“Nothing much happens in a year. The world will not spin off its axis. Nothing will change, Mother. We will miss each other but the world will stay the same.” – Terrence McNally, Ragtime
“When we agreed to write this track-by-track analysis of Ragtime, we thought it would be a diversion from our current states of isolation. The world actually had spun off its axis, but at least we could still write something together. We never dreamed that a few days later, on March 24, we would lose our beloved friend and collaborator Terrence McNally to complications associated with the COVID-19 virus. Terrence was generous, brilliant, funny, cantankerous, filled with emotion and heart to the brim. We wrote three shows together, arguing and laughing over every line, lyric, and note, drinking a lot of coffee and talking about life and theatre and family. We were family. His intelligence and love for all things musical and theatrical hum through every inch of Ragtime. We can’t imagine life without him. We can’t imagine the theater without him. And what will the world be like now, without him? Nothing will ever be the same.”
– Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty
Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime began Broadway performances December 26, 1997, and officially opened January 18, 1998, at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts (now the Lyric Theatre). The musical with a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens played there for two years, but has lived on as a beacon of the musical theatre canon. Nominated for 12 Tony Awards, Ragtime took home trophies for Best Book of a Musical for McNally, Best Original score for Ahrens and Flaherty, Best Featured Actress for Audra McDonald, and Best Orchestrations for William David Brohn. A portrait of America in the early 20th century through the eyes of three disparate communities (wealthy white New Rochellians, the black community of Harlem, and immigrants of the Lower East Side), here is a look inside the making of Ragtime.
Stephen Flaherty: This was one of the first four songs Lynn and I wrote on spec as our “audition” to write the score of Ragtime. The inspiration for the notes of the opening piano theme came to me while reading Terrence’s 60-page treatment, which was given to us by our producer, Garth Drabinsky, as the basis for writing these early songs. In it, Terrence quoted a beautiful passage from E.L. Doctorow’s novel: “Small, clear chords hung in the air like flowers. The melodies were like bouquets. There seemed to be no other possibilities for life than those delineated by his music.” This was a recipe for what the music should sound like. I was off and running. (This first song, by the way, was “music-first.”) Our orchestrator, Bill Brohn, was so taken with the notion of starting such a large production with only a solo piano, that he kept my original piano arrangement for the entire beginning until the ensemble vocals enter. As is usual for our process, the opening number was both the first and last thing we wrote, as we kept folding new musical ideas and themes into it as the rest of the show developed. The “dance” section (beginning at 7:24) was actually composed as part of our original demo. Choreographer Graciela Daniele did her brilliant staging of the three “tribes” to this pre-existing music. One last thing: Every time that the word “Ragtime” is sung throughout, we never go to the “tonic chord.” It is always followed by two beats of silence—until the very end (9:04) where the song finally achieves its resolution. This was meant to keep the ideas moving forward, never stopping or resolving.
Lynn Ahrens: Some nine writing teams were asked to audition for Ragtime. This was an audacious idea. But then, Garth was nothing if not audacious. We had exactly 11 days in which to write and produce four demos, in between other projects, so I wrote two lyrics, Stephen wrote two pieces of music, and then we swapped. We tried to choose ambitious moments that would show we could write a large-scale piece, especially because it was something we’d never done before. We didn’t know Terrence McNally except by reputation, but he’d written us each a beautiful note after he saw Once On This Island, and we were thrilled at the possibility of working with him. So, in this sweeping opening number, I introduced each of the main characters using bits of narrative from Terrence’s treatment to show that we were sensitive to his text. And, we emphasized the over-arching themes of a changing, “exploding” America, a clash of races and cultures, the disparity of rich and poor. One of my favorite lyrics in this song, believe it or not, is “La la la la la,” which to me implies the blithe obliviousness of the wealthy white New Rochelle folks. Stephen thought I’d written those syllables as placeholders, but I meant those la las! Terrence, E.L. Doctorow, and Garth listened together to all the blind demo submissions. Terrence later told us, “We all agreed. You were it,” and he said he was glad to find it was “those kids” who’d done Once On This Island. He was always so incredibly generous to up-and-coming writers, actors and directors.
2 - “Goodbye, My Love”
Ahrens: When we started working together with Terrence on Ragtime, it became clear immediately that he wasn’t only a great playwright, but a great librettist. After one of our early meetings, he handed me an envelope and said, “Read this when you have a chance.” I opened it in a cab and burst into tears, realizing that our collaboration would work, and that his work could inspire lyrics. He had written a wonderful monologue for Mother, standing on the dock, saying goodbye to her husband as he sails off on expedition. The first lines of this monologue were: “Goodbye, my love, God bless you. And I suppose bless America, too.” They became the first lyrics of the song, which Marin Mazzie performed so eloquently—a woman staying behind as her husband goes adventuring, who vows “to explore” in her own way.
Flaherty: The music itself came directly out of Terrence’s words and begins as a delicate waltz that then reveals deeper emotional colors as it goes along (“But what of the people who stay where they’re put…”). This section of music really surprised me as I was writing it, as it revealed a deeper emotional current in Mother’s inner thoughts than she is allowed to reveal in public.
3 - “Journey On”
Flaherty: Since Terrence’s previous scene segued into this one, I had the music flow from Mother’s previous song, creating overlapping patterns that felt to me like “water,” mirroring the ever-changing emotional undercurrents in our characters’ lives. Terrence’s libretto originally only focused on the Father and Tateh stories in this scene, as it does in the novel. But after some discussion, we all thought we could cover more ground by bringing back Mother in the middle of the song (her “But what of the people” theme from the previous number now functioning as the bridge). So, this duet became a trio, and these characters formed a triangle. I think we were all excited by the notion that this song could connect these three important characters (who would not all meet until much later in the show) in the audience’s minds and ears. In Act 2, when these three characters meet in Atlantic City, it feels like destiny.
Ahrens: This is a stunning moment in the show. The number is filled with movement, both literal and emotional. Only the theatre could dramatize a scene like this—three stories and three states of mind, happening simultaneously.
4 - “The Crime Of The Century”
Flaherty: We’d written a song for Evelyn Nesbit as one of our original four “audition” songs. It was a naughty, jazz-baby song called “You Don’t Know” and was sung to Younger Brother after they had made love. When the plot changed (Spoiler alert: Evelyn and Younger Brother don’t get together anymore in Ragtime!) we wrote another song for Evelyn, “Girl On The Swing.” This was also replaced at an early reading by “The Crime Of The Century,” which focused on the murder trial. Seeing as this song featured many facts of the trial, it was lyrics-first. It is sung here by my CCM friend-from-college, Lynette Perry—who also sang the chorus girl parts on our original demo of the song.
Ahrens: One of my first professional jobs as a songwriter was on the famous animated TV series Schoolhouse Rock. Writing those three-minute musical history lessons taught me to how to describe a complicated subject in a concise and entertaining way. It served me well in this number, which spells out the story of a famous American scandal, using a vaudeville motif, and even introduces the character of Younger Brother, played by Steven Sutcliffe. A very hardworking expositional number in the guise of an entertainment.
5 - “What Kind Of Woman”
Flaherty: This is a musical scene, which again began with Terrence’s words. The music serves the drama: the introduction of Sarah into our story. An excellent lyric by Lynn (as she points out below) tells us so much about Mother’s processing of the situation and the very sheltered lives of those in New Rochelle society.
Ahrens: As a lyricist, you try to channel the character’s feelings, and I knew exactly how Mother felt when I wrote this—a woman who has to make a moral decision, and finds that for the first time, she has to do it without her husband’s input. The lyrics grew right out of E.L. Doctorow’s words. He wrote about the hired help arriving to work in New Rochelle, which became: “Each day the maids trudge up the hill. The hired help arrives.” But I went a step beyond his lines with: “I never stopped to think they might have lives beyond our lives.” I’ve always felt that in Doctorow’s novel, the emotions lie in between the lines, and this is a good example.
6 - “A Shtetl Iz Amereke”
Flaherty: The main theme that serves as the basis for this sequence is borrowed from an actual old immigrant song. This sequence was developed during the rehearsal process in Toronto when our director, Frank Galati, asked us all to “improv” the immigrant experience, using props and movement to create characters and to illustrate the emotions in coming through Ellis Island’s gates. He asked me to accompany the improv at the piano, creating music on the spot. Every time Frank would yell “Gates!”, the music would need to illustrate the large gates rising and falling down. (You can hear this at 0:15-0:25, 0:39-0:48 and 1:03-1:11.) We would eventually create and layer other vocal counter lines, in other languages, creating a tapestry of chaos and urgency, finally uniting everyone on the word “America.”
Ahrens: I researched songs sung by immigrants of many nationalities, and eventually managed to weave a few together into a chorale, as hordes of immigrants enter through the gates of Ellis Island, each with their papers in hand and their dreams and expectations: “You’ll soon be eating apple pie from off a china plate. Pretty dresses, pretty dolls, just wait!” It’s of interest that in Anastasia, Terrence also envisioned a number for immigrants—but instead of the ones arriving in a new country, it would be for the ones leaving their homeland behind.
7 - “Success”
Flaherty: I personally struggled with this song for quite a while, trying to find a fresh take on the sound of our Eastern European immigrants. (It couldn’t sound like watered-down Fiddler!) Finally, I hit upon the notion that this song should contain elements of the new world and the old world, using ragtime and American syncopation for the new and klezmer colors suggesting the old. On going back to my notes, I saw that I had tried a similar approach in my original musical sketch, which was titled “Silhouette Man.” Sometimes you just have to trust your original instincts! Here is Peter Friedman, again as Tateh, with Judy Kaye as Emma Goldman.
Ahrens: Terrence’s concise dramatic scenes weave in and out of this sequence, building the story, as
the immigrant Tateh begins with hope but is battered down by the hardships and prejudices he encounters in New York. The Broadway staging placed JP Morgan high on a catwalk that slowly lowered and crushed the immigrants. But Tateh also envisions another immigrant, the famed Harry Houdini, who gives him encouragement. These words are about Tateh’s defiant vows to escape.
8 - “His Name Was Coalhouse Walker”
Flaherty: Coalhouse’s backstory is sung by the Harlem Ensemble in this playful ragtime piece. It is our musical introduction to the world of Harlem.
Ahrens: This song serves as a joyous reveal of a main character, played by Brian Stokes Mitchell. Again, it’s a little history lesson about a man’s journey from stevedore to self-taught pianist who is “turnin’ Harlem into art.” It helps to transition us scenically from the Lower East Side to Harlem, and as always, Graciela’s choreography made the scene change seamless. As the determined Tateh began to push his heavy cart upstage, a group of people entered downstage, dancing to the music of a man seated with his back to us, playing the piano. The stage went from one world to another without missing a beat—literally. The man at the piano swung around and sang the last line—and voila! There was Coalhouse Walker Jr. A true star entrance.
9 - “Gettin’ Ready Rag”
Ahrens: This is a wonderful dance sequence in which Coalhouse gets spiffed up in preparation for seeing his Sarah—a shave, a shoeshine, a bowler hat.
Flaherty: Stokes and the Harlem Ensemble gettin’ ready to win back Sarah. Since Coalhouse is a virtuoso ragtime pianist, I had to make sure the music reflected that. I only wish you could see the terrific choreography by Graciela on this recording. Oh, and the suggestion that we create a “fun dance number” was again from our dramatist, Terrence.
10 - “Henry Ford”
Flaherty: Our homage to Stephen Foster, another composer who hails from my hometown of Pittsburgh. A jaunty little banjo tune about big business, where everyone is a “cog in motion,” it celebrates “mass production,” even at the expense of the men and women who work daily in the factories.
Ahrens: Terrence wrote a monologue for Henry Ford that once again leapt into words and music. Here, factory workers become a human assembly line, turning out the Model T Ford that Coalhouse Walker will buy. In the original production, an actual Model T rolled off the line, Coalhouse Walker landed triumphantly in the car, and then drove it straight offstage. Only on Broadway! Terrence later rewrote Henry Ford’s narrative so that the sequence could be performed without an actual car.
11 - “Nothing Like the City”
Flaherty: Mother and Tateh never meet on the train platform in E.L. Doctorow’s novel, but they do in Terrence’s libretto. This is a quiet, character-specific quartet for Mother, Tateh, The Little Boy (Alex Strange), and The Little Girl (Lea Michele.) During the creation of the show, we were worried about the length of Act 1 and so we cut this charming character song for one performance. Everyone missed it! And so, it was back in the following performance and has stayed there since. (This theme is brought back in Act 2, alas not on this recording, when Mother meets the Baron, who is a re-invented Tateh.)
Ahrens: I always enjoy it when The Little Boy sings at the top of his lungs the secret Mother would rather people didn’t know: “The little negro baby who lives in our attic!” And I particularly love the house laugh that happens every time Tateh sings: “She called me sir. Without a doubt we’re really out of New York City!” The characters are so different from one another, so formal and polite, and yet so curious about each other. How could they fail to meet in Act 2?
12 - “Your Daddy’s Son”
Flaherty: Lynn felt we needed to understand the motivation for Sarah’s actions earlier in the story, that we needed to know why she did what she did. (This, by the way, is never explained in the novel or its film adaptation.) We set out to write a song for Sarah. Audra McDonald, who played the role of Sarah in our very first reading and on Broadway, was our Muse for this song—which we wrote in one afternoon—for the character and for our performer’s spectacular voice. Thank you, Audra, for the assist!
Ahrens: Stephen came up with the simplest of melodies, a lullabye, as Sarah sings to her infant son, telling him why she did what she did. The lyric just spilled out, escalating into an almost operatic crescendo of guilt and pain, as she relives her raw emotions. Terrence loved this song for its operatic scope.
13 - “The Courtship”
Ahrens: This sequence pulls everyone into the action of Coalhouse’s determined courtship of Sarah. He arrives in New Rochelle in search of his Sarah, intriguing Mother, delighting The Little Boy, inspiring Younger Brother and scandalizing Grandfather. Before long, the goodhearted Mother invites him in, he sits down at the piano, and “a new music” begins. I enjoy the forthright lyric, “Curtains would part, neighbors would peek.” In six words, it sums up the world of white New Rochelle nervously discovering a new energy in their midst.
Flaherty: This uses several of our musical themes and is interrupted with Father’s return from the North Pole.
14 - “New Music”
Flaherty: This is about musical architecture: a solo that becomes a duet, that becomes a trio, that becomes an ensemble, that leads us to a second duet (Coalhouse and Sarah), finally finishing with the entire Company singing as Sarah descends the staircase. At our opening night on Broadway, my father, who was seated next to me, grabbed my arm during the “staircase moment” and gave me a look that said, “I get it now, musicals don’t always have to be just fun or silly; they can move you, too. They can be about something.” So, I will forever associate that moment in this song (3:10-3:31) with Sarah, Coalhouse, staircases and my father.
Ahrens: Terrence always listened to music as he wrote, believing in the profound emotions it could evoke. This started as a gorgeous little musical sketch that Stephen sent me. It was hard to set words to the tune in a natural way because of the syncopations, so it took me a while. But now I cry every time I hear this number. I can’t explain it, although I’m sure Terrence could. I think it’s simply because the sublime melody wafts straight to the heart, lifting us out of our various complacencies and prejudices, and making us feel something deep and true in the way only music can.
15 - “Wheels Of A Dream”
Flaherty: The “big song” for Coalhouse and Sarah, was one of the very few musical moments we had written for Audra at the first reading. Originally titled “America’s Child,” the genesis of the music surprised me: I had the musical idea for the main part of the song (“I see his face”) while on an elevator “going down” after a meeting, and the musical idea for the bridge (“The wheels are turnin’ for us, girl”) while in a cab with Lynn, as it lurched crosstown in Manhattan. If the song is about access and machinery taking us somewhere else, then perhaps it was meant to be created on two pieces of machinery that were trying to move its composer from A to B.
Ahrens: I shudder at the original title! But I started out writing as if the song were about the child. Luckily, it finally occurred to me that the song was really about the mythical American Dream, represented by the car. That car signifies to Coalhouse everything he wants to achieve, not just for himself but for his son—a future on the move, wheels turning, times starting to roll--and a country that he believes will be welcoming and fair.
16 - “The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square”
Flaherty: This song started out as a near-solo for Younger Brother (which can be heard, in this alternate version, on the earlier “concept” album Songs From Ragtime.) Ultimately, it was decided that the audience should “see” Younger Brother radicalized by Goldman, and in a more surreal way. Sidebar: Younger Brother was Terrence McNally’s favorite character in the show.
Ahrens: Younger Brother is “a firework, unexploded” and the rabble-rousing Emma Goldman is the match that sets his heart alight. He ducks into a rally on a cold winter’s night, and suddenly imagines that Emma is speaking just to him, calling him out on his youthful foolishness. It’s a surprising moment, a sudden realization of purpose for the character, and by the end he is lyrically and literally “standing on a chair.”
17 - “Gliding”
Flaherty: Another one of our first four “audition songs.” This song started out as a beautiful lyric by Lynn. The delicate invocation of Tateh’s wife in the middle of the song (1:22-1:48) was the last section of music and lyrics Lynn and I wrote for the Broadway production. After that moment, we writers put our pens down and the production was officially “frozen.”
Ahrens: After the physical and musical violence of the strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, this song provides a small and intimate moment to let our hearts stop racing. Tateh rescues his daughter from the melee, and gives her the flipbook he’s made, which animates the graceful silhouette of an ice skater. It seemed the perfect metaphor for Tateh’s quest, an image of forward movement and the promise of better things to come.
18 - “The Trashing Of The Car”
Ahrens: The central theme of prejudice rears its head, as the Irish firemen trash Coalhouse’s prized Model T. It was important to communicate that fire chief Willie Conklin embodies the fear and hatred that the Irish themselves experienced and later re-directed against African-Americans.
Flaherty: This difficult but powerful moment had to be dealt with in a more stylized way. The musical theme as Conklin and his men trash Coalhouse’s Model T is used as the basis for the next song, as Coalhouse tries to navigate the American judicial system.
19 - “Justice”
Flaherty: The angular theme of the “trashing” is developed here in a quick succession of musical and dramatic variations. This music is also used in the second half of “Entr’acte.”
Ahrens: Coalhouse begins a fruitless journey from lawyers to clerks to government officials, trying to get acknowledgement of the wrong that has been done to him and satisfaction for the damages his car has sustained. As his rage increases, he becomes fixated on his pursuit, irrationally setting his own happiness aside. Stokes always insisted on the honesty of everything he said and sang. Instead of the original lyric: “I’m not some fool. I’m not some n*gger!” he asked if he could make it: “I’m not some fool. I’m not their n*gger!” That one word “their” changed the meaning radically and brilliantly.
20 - “President”
Flaherty: Audra’s performance of this short song is nothing short of heartbreaking. It is a simple plea for empathy and compassion to America’s commander-in-chief.
Ahrens: This extraordinary moment dramatizes a random event that is so familiar today it’s like a punch in the gut. Younger Brother tells us: “Guns were going off everywhere.” Sound familiar?
21 - “Till We Reach That Day”
Flaherty: The fourth of our “audition songs” was written music-first, the hymn asking for “a day of peace.” Lynn, upon hearing it, felt that it was a moving hymn but didn’t express the anger and outrage that many in the congregation and the world would be feeling as a result of this horrible incident. She, of course, was absolutely right. So I wrote a jagged, sinewy ragtime counter line for Coalhouse and the others to express their anger as the hymn continued. The song is performed by the extraordinary Broadway company, but I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to some of the folks who sang on the original demo: Chuck Cooper, Tina Fabrique, Andrea Frierson, Michele Pawk, Bill Nolte, Ted Brunetti, and Billy Porter (who rocked the ALTO section!)
Ahrens: What we wrote incorporates not only the Harlem Ensemble, but also the specific viewpoints of Mother, Younger Brother, Emma Goldman and more—all reacting to the horror of the death and also to the state of the land. “What is wrong with this country?” is as blunt and personal a line as I’ve ever written. Sadly, it seems to resonate now more than ever.
1 - “Entr’acte”
Flaherty: This instrumental starts with the “Ragtime” theme, then segues to the darker strains of “Justice,” preparing the audience for the darker places the story will travel.
Ahrens: The entr’acte isn’t a recapitulation of musical themes as much as a dramatic piece of music, composed to set the mood and prepare the audience for what Act 2 will bring.
2 - “Harry Houdini, Master Escapist”
Flaherty: In the Broadway production, this number, which centered on The Little Boy and Houdini (Jim Corti), was really an artful way to justify an elaborate and extremely large magic trick that was taking place. When the trick malfunctioned during the performance one evening, stage management segued directly from the “Entr’acte” to “Coalhouse’s Soliloquy.” We all instantly realized that the show worked better that way, without the trick. So even though this song is no longer part of the licensed version of the show, its theme still appears in the opening number (Houdini’s entrance) and in the number “Atlantic City” (during Houdini’s duet with Evelyn).
