After more than four years of work, composer Stephen Flaherty put the finishing touches on the musical Ragtime Jan. 14, just four days before its Broadway opening.
Interviewed by Playbill On-Line Friday, Jan. 16, Flaherty was still in a whirl of activity, buying opening-night presents, doing last-minute press, getting his family from Pittsburgh settled into New York for the big night Sunday.
Ragtime, which opened in Toronto in Dec. 1996 and in Los Angeles in June 1997 has undergone continuous rewrites and tweaks. Flaherty spoke about the changes made to the show expressly for the Broadway, some during the three weeks of previews:
* "Changes have been mainly about focusing and giving more texture to certain characters. We've tried to work on certain character arcs," especially Tateh, Younger Brother, Harry Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit.
* The characters that have undergone some of the greatest changes were Harry Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit. "Their number 'Show Biz,' which is heard on the [1996 concept] album was replaced in Toronto with 'I Have a Feeling.' Lynn [Ahrens, lyricist] and I wrote a third song for them for the L.A. production, 'Welcome to Vaudeville,' which never made it to previews." All three songs have now been cut.
"What's in the show now, I think, is the most successful solution," he said. "In Ragtime, all the songs are attached to a larger musical structure. This scene is when the New Rochelle family goes to Atlantic City and sees Evelyn and Houdini performing. Rather than have them singing a duet, we thought it would be more interesting to see them each in their individual acts. The Nesbit story at that point was much different from Houdini's. We constructed two reprises, sung simultaneously: Evelyn's 'Crime of the Century' and Houdini's 'Harry Houdini, Master Escapist.' The reworking of those two themes into a new reprise section is encapsulated in a larger song, 'Atlantic City.' We've got three different events going on in different places. The umbrella of the scene is that they're all part of a movie being made by character of Tateh. It's all much more theatrical and exciting."
Flaherty said changes to that section of the show were the last to go in, Jan. 14. The first New York critics began coming to see the show Jan. 15, he said. * There were three periods of changes in the show: preparing in fall 1996 for Toronto, preparing in March 1997 for Los Angeles, and then final rewrites in fall 1997 for Broadway. " The changes from L.A. to Broadway have been very small," Flaherty said. "Most have been about giving the character of Tateh more texture. We've given him more lines in 'Gliding,' in which he invokes the memory of his dead wife, who died in Latvia. Up until then, his backstory was much more vague. [The new detail] gives the character more specificity and makes him more interesting. It makes it more interesting foe the actor, too. It gives him more to play in Act II when he meets the character of Mother. Now there's more of an arc to the character. Peter [Friedman, who plays Tateh] was thrilled."
* Settling the show into the Ford Center -- a brand-new theatre that Ragtime will inaugurate -- turned out to be easier than expected. "We were very nervous," Flaherty said. "The space had never been tested as far as sound, which is my department. But it was a very smooth transition. The production looks gorgeous. I think it looks the best in this theatre [of the ones it's played in]. The set was adapted to the new [proscenium] dimensions. What's great about this space is that it seems intimate although it's large. The sightlines are wonderful."
* "When we opened in Toronto we had been working on the show two years, probably about maybe 85, 90 percent there. It was really good to see the production on stage, then have time away from it."
* "The character of Mother's Younger Brother is much more interesting, and Emma Goldman, her positioning in the show is much more specific. The middle sections of both their songs are different. 'He Wanted To Say,' has a nearly completely new lyric and new musical material in the bridge. It really focuses the song on the meeting of Coalhouse and Younger Brother."
"'The Night Goldman Spoke at Union Square' now has a fantasy section in the middle of it, which is a big surprise to the audience."
* "We really focused the Morgan Library scene [the show's climax]."
* "We have a few new actors: Tommy Hollis as Booker T.Washington, a new Little Boy [Alex Strange], new Grandfather [Conrad McLaren], Judy Kaye [as Emma Goldman], who was so wonderful in the L.A. company, and a few of the ensemble people are new."
For Flaherty, the next 48 hours will be a whirlwind until he can relax at the cast party, planned for the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Manhattan's Park Avenue.