“Ragtime” has depth far beyond light-hearted song and dance. The Tony Award-winning Broadway musical depicts disparate American experiences at the turn of the 20th century to trace the tensions and triumphs of modern society.


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The School of Music, Theatre & Dance is now producing the show under the direction of Associate Prof. Mark Madama. Based on E.L. Doctorow’s critically acclaimed 1975 novel “Ragtime,” it follows the evolution of three distinct families that merge and contrast with one another within the emerging popular culture of 1906.

One plotline tells of the fictional Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a black man whose Ford automobile gets trashed in a racist encounter, creating a tension that destroys his family and incites revenge.

Intertwined with Walker is an upper-middle-class white family, which the play follows as the family and its cornerstone marriage evolve and dissolve.

And integrally woven into the plot is the story of a Jewish artist and his daughter who have immigrated to New York from Latvia in the attempt to achieve the American dream.

While “Ragtime” illustrates how the lives of the three families converge and transform, Madama said that each viewer tends to follow one plotline more closely more than others.

“Everybody who sees it finds something different,” Madama said. “I would say that most people would connect stronger with one of the stories.”

Historical and celebrity figures such as banker J.P. Morgan, civil rights leader Booker T. Washington, model and sex symbol Evelyn Nesbit and escape artist Harry Houdini also join the amalgamation of characters and illustrate the rising influence of pop culture.

“Their stories help inflect the flavor of the time period,” Madama said.

Madama, who has directed various musicals through the School of Music, Theatre & Dance including “Rent” and “Guys and Dolls,” added that the historical themes detailed in the play are still significant today. America’s preoccupation with celebrity has intensified, while class structures and immigrant concerns have hardly dissipated.

However, “Ragtime” shifts decisively within its almost-three-hour span, as the characters’ struggles escalate and resolve in turn.

“The tone changes with the individual characters and their growth, their change, their evolution,” Madama said. “It shows the way people have developed under adversity.”

The characters’ personal progression within “Ragtime” offers a challenge and opportunity for its cast of about 40 students, most of whom are musical theater majors.

“It’s a show that gave a lot of performers a lot of opportunities, and it also utilizes the performers that we have in our department most effectively,” Madama said.

Madama noted that while this production adheres strictly to the original script and score, more importantly the cast’s interpretation of the characters has shaped the roles and choreography throughout the play.

The music of “Ragtime” music underscores every scene, and the play bursts with musical numbers. The score, which was written by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and won the 1998 Tony for Best Score, is of such importance that the 22-person orchestra is on stage in view of the audience.

The musical includes ragtime music, as might be expected, but it also brings to life the distinct stories with striking vaudeville, jazz and Jewish folk songs.

“Ragtime” tickets have gone fast, which Madama attributed to the play’s recent Broadway revival and the University’s area supporters.

“The musical theater department is very fortunate to have such a loyal following,” Madama said.

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