Ten years ago, actor Robert Petkoff was watching Ragtime on Broadway. This year, he's starring in Ragtime on Broadway.
Robert Petkoff
Robert Petkoff

The epic Terrence McNally-Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens musical, about seismic stirrings in America at the beginning of the 20th century, has made a quick return to Broadway. The new production, directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, was seen at the Kennedy Center, where was critically acclaimed. When it was unexpectedly called to Broadway, producers contacted Broadway and Chicago theatre vet Robert Petkoff (Fiddler on the Roof, Spamalot) to play the leading role of Jewish immigrant Tateh. Petkoff talked to about the experience of revisiting the show not as a theatregoer, but an actor. Were you familiar with Ragtime when you were cast in this production?
Robert Petkoff: I had seen it back in 1999 on Broadway. I'll have to admit that ten years down the line, my memory was not that good. So I had very good recollections of certain scenes, but the whole wasn't very firm. I had to be reminded who Tateh was, which is kind of embarrassing. Do you remember what your impression was when you saw it?
RP: I have to say I walked out of the theatre in love with the show. It's a beautiful piece. But I sort of rediscovered it again when they called and I went over the material. I kept saying to myself, "I get this sing this?!" and "I get to sing that?!" It was tremendous. You probably remember the large scale to which it was produced the first time around. A lot of people who were fans of the show thought, when it closed, that it would never be seen on Broadway again. It would be too big and costly.
RP: I remember Stephen Flaherty saying that he thought the next time he saw it would probably be at Encores! or something. It is kind of wonderful that one of our regional theatres [the Kenedy Center] would put this together and that someone with vision would say, "You know what? We're producing this on Broadway." What changes, if any, have they made to the production?
RP: Scriptwise, they've done some judicious editing. They're trying to keep the running time down. People who have listened to the cast album 1,000 times will notice there are some little bits and pieces missing from the music they're so familiar with. But I think it's done in a very skillful way. What's happening right now is the story just keeps continuing forward in a very good way and the audience — one of the greatest comments I keep hearing is people saying, "We had no idea that an hour and a half had gone by." They're really feeling the story. Is the cast smaller?
RP: There are 40 people in the cast, so the cast is the same size. But the Neil Simon is a more intimate theatre than was the Ford Center [where Ragtime originally played]. The audience gets a little closer to the action that way. [Director] Marcia Milgrom Dodge has emphasized the theatrically, rather than the almost cinematic flair you might associate with the first one, in that it had such an elaborate set. This set, which is elaborate in its way, requires more use of the imagination. I love when theatre says to the audience, "You have to participate." And this show does that. When the show first was done, it was 1998 and the end of the 20th century was approaching. People said the musical was perfect for its time because it was showing the beginnings of The American Century just as that era was drawing to a close. What do you think the show says in 2009?
RP: I think it says the same thing, but we've changed. I don't think in 1998, anyone would have conceived of a black President. And yet, we have that on the one hand, but we still have racism and bigotry and fear of immigrants still with us. We've made giant strides since 1998, but we still have a long journey to go. Tell me a little about yourself. Where are you from?
RP: Kind of all over. I started acting in Chicago. Then I got a TV pilot years later, and went to L.A. for about five years. I met my wife in San Diego, and she was a New Yorker, so I came out here in 1992. And that was the best decision I ever made. Were there any showbiz people in your family?
RP: None. Though my mother and father did star opposite each other in their high school play. What was it?
RP: Almost Seventeen. Can't say I'm familiar.
RP: I don't think it's very familiar to the theatre world today. There's a wonderful picture of the two of them kissing on a couch in the play. Maybe that's where the roots began.

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