For whatever it’s worth, I’ve never felt that Ragtime was given its due the first time around. The musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel was highly anticipated, and opened with great fanfare on Broadway at the brand new Ford Center for the Performing Arts (now Hilton) Theatre. However, the musical didn’t have the staying power that many thought it would have.
The show had the misfortune of opening two months after The Lion King, whose overwhelming critical success made it the hottest ticket in town for years. When it came time for the Tony Awards, The Lion King took home Best Musical, among many others. Ragtime ultimately took home four awards, with honors for Best Featured Actress (Audra McDonald), Best Book (Terrence McNally), Best Score (Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens) and Best Orchestrations (William David Brohn). The final nail in the coffin was the fall of Livent, Inc., the Canadian-based production company run by Garth Drabinsky that not only produced Ragtime, but had built the theatre in which the show had been playing.
I first became aware of Ragtime by accident. The musical opened in the middle of my freshman year of high school, and truth be told I wasn’t quite up on my Broadway at that point. I knew a lot of stuff about the classics but almost nothing about contemporary musical theatre.
It was January 19, 1998 – Martin Luther King Day. I was home from school and watching The Rosie O’Donnell Show that morning. Rosie was still riding high as “The Queen of Nice,” and was a constant champion for all things Broadway. Performing on the show that day was the cast of the newly opened Ragtime, presenting an abridged version of the opening prologue. This enormous cast, decked out in period costume, filled that tiny stage of Rosie’s TV studio singing this stirring title song. By the time the company was singing the final pullback, I was so mesmerized and stirred, I realized I was standing as close to the TV as I could get.
I can’t quite put into words the effect that musical number had on me that day. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, nor could I get that hook “the people called it Ragtime” out of my head. As is usually the case when I discover someone new that fascinates me, I become obsessed and try to learn everything I could about Ragtime and its origins. That week I went to a local bookstore later that week and purchased the original novel – a book I have read more times than any other. (I was fascinated with Doctorow’s narrative structure). I went to the library and researched all the major characters represented in the story, especially since I had never heard of most of them at the time.
In spite of all this attention and obsession, I never got to see the original production. It closed in January 2000 after 834 performances. I didn’t see my first show on Broadway until that March. I knew the score backwards and forwards from its 1996 Toronto concept album and the definitive 2-disc Broadway cast recording, listening to both with great regularity. The two show albums led me to follow the careers of the original stars: I saw Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell in Kiss Me Kate, Mark Jacoby in Sweeney Todd, Audra McDonald in 110 in the Shade and Carousel at Carnegie Hall and Judy Kaye in Souvenir. I even saw little Lea Michele in Spring Awakening.
Tonight I will be at the Neil Simon Theatre for the first preview of the new revival of Ragtime, which has transferred from a successful run at the Kennedy Center. It’s hard to believe that I’ve gone almost 12 years without ever managing to take in a live production, but it’s all coming full circle. And while I’m at the theatre tonight cheering on this new cast and new production, I want to show you the performance that started it all for me: