The national tour of Ragtime, shuttered Nov. 17 by producer Livent only to be resurrected days later by Pace Theatrical Group, has been a roller-coaster emotional journey for its crew and 55-member cast, including headliners Rebecca Eichenberger and Michael Rupert.
Although company members signed with Pace Nov. 19-20, two days after the Nov. 17 posting that the tour (including January-March, 1999, Boston dates) would be abandoned Nov. 21, the Dec. 2-Jan. 3 Seattle deal wasn't a sure thing until the week of Thanksgiving, when all the legal and business papers were arranged to allow Pace to extract a property from the bankrupt Livent, which filed Chapter 11 papers.
The Dec. 3 official opening in Seattle was sweet for the cast, who had been at the brink of losing an important project and an extended family of fellow performers.
"We're so fortunate," Rebecca Eichenberger, who plays Mother in the musical, told Playbill On-Line Dec. 4, the day after opening in Seattle. "We had a near death experience...we went down the tunnel... we saw the light!"
Eichenberger and fellow cast member Michael Rupert (who plays Tateh) told Playbill On-Line that they have been with enough shows and projects to know that sometimes the floor falls out from underneath you. "If you can't roll with the punches, you should get out," Eichenberger said. But, still, both performers said the Nov. 17 notice was painful because -- both apologized for the cliche of it -- the troupe is "like family" and "very close." "That was part of the sadness," Eichenberger said.
"It's kind of amazing, for a company as large as this is, without sounding too Pollyanna-ish, there is a lot of love in this group," Rupert said. "A lot of that has to do with what that show is about. It started in rehearsal with Frank Galati and Graciela Daniele...the theme of the show is, 'make them hear you, go out and tell the story.'"
And both actors said they felt they hadn't explored all they could with their characters.
"One of the things that was so devastating [about the shut-down notice] was that I wasn't done with Mother," Eichenberger said.
Rupert explained that when he and Eichenberger sang "Our Children" Nov. 17, hours after learning they had (what they thought then) only five more days left on tour, their eyes stung with tears on stage. "It hit us that we weren't going to be singing this much longer," Rupert said.
"The next couple of shows many of us did the show with tears in our eyes," Eichenberger agreed. "You don't realize you have something so special until it's taken away."
The Nov. 17 was a jolt to some, and was expected by others, Eichenberger said. "We were shocked, even though we're in the business and we know this happens. We all went, 'OK, we're the first casualty [of the Livent financial meltdown].' Then, it really set in. Some people didn't feel it until the next day."
An emergency meeting was called Nov. 19 with an Actors' Equity Association representative and the new Pace producers. They had 12 hours to sign on, under terms of the original contract.
"People had just gotten used to the fact that we were closing..." said Eichenberger. All but three re-signed, agreeing to Seattle and Boston [Pace announced Boston as a sure thing Dec. 8].
"It's a little special in Seattle," Rupert said. "Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes. The audiences here, too, in the three shows we've done so far, have really been on our side."
Cheers and enthusiasm poured out at the 8 PM Dec. 3 Seattle opening (following a matinee the same day), said Eichenberger and Rupert. There was a great sense of affirmation to the opening in Seattle, compared to the April 1998 tour launch in Washington DC, where there was nervousness because the theatre community and the creators were watching.
"We were all extremely proud," Eichenberger said.
Both stars agreed that the shuttering of the expensive Ragtime is a double-edged sword: It's hard to make money on the show because of its huge cast, crew and set (which takes 7-10 days to travel and load), but the work is so powerful and satisfying because it is so full realized by its creators. "They didn't skimp," Eichenberger said.
Rupert said, "It's an expensive show because of the cost of touring and because it's almost as big as the Broadway show."
When a show loses money, Eichenberger said, "the implication always is it's not good enough. That was devastating to me."
A confirmation of the Jan. 20-March 28 Boston booking is expected the week of Dec. 7.
According to Rupert and Eichenberger, and industry sources, many of the Ragtime tour contracts end after the Boston booking, a likely time for Pace to reconsider the property and possibly attempt to make it more commercially viable by scaling down the cast or scenic elements. It was scheduled for San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre in April.
What to do in the meantime?
"Journey on," said Eichenberger.