Ahrens: The trick at the top of Act 2 was created by a well-known Las Vegas magician, Franz Harary, and I’m sure it cost a fortune. Basically, Houdini was chained and straight-jacketed and placed inside a giant box. The box was lifted into the air, where it exploded. And of course, Houdini disappeared. It was great fun, but it was just one of those things.
3 - “Coalhouse’s Soliloquy”
Flaherty: A dramatic musical monologue, which reminds the audience of why Coalhouse is on this particular mission. It was the last piece of music written during our Toronto workshop. We put it in the show between the morning and afternoon performances of our final day there. (Thank God Stokes sight-reads!) It contains elements of “Your Daddy’s Son,” “Justice,” “Wheels Of A Dream,” and “Ragtime.”
Ahrens: Stokes was the embodiment of righteous anger and emotional despair in this moment. Coalhouse’s love, his music, his life all seem meaningless to him, and all he can see ahead is the violence of revenge. A man on a bare stage, with a gun.
4 - “Coalhouse Demands”
Flaherty: A through-composed musical scene that shows how Coalhouse’s actions affect the many different individuals and groups of people in New Rochelle and New York City. During our out-of-town previews in Toronto, Garth kept hollering at me to “Give me more! Give me more!” Needless to say, I was at a bit of a loss, not knowing how I could amp up the intensity any more than I already had. So I asked our Toronto music director, Ted Sperling, his opinion. “Take it all up a sixth,” was his reply. Which we did. Problem solved! (And it also explains those insanely high sopranos towards the end.)
Ahrens: This number touches down in so many places and explores so many attitudes. I think it’s a great example of the collaboration between book writer, lyricist, and composer. While the “perfect family” in New Rochelle begins to fracture and the firemen run in terror, the Harlem community protects Coalhouse. I asked one of our actors what she would say if she were actually asked by reporters for information. With her permission, her response became this lyric: “And I wouldn’t tell those peckerwoods even if I did.”
5 - “What A Game”
Flaherty: Lynn and I wrote this song, a toe-tapper about racism and prejudice, as a way for the audience to exhale after the previous number, with the song still making a dramatic point. Well, it was not the number Terrence was expecting from us when we first presented it in a work session. In fact, he thought it felt wrong. It wasn’t until our director weighed in that we all agreed to at least try it within the context of the show. It worked, and the number stayed.
Ahrens: I’ve been asked several times if I would rewrite the lyrics to eliminate the slurs so the song could be performed on TV at one game or another, but I’ve never agreed. I think it’s perfect, offensively funny as it is. I also enjoy being the female lyricist who set “Hock, spit.”
6 - “Fire In The City”
Flaherty: A driving instrumental, combining the themes of “Coalhouse Demands,” the angry ragtime counter line of “Till We Reach That Day” and, finally, “Justice,” to musically illustrate Coalhouse’s escalating violence.
Ahrens: A musical “meanwhile”—reminding us that Coalhouse’s rampage is still playing out, even while some people are playing baseball.
7 - “Atlantic City”
Flaherty: If “Gettin’ Ready Rag” is an homage to the Harlem School of Ragtime and great artists like Scott Joplin and James P. Johnson, then this surely is my homage to Irving Berlin's Tin Pan Alley style of rag. After writing several other numbers for Evelyn and Houdini (two in Toronto, another in Los Angeles—one of which, “The Show Biz,” can be heard on the earlier “concept” album), we decided this duo would best be featured in this larger “Atlantic City” sequence. They were still front and center, but the sequence covered more dramatic ground.
Ahrens: You can almost feel the sea breezes and see the band strutting down the boardwalk. The song is a breath of fresh air for both the family and the audience, after the claustrophobic siege of the family’s house In New Rochelle. There’s also a certain irony to it, since Mother and Father have just had a quarrel, and are trying to “run away” from their troubles.
8 - “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.”
Flaherty: Full disclosure: This is the only song of mine that recycles part of a “trunk song” originally written for another score. (Cue the Composers’ Walk Of Shame…) Its main theme was originally written for our show The Glorious Ones, then discarded. Since the tune is fun, comedic, and has lots and lots of eighth notes, we thought it might be useful for Tateh’s song of reinvention. (Footnote: The Glorious Ones would not be produced in New York City for another nine years. That’s the show biz.)
