PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Ragtime The Music of Something Beginning, Again

By Harry Haun
16 Nov 2009

Ragtime stars Quentin Earl Darrington and Stephanie Umoh; original cast members Brian Stokes Mitchell (with wife Allyson), Lynette Perry (with husband Kevin McCollum and daughter Susan) and Marin Mazzie (with husband Jason Danieley)
Ragtime stars Quentin Earl Darrington and Stephanie Umoh; original cast members Brian Stokes Mitchell (with wife Allyson), Lynette Perry (with husband Kevin McCollum and daughter Susan) and Marin Mazzie (with husband Jason Danieley)
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

It's not a ragtag Ragtime that returned to Broadway Nov. 15 at the Neil Simon Theatre, but the style-over-spectacle revival imported from the Kennedy Center has been scaled down to accessible human size from the sprawling saga that spilled all over the cavernous Ford Center for the Performing Arts a dozen years ago.

A good thing, contended the show's Tony-winning creators (librettist Terrence McNally, lyricist Lynn Aherns and composer Stephen Flaherty), who were brought on stage by cast members at evening's end, along with their current leader, director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, and the father of 'em all, novelist E. L. Doctorow, for a well-earned bow.

Doctorow's deep-dish serving of 1906-vintage Americana, when the country was reeling from a socioeconomic tsunami that upended the barriers separating people, mixes fact and fancy to great dramatic effect. High-profile history-makers (Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Admiral Peary, Evelyn Nesbit) rub elbows awkwardly, uncomfortably with Everyman types (Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother, Grandfather, The Little Boy, The Little Girl).

Also in the fictional camp is Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem piano-player, and his lover, Sarah, a cleaning woman, dreaming of bettering themselves. More or less caught in the middle of this clash of class, they are martyrs of that friction. A far happier fate awaits Tateh, a Jewish immigrant who, not unlike Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn, finds his American dream in the hills of Hollywood.

These three storylines come at you in a sweep of change, and the stage for this is immediately established by Derek McLane's spare set which introduces the 40-member cast on three tiers of scaffolding segregating blacks, whites and immigrants. Even Coalhouse's piano and his Tin Lizzy get the skeletal treatment.

Tavern on the Green was a shrewd choice for an after-party site, seeming much like an extension of the bright, white world of the New Rochelle Caucasian contingent.

In an alcove just off the hall of mirrors, the creatives told the press how content they were with the less-is-more approach to Ragtime no fuss, no feathers, just fine.

"I think the show itself steps forward," said Ahrens when asked what was gained by taking Ragtime down an octave or two. "It takes a step forward when our eyes are not as distracted. It's in a small house now. Somehow, all the resonances of the show the score, the book, the storytelling it all comes front and center."

Flaherty agreed:. "We sorta discovered when we were doing the London West End production, which was a more of a pared-down production the orchestra was actually on the stage but I felt the music and the drama were the center of the piece as opposed to visual spectacle. We made some slight nips and tucks since the Kennedy Center so it's running even quicker now. The important thing is we wanted to make sure that we didn't compromise any of the story and that all the dramatic moments were really landing so the payoffs would be there later in the show. It's wonderful, and it's exciting, to sit in the audience and just see them take that ride."

McNally seconded that. "It has been that way from the first preview as well," he beamed. "It's not like opening night where they're really enthusiastic. We get that every night. It's pretty exciting. We cut a line here, bars of music there, but it's 98 percent the same show. There's nothing new. What's changed is society. I think the theatre makes a big difference. You can touch the people. It's a very clean, emotional production. The Ford Center was a bit like we were doing it at The Metropolitan Opera."

The playwright knows his opera. In fact, he'll have three nights at the opera at the Kennedy Center this spring — three opera-themed plays spinning in rep: Golden Age, a new backstage drama about launching Bellini's last opera, I Puritani, directed by Austin Pendleton (March 12-April 4, 2010); The Lisbon Traviata, directed by Christopher Ashley, with John Glover in the Nathan Lane role (March 20-April 11, 2010); and his Tony-winning Master Class, with Tyne Daly as Maria Callas (March 25-April 18, 2010).

Still missing in action from Ragtime is the Houdini trick that was the Act II curtain-raiser, "Welcome to Vaudeville." "Oh, that was Garth Drabinsky's idea," said McNally, meaning his now-convicted producer. "None of us wanted it. It took up five minutes!"

Flaherty grimaced at the memory. "Houdini used to escape from this giant box, and the authors were never a fan of that moment. We felt it was a fun entertainment, but it just wasn't the way that we really wanted to launch the act so, with this version, we're launching the act right back with the drama, with the Coalhouse story."

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Lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty
Photo by Aubrey Reuben
Sound-wise, Flaherty is delighted with the crew assembled by music coordinator John Miller. "We have 28 in the pit and orchestrations by Bill Brohn, who won the Tony for them before. The fact that the original number of musicians the full 28 are playing these amazing orchestrations is just great."

Director-choreographer Dodge, a 30-year member of SDC, is only now getting around to her Broadway bow, having worked "primarily in regionals," punctuated with a few Off-Broadway shows. "But I've had the pleasure of working with some of the greatest theatre artists who have been working over the past 30 years."

She includes the Ragtime triumvirate in that number. "The creatives were very hands on," she said. In point of fact, "they asked me to direct the show. Terrence has been watching my work at Bay Street Theatre for the past several years he and Tom Kirdahy, his partner and one of our producers and Lynn and Steve had seen a production of their Once on This Island that I had directed and choreographed at Bay Street, and then I got to do their Seussical for Theatreworks USA. When the Kennedy Center approached them about Ragtime, Terrence went to Lynn and Steve and said, 'What do you think about Marcia?' They said, 'Yeah. Let's give it to her. We'd love to see what she'll come up with.' So they basically said, 'Do what you did with Seussical.'"

This meant removing the kid gloves. "I had to put my reverence aside. I didn't want us to take it so seriously. I wanted us to really dig into the characters and found out who these people were and what they were struggling against and how to pursue those obstacles. You know, it's more than puttin' on a show when you're working on Ragtime, but I also didn't want to become intimidated by it. I wanted to dig in and roll up our sleeves and find out how these characters related to each other."

Next, Dodge will return to her roots. "I have some regional commitments I made before 'my big Broadway debut,' and I'll honor them. I'm doing Anything Goes down at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre in February, then I'm going to Reprise in Los Angeles to do How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." Continued...