The national tour of Ragtime makes its closest post-Broadway brush with New York City May 29-June 3, when it plays the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ, but the era of the Tony Award-winning show — at least in its Equity tour incarnation with veterans of the Broadway staging — is almost over.
This slightly reconceived touring version of the Broadway show that won 1998 Tony Awards for Best Book (Terrence McNally) and Best Score (Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty) ends at The Wang Theatre in Boston June 5-10. It began in Houston July 31, 1999.
For many fans of the show, which lost the Best Musical Tony Award to The Lion King in 1998, the Broadway run of two years was too short in an era when other critically dismissed and award-poor shows run longer. In the National Broadway Theatre Awards, created in 2001 to recognize excellence in national tours, this road company of Ragtime was named Best Musical. The winners are decided by theatregoers throughout North America.
"I tracked the tour throughout the country (via the Internet) for a friend's web site, and couldn't disagree with the majority of newspaper critics who fell in love with Ragtime," said eager fan Julie Spencer, of Atlanta, who has seen the show seven times (three on the road and four on Broadway). "Is it too early to start speculating about the direction or casting of the revival in 20 years?"
Spencer told Playbill On-Line she had been a little nervous when she read that the tour would be scaled-down, physically, to fit in smaller venues and save on running cost, but said the touring cast "always had the advantage of being able to sing with their hearts closer to the music and to the audience. The true life and beauty of Ragtime was always in its score and libretto," not in the imposing physical production created for Broadway, Spencer said. The touring cast stars Lawrence Hamilton (as Coalhouse), Jim Corti (as Tateh), Victoria Strong (as Mother), Lovena Fox (as Sarah) and Joseph Dellger (as Father), features Sam Samuelson, Mary Gutzi, Jacqueline Bayne, Eric Olson and Leon Williams, with Inga Ballard, Jay Bodin, Austin Colyer, Jeff Cyronek, Peter Reardon, Harley Adams, Brook'lyn Carrey, Charles Wollin, Brittney Segal, Ann Arvia, Paul Avedisian, Phillip Michael Baskerville, LaToya D. Brown, Paul David Bryant, Kathy Calahan, Dioni Michelle Collins, Sheldon Craig, Dick Decareau, Edwardyne Cowan, Scot Fedderly, Kathi Gillmore, Raymond Jordan, Stuart Marland, Erich McMillan-McCall, Joe Paparella, Joi Danielle Price, Alecia Robinson, Nathaniel Stampley, Linda Strasser, Tom Treadwell, Jennifer Vaden and Crystal Williams.
The musical drawn from the E.L. Doctorow novel played its final Broadway performance Jan. 16, 2000, at the 1,812-seat Ford Center for the Performing Arts, the theatre that was built for the tuner's December 1997 christening. The show had its first preview Dec. 26, 1997 and opened Jan. 18, 1998. It played 26 previews and 861 performances. The show follows the intersecting lives of white folks, black folks and Jewish immigrants — with historical figures punctuating the tale — in and around New York City circa 1905.
"It ran two years, but it was still short for that show, it seems to me," librettist Terrence McNally told Playbill On-Line May 16. "It should still be up. What can I say? You do move on, but it was very sad at the time. I think it was a great show that will live. It will be truly recognized. It was recognized by a lot of people, not by The New York Times — and when they're not behind a show they make your life difficult. They just did not give us an inch, and we needed it. It was a big, expensive show. It was beautifully produced, one of the happiest, proudest achievements of my life. I know it will live again."
McNally said he hopes to get to Boston for the end-of-tour party.
Those close to the Broadway staging said at one point before the New York shuttering there was talk of scaling the show down and moving it to a smaller Broadway house, but that did not happen. There had been private hopes within the touring company that this staging might be brought back to Broadway, but that is not the plan of producer SFX Theatrical Group. The excessive running cost of the original, lavish staging was to blame for the show's relatively short, initial commercial life, 1998-2000.
Frank Galati directed and Graciela Daniele choreographed, and they also oversaw this tour. Stafford Arima is the tour's associate director (he was Galati's resident director on Broadway). Arima will stage a non-Equity tour (with choreography by Candace Jennings) that launches in September. That tour will have a further reconceived design and have input from members of the original creative team.
Observers say that Broadway will never again see the opulence of Ragtime, which had a massive physical production and more than 160 employees in service of each performance. The cast alone numbered 57.
The now-deposed producer Garth Drabinsky, the founder of Livent, Ragtime's original producer, believed in attaching all the bells and whistles to his shows, and Ragtime is a prime example of his showmanship: The show originally included moving bridges and walkways, rising and falling stage floors, a large cast and expensive-looking set pieces (such as a mammoth stereopticon) that appear only briefly in the three-hour performance.
SFX Entertainment acquired Ragtime when it bought Livent in 1999.
On the road, the show's once-elaborate moving bridges and walkways were scrapped in favor of actor-driven scenes (J.P. Morgan plows down immigrants on a railway cart, for example). The opening of Act Two — Edgar's dream and Houdini's magic trick — has also been rewritten and rethought for the tour. For this tour, the once-featured roles of Houdini, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford and others were blended into the ensemble (that is, the performers were in chorus roles as well).
The show had its pre-Broadway world premiere in Toronto Dec. 8, 1996. That cast (with several replacements, notably Judy Kaye stepping in for the Toronto and concept album's Emma, Camille Saviola) moved to New York a year later, and a separate company opened on Los Angeles June 15, 1997, and toured and later closed.
In a fall 1999 interview, actress Marin Mazzie, who originated the role of Mother in Toronto and on Broadway, told Playbill On-Line: "I think it's a show that should run forever because it's an accessible musical that says a lot about our culture, our country, our history and issues people need to hear. The story still needs to be told. I had people writing me, mostly women — a lot of young women. [The song] 'Back to Before' became, for a lot of people, a theme song or an anthem. I had people write to me and say, 'I listen to that song every day when I wake up.' It was a gift to be able to do it."
For ticket information about Newark performances, call (888) GO-NJPAC. For Boston tickets, call (617) 931-2787.