Ahrens: Since we last saw Tateh and The Little Girl escaping from Lawrence, Massachusetts, there’s been a lot of water under the bridge. This speedy little lyric tells how he has gone from impoverished silhouette maker to movie director, and his fabulous ascent to the self-invented “Baron Ashkenazy.”
9 - “Our Children”
Flaherty: A simple lyrics-first duet for Mother and Tateh. Lynn’s lyrics were so beautiful and casual and direct that this song virtually wrote itself. It is one of our favorites and is so beautifully sung here by Marin and Peter. It is subtle, but we hear the verse melody of “Gliding” played on the calliope as the musical introduction to “Our Children.” It quietly brings back the notion of parents and children to the foreground.
Ahrens: Here’s the meeting of unexpectedly kindred souls, an upper-class woman from new Rochelle, and a Jewish immigrant. They talk only about their children, but in keeping to that topic, they’re able to express their attraction. The children seemed, to me, to embody Mother and Tateh themselves: “Children run so fast, toward the future, from the past.”
10 - “Harlem Nightclub”
Flaherty: A short dance to remind the audience of what Coalhouse has lost and also to lead us into the next song. It uses the release of “Justice” and part of “Ragtime” in a “club” setting.
Ahrens: A romantic pas de deux for two people draws Coalhouse into a reverie about Sarah, and she magically appears.
11 - “Sarah Brown Eyes”
Flaherty: The final full song we wrote for the show as we approached previews in Toronto. Again, thank you, Audra McDonald. You were so good in Act 1 we had to figure out a way to bring you back in Act 2. This “ragtime valentine” was quickly written in a day, and Stokes and Audra sight-read it at the end of that day. Just like in the movies: a song is born!
Ahrens: In this poignant moment, Coalhouse suddenly sees Sarah at the moment of their first meeting—and he relives their banter and first dance. Graciela’s choreography created this lovely stage moment, as Coalhouse and Sarah dance together but never touch. This was made even more poignant when she backs slowly away, into the darkness, leaving him alone. I think it was Marilyn Bergman who said, “The words are on the tips of the notes.” In this song, the name “Sarah Brown Eyes” and “the stars are silver notes across that sky now” seemed to be on the tips of Stephen’s melody. They were just there, calling to me.
12 - “He Wanted To Say”
Flaherty: This song, the favorite of E.L. Doctorow and Stephen Schwartz, has had the most complicated history of all the songs that have appeared in this show. Its first appearance was on the “concept album” that was recorded two years prior. Though perhaps the most musically thrilling version of all of the versions, it was not the most dramaturgically-sound version. (On that recording, Younger Brother’s “I know how to blow things up” appears a third of the way through, rather than at the end!) The song was rewritten for Broadway and featured the main theme and elements of “Journey On” for its bridge (the version you hear here). The song was taken out of the show during a subsequent national tour (Wow, that REALLY didn’t work!) and then put back in for its London West End version (with the “Journey On” section removed) and then shortened again for the 2009 Broadway revival. Dramaturgically I realize our show probably needed to move ahead more quickly in this section, but I still thrill to that imperfect, somewhat dysfunctional first version, which clocks in at nearly four minutes!
Ahrens: I love this version of the song on the CD, but I think the version that we currently use in the show is also excellent—short, dramatic, leading to the explosion at the end. My collaborators hate me on this one. I can’t help it--I twitch when a song outlives its stage time, when you know the audience is ahead of it and eager to see what will happen next.
13 - “Back To Before”
Flaherty: A perfect lyric that Lynn gave me as a true gift. She felt Mother needed a final statement towards the end of Act 2 and this was it. Lynn never changed a single lyric from its first draft. She didn’t need to: it was already perfect. Interesting sidebar: If you look at the rest of the score, Mother’s numbers never “button”; she is unfinished and constantly evolving. Her character is not able to “button” until this moment. Enjoy the song as sung by the incomparable Marin Mazzie, whom I miss daily.
