By Kenneth Jones
14 Jan 2000
The era of Ragtime, on Broadway, has run out.
The elaborate, big-cast staging of the Tony Award-winning musical drawn from the E.L. Doctorow novel will play its final performance 3 PM Jan. 16 at the 1,812-seat Ford Center for the Performing Arts, the newly constructed theatre that was built for the tuner's December 1997 christening.
Ragtime, by Terrence McNally (book), Lynn Ahrens lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), had its first preview Dec. 26, 1997 and opened Jan. 18, 1998. Frank Galati directed, Graciela Daniele choreographed.
Elements of the set are expected to be put in storage, perhaps to be seen again in a future revival of the show. Members of the company previously told Playbill On-Line that producers had hoped to trim the cast and scenic elements and move to a smaller theatre in New York City, but no theatres are immediately available in 2000.
The scaled-back national tour, with a leaner cast and sets, is currently in Hartford, CT, to Jan. 30.
There has been no official comment about a Broadway future for Ragtime, a three-hour pageant that seems to have a divided audience. Some call it a cold spectacle, others embrace it as a theatrical pageant punctuated by intensely passionate human portraits.
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 numbers 57.
The current cast includes Donna Bullock, Scott Carollo, Darlesia Cearcy, Larry Daggett (of the original Broadway company), Joseph Dellger, Erick Devine, Anthony Blair Hall, Tommy Hollis (of the original Broadway company), Michael Hyatt, Judy Kaye (of the original Broadway cast), Elizabeth Lundberg, David Mucci, Michele Ragusa, Michael Rupert, Tom Toner, Alton Fitzgerald White and Bernie Yvon.
For final weekend ticket information, call (212) 307-4100.
The closing statement Oct. 28, 1999 reported, "given the epic size of the production (the largest on Broadway with more than 160 employees on stage and backstage), the unwieldy cost of weekly operation has forced the show's new producers to shut it down."
"It is never easy to make the decision to close a show," said Scott Zeiger, of SFX Entertainment Inc., in a statement about the show that he said "enriched the Broadway landscape for two years."
The show won 1998 Tonys for Best Score, Best Book, Best Orchestrations and Best Featured Actress. The loss of the Best Musical prize to The Lion King was a blow to the company and the box office.
The week ending Jan. 9, 2000, the production grossed $589,076 of a possible $892,172. Weekly attendance has hovered around 80 percent recently, which is solid for a smaller show, but less desirable for a high maintenance production like Ragtime. The New York Times reported the show's running cost as $530,000 a week.
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 includes moving bridges and walkways, rising and falling stage floors, a large cast, sets pieces that appear only briefly in the three-hour performance, and more.
SFX Entertainment acquired Ragtime when it bought Livent in 1999.
The national tour of Ragtime continues with booking to 2001. Pace Theatrical Group, under the umbrella of SFX, scaled back the national tour of Ragtime in 1999 by trimming cast and scenic elements. Regional reviews have been favorable, suggesting the score and script can survive a more human-scale mounting.
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).
Ragtime began preview performances Dec. 25, 1997, and opened Jan. 18, 1998. It won four Tony Awards -- for McNally's book, Ahrens' and Flaherty's score, William Brohn's orchestrations and Audra McDonald's performance as Sarah.
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.
In a fall 1999 interview, actress Marin Mazzie, who originated the role of Mother in Toronto and on Broadway, told Playbill On-Line she was saddened by the news of the closing (she's currently starring with Ragtime co-star Brian Stokes Mitchell in Broadway's Kiss Me, Kate).
"It breaks my heart," Mazzie said. "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."