“The era of ragtime had run out, as if history were no more than a tune on a player piano.” “Ragtime,” one of the first truly American musicals, is a broad style of rhythm featuring a “rag,” an instrumental composition usually for the piano. Arising in the 1890s through the late 1910s, African-Americans made this distinctive rhythm a very popular and appealing form of music for people everywhere. Ragtime, in fact, is a coined term marking this very significant era in American history. This crucial period is exactly what novelist E.L. Doctorow wanted to capture in his novel.
Director Frank Gilati brought this hit musical to the stage in 1996, and ever since, it has pleased all types of audiences. Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally successfully encapsulated the lives of three very different families one of white, upper-middle class, one Harlem Black and a Jewish immigrant and his daughter. Each trying to find their own way in a constantly changing country, these remarkable characters make self-discoveries that dramatically affect one another and demonstrate the importance of this period.
Terrence brings a strong sense of reality to the play by including pivotal historical moments, such as the birth of the labor union, the development of the automotive assembly line, African-American oppression and the sinking of the Lusitania. It also includes such people as Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan and Booker T. Washington, which makes the characters” struggles that much more genuine and convincing.
The story begins in New York when Father (Joseph Dellger) bids farewell to Mother (Victoria Strong), Little Boy (Harley Adams) and Mother”s Younger Brother (Sam Samuelson), as he leaves on an admiral ship to the North Pole. Meanwhile, Tateh (Jim Corti), the Jewish immigrant, and his daughter land on Ellis Island and make it to America. Back at home, Mother is startled to find a black infant left in her backyard. The mother of the child, Sarah (Lovena Fox), returns to her baby and is soon taken in to live in their attic. For quite some time, Sarah refuses to speak with the father of the child, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Lawrence Hamilton), a well-known ragtime artist in Harlem. As the story unfolds, Sarah and Coalhouse”s love is rekindled as Mother finds herself sensitive to the racial bigotry directed towards blacks. During this time, the Younger Brother finds himself drawn to the anarchist movement, and he goes to Manhattan to attend many union rallies, where he meets Tateh, who is struggling as a silhouette artist.
The musical score of “Ragtime” is amazing. Each song fits perfectly within the script and the songs often tell the story better than the lines themselves. Coalhouse, who comes straight from the original Broadway production, has an undeniably clear and strong voice. One can”t help but sit in awe of the rich quality of every note hearing him sing is absolutely amazing. Sarah also gives a splendid solo performance in her hit song “Your Daddy”s Son.” Because Sarah originally had only a few big songs in “Ragtime,” yet such a beautiful voice, lyricist Lynn Ahrens added it in just a few weeks before the opening Broadway premiere.
“Ragtime” takes a truly unique approach in the plot. Instead of using a completely fictional storyline, real historical events add strength and vitality to the character”s emotions perhaps because one can identify with or at least understand the implications of them. Moreover, many of the reality-based characters, such as Booker T. Washington and Emma Goldman (Mary Gutzi), who plays the leading propagandist for the anarchist movement in the 1890s, give a good idea of what these people were probably like.
It”s hard to find flaws in such a wonderful Broadway production, although it would have been nice to see some more dancing, especially since some upbeat, jazz-like numbers can easily accompany ragtime music. Nevertheless, “Ragtime” will remain a classic and it will appeal to many for years to come.