Ahrens: All hail Terrence McNally. “We can never go back to before” was a single line of text. It roiled around in my head for days, and one morning I woke up very early and wrote this lyric in one go. I faxed it to Stephen (yes, this was in the days of faxes) and he set it. Oddly, I had an entirely different meter in my head than what he came up with. But what he came up with was so much better! And here’s another interesting sidebar: Mother is a soprano in Act 1, but this song allows her to belt at last! Marin gave the definitive performance of this song—a woman finally stepping into a new century with grace and self-empowerment. No one will ever be better.
14 - “Look What You’ve Done”
Flaherty: The culmination of the drama, set in the Morgan Library, and the area of our show we dubbed “The Play,” since we had no idea how to musicalize it. The breakthrough came with Lynn’s notion that we should not “play it in real time.” It would combine all of Coalhouse’s themes and Sarah’s “Your Daddy’s Son,” which would weave around a new theme for Booker T. Washington. The theme for “Look What You’ve Done” is first presented in the opening number during his entrance and later in “The Trashing Of The Car.” The final result was a six-minute sequence that featured 21 separate dramatic beats. Thank God for pizza delivery: I was unable to leave my hotel room in Toronto for nearly three days while scoring this out!
Ahrens: This is another good example of words, lyrics, and music coming together as one. Terrence was facing an impossible task—writing a confrontational scene between Coalhouse and Booker T. Washington and trying to do it in real time. Hand slap to forehead—musicalizing it was the answer. Music would allow us to segue inside and outside the Morgan Library seamlessly. It could dramatize the waiting crowds, (“Hours passing by and not a sign of Coalhouse! Hours passing by!”) and it could lift the conversation within the Library to a more poetic level, as Booker T. berates Coalhouse for his “selfish recklessness.” I think Terrence was quite relieved that we found a musical solution!
15 - “Make Them Hear You”
Flaherty: Written after our workshop had finished, this song was first recorded by Stokes on the “concept album,” in a slightly different version. Although we had never tried out the song in the context of Terrence’s libretto before recording it, everyone agreed it felt “right” as Coalhouse’s final statement—especially Terrence. The song, with some slight tweaks, is the version you have here.
Ahrens: After hearing Booker T. Washington’s plea, Coalhouse gives up his message of violence in favor of “being heard.” The repeated hook reiterates his message. Since our original production, this song has been sung at demonstrations and rallies for many different causes. Aretha sang it for Nelson Mandela’s birthday (although she sure made the words her own!) and Terrence was proud that it was sung on the steps of the Supreme Court on the day the DOMA ruling was announced. It’s not often that theatre songs become “liftable” anymore, but this one has achieved a wonderful life outside the show, which is probably indicative of the times we’re in and the many people who need to be heard.
16 - “Epilogue: Ragtime (Reprise)/Wheels Of A Dream (Reprise)”
Flaherty: The companion piece to the Prologue, which features the “Ragtime” theme and “Our Children,” as the new, non-traditional family is formed. It ends, as we always knew it would, with a reprise of “Wheels Of A Dream,” sung by Coalhouse and Sarah as they look down on their young son and see his future.
Ahrens: The epilogue plays out as a series of silhouettes, and a lovely set of McNally monologues which tell us what happened to each of the characters after the story ends. This “typically Terrence” monologue contains his own humor and crankiness: “Grandfather resided now in a cemetery. At last, peace and quiet!”
17 - “The Ragtime Symphonic Suite (Bonus Track)”
Flaherty: The true icing on the cake for this composer! It gave me the opportunity to revisit and create new combinations of the musical themes, not concerning myself about the drama (in other words, this Act 1 theme could never rub elbows with this theme from Act 2.) It was just a luxurious chance to play with music on such a sumptuous scale. With a masterful orchestration by Bill Brohn, the piece was recorded from a remote truck in the parking lot of Toronto concert hall. The suite—which premiered earlier at the Hollywood Bowl under the baton of John Mauceri—again features Maestro Mauceri with our Broadway music director, David Loud, as the piano soloist. Bravo, gentlemen! And thank you, Playbill, for this opportunity to relive my memories of this show and remember our time with Terrence.
Ahrens: There are no lyrics involved here, so I’ll add my thanks to all the brilliant people involved in the making of Ragtime; to my partner for his glorious music; and finally, to our irreplaceable Terrence McNally. To paraphrase his line from A Man of No Importance, “We were blessed in our friend.”
“We never know which goodbye will be the last.”
– Terrence McNally, Anastasia