within us. It is the only thing that will save us. It's a lesson that needs re-telling in every generation and one that hopefully will be heard."