The Show Will Go On: Scuttled IL Ragtime Production Will Sing July 10-26

News   The Show Will Go On: Scuttled IL Ragtime Production Will Sing July 10-26 A planned outdoor theatre production of Ragtime that was shut down by park officials in Wilmette, IL, will sing in that Chicago suburb after all — at two new venues.
Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens
Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens

Sam Samuelson, who, with Carole Dibo co-owns and programs the 198-seat Wilmette Theatre, confirmed on July 2 that the homeless non-Equity troupers, under the direction of Ty Perry, will present a scaled-down concert version of the Tony Award-winning musical in their theatre 8 PM July 10-11. Tickets for the non-Equity staging are $5 and are expected to go like hotcakes given the local and national press generated by the controversy.

"We want to be the conduit to healing," Samuelson previously told Playbill.com. "We want to do this so that they can have a voice."

The presentation is produced by Wilmette Theatre Education Project and the newly formed Wheels of a Dream Productions, put together by the performers in recent days.

Director Perry, of Wheels of a Dream, told Playbill.com July 2 that four additional performances will be presented beyond the Wilmette Theatre. At 8 PM July 18-19 and July 25-26, the show will play (with full orchestra) at Regina Dominican High School in Wilmette. A smaller band will play the two shows at the more intimate Wilmette Theatre.

"They have a great, new state of the art theatre," Perry said. "It was really important for me that the show go up in Wilmette again." When the new run is over, it will have played three fewer performances than the original park plan, Perry said.

The right to stage the amended July 10-26 run was granted by the show's licensing agent, Music Theatre International. The musical's Tony Award-winning songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty gave the resurrected run their blessing.

The Wilmette Theatre is a multi-disciplinary venue that offers movies, children's theatre, lectures, comedy, plays and more. Visit www.wilmettetheatre.com for tickets or more information.

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Officials from the Wilmette Park District canceled the in-rehearsal show (previously set to open July 10) when they learned that the script and score included racial epithets. They worried that passersby in Gillson Park would hear the language outside of the show's context and be offended.

The show was to be directed by Ty Perry and was originally to be produced by Wilmette Park District.

The staging, set to play the outdoor Wallace Bowl in Gillson Park, part of the Wilmette Park District in suburban Chicago, was already in rehearsals by the company of more than 40 when they got their notice June 25. Wilmette Park District executive director Tom Grisamore canceled the show because he was concerned that passersby on the park grounds who did not know the context of the show would take offense to the racist "n-word," which is used several times in the script and score of the history-steeped show about racism, community, family and justice.

Opening night at the open-air Wallace Bowl in Gillson Park was set for July 10.

"We had grave concerns that people would take the language they heard over the amplified sound system out of context from a performance that was being held in the bowl," Grisamore told the Pioneer Press.

Grisamore took the heat for this decision, telling the paper, "This is something we very honestly should have known about and hopefully we could have acted on this sooner, but we did as soon as we found out what was there."

The district got the rights to the show in January, but the content of the show was not examined until recent days.

Playbill.com learned that a June 17 letter to the show's licensing agent, Music Theatre International, asked for changes in the script, and even included suggestions from Robert Bierie, performing arts supervisor of Wilmette Park District. MTI president Drew Cohen, who denied the right to change a word of the show, told Playbill.com that the Bierie-signed request included the no-less-offensive (out of context) words "darkie," "coon" and "boy" in lieu of the n word.

"I find this sad and also hilarious," Ragtime lyricist Lynn Ahrens told Playbill.com June 27. "It seems to sum up the blind ignorance of people who sit busily cherry-picking bad words, while not even bothering to read the script they are producing to understand its ideas or the context in which these words are spoken. We authors have always said that if people were uncomfortable producing the show, they shouldn't produce it. We feel the language is accurate and honest in the context of the era, and important to preserve. That hasn't stopped Ragtime from being produced in numerous theatres, high schools and colleges, where the heads of these institutions don't underestimate the intelligence of their audiences, whether comprised of children or adults, nor feel the need to censor and protect them from their own national history."

MTI's Cohen echoed Ahrens' sentiment: "Choose a different show, but don't be surprised if the authors and their representatives don't want to modify the show based on your suggestion. It was unfortunate that they let it get so far down the road before taking a close look at the script."

The 1998 Broadway musical, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, tells the tale of three disparate communities coming together in America in 1906. Racism, tolerance, assimilation and family are major themes that run throughout the musical, which won Tony Awards for Best Book (Terrence McNally) and Best Score (lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty).

Equity actor Perry said in an earlier Pioneer Press interview, "You take that word out of this story and you invalidate my history as an African-American male. Do I like the word? No. But to pretend nobody said it is wrong. I wouldn't even consider [changing the script]. Context is everything, and it's not gratuitous, it's not for shock value."

MTI licenses a full version of Ragtime and a shorter amended version, but the race-related language remains in both. If high schools attempt it, a study guide is sent along to help stimulate discussion in the community.