“If the walls could whisper, these walls would have quite a lot to say,” 22-year-old director Sammi Cannold wrote in her director’s note for a site-specific reading of Ragtime, held August 8 in the Registry Room on Ellis Island.
Ragtime, itself, began with a wall—and the stories behind it.
“One of my questions for E.L. Doctorow was how he got the inspiration to write Ragtime,” explained the evening’s host, original star Brian Stokes Mitchell, recalling a time in the mid-’90s when he met with the book author himself in preparation for taking on the musical adaptation.
“He said the inspiration for Ragtime was born out of writer’s block. He was on a deadline, and he had to come up with something, and he just couldn’t think of what to write. This went on for hours, and hours turned to days, and finally one day he decided, ‘Well, let me just stare at the wall…and write about the wall,’ and so he started writing about the wall [attached to his old house in New Rochelle]. … He started writing about the house as well, which was his house that was built in 1906 and then, of course, his imagination took over, and he began to paint a portrait of the turn of the 20th century in New York City…. Lynn Ahrens, Terrence McNally and Stephen Flaherty took that text and [created a musical that is] remarkable, compelling, tragic [and] marvelous all at the same time.”
The journey to this Ragtime concert began around 7:30 PM, when members from the Broadway industry gathered at the Castle Clinton National Monument to ship out on the Miss New York Ferry. They were handed a “Travel Pass” upon boarding, which specified the registry desk they had to check in with to be granted admission—much like 12 million men, women and children between the years of 1892 and 1954, seeking admission to the United States of America.
Small white lights lined the balcony level of the Registry Room, illuminating the stage set up on the lower floor that was filled with a 12-piece orchestra and enough chairs for the cast of nearly 50. The director and musical director, friends in their 20s who dreamed up the idea years ago and managed to mount the epic staging rather flawlessly, took the stage to introduce their team and host Mitchell.
The evening was, as it stated, a concert. As director Cannold previously told Playbill, “It’s a sampling of music from the show. [Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty] basically said to us, ‘We love this idea. Our request would be that you just don’t do a truncated version of the show because that’s not what was intended, but rather come up with some scheme of grouping the songs.’ So what we landed on was kind of highlighting themes that are in Ragtime and choosing songs accordingly.”
The 12-song evening was mostly songs from the show’s first act, with the first half spotlighting “Prologue: Ragtime,” “Journey On,” “A Stetl Iz Amereke: Ellis Island,” “Success,” “What Kind of Woman” and “The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square”—songs that mostly spoke to the immigrant experience, making the site-specific aspect shine.
It was also poignant for host Mitchell.
“When I was in my 20s,” he said, “my mother passed away, and on my first birthday after she passed away, I was given a locket—it was a locket watch, actually—that I was told belonged to her. … When we premiered the show in Toronto, I decided to wear this watch around my neck—it would sit just over my heart—to connect with mom and feel like she was part of the show. After we finished the show, my father came in from San Diego to be a part of the opening—I met him backstage, and he saw this watch that I had now taken outside of my costume. He said, ‘What’s that you got?’ I said, ‘This is the watch I was given. This was mom’s watch.’ He said, ‘Let me look at that.’ He took the watch and said, ‘No, this isn’t mom’s watch. This watch is your great-grandmother’s watch.’”
Mitchell’s great-grandmother immigrated from Germany and, at the time, newcomers to America would buy these watches when they got to the mainland. “So here I thought I had this connection one generation back to my mother,” he said, “but I actually had this wonderful connection back three generations to my great-grandmother and also to Ellis Island.
“Imagine the stories that really happened here at Ellis Island and the people who passed through these gates…”
It felt as if the ghosts of years past infiltrated the Island for the event. Cast members reenacted how immigrants entered America, in the very room where it happened over 100 years ago.
The second half of the song set picked up with Sarah’s “Your Daddy’s Son,” a heart-wrenching rendition from Aisha Jackson that left audience members and cast members bereft from her voice-breaking delivery of the final lyric, “Forgive me, you are your daddy’s son.”
Brandon Victor Dixon, this staging’s Coalhouse Walker Jr., then joined her for a show-stopping performance of “Wheels of a Dream.” The audience met them with a standing ovation, including one from Mitchell, who watched from the sidelines and then spoke of his own experience.
“Audra McDonald [the original Sarah] and I have actually sung that song together only twice since closing Ragtime in 2000,” he said. “The very last time that we sang that song was when we were invited to the White House. ... It was an incredible experience, standing less than ten feet from an African-American president,” he said to rapturous applause. “It gave new meaning to the words, ‘And my son will ride on a wheels of a dream.’”
Laura Michelle Kelly as Mother and Robert Petkoff (who reprised his performance as Tateh from the 2009 Broadway revival) continued with “Our Children” before Kelly delivered a powerful “Back to Before” that garnered seemingly endless applause.
But, the true highlight of the night immediately followed when Dixon took the stage for “Make Them Hear You,” Coalhouse’s 11-o’clock number. Midway through the song, Mitchell joined him to duet on the number that seemed ever-so timely, just one week after the Broadway community rallied in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The evening closed with “’Till We Reach That Day,” before the Broadway community celebrated with a champagne toast and time to view the exhibits before the boat ride back to reality.
Productions of Ragtime, including this, “remind us that we must continue to seek moving forward and speak up against injustice,” said Mitchell. “As Lynn Ahrens wrote, as Coalhouse says, and as Ellis Island represents: Whether our swords are a sermon or the power of the pen, we must move beyond our differences, beyond our skin color, the country we come from, our religion, our sexual preference, and make ourselves heard in the collective fight for liberty, equality, and inclusion.”
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.