Brief Encounter at "Ragtime"

It’s a New Year and to get things going, I made Ragtime my very first theatre trip of 2010. I had bought a ticket for this particular performance thinking it was going to be the final one, as announced last Monday. However due to a spike in ticket sales, the cast was given a one week reprieve, and ticket sales have gone up significantly since the notice was posting. A case of too little too late, perhaps, but it was nice to see a frenzy at the Neil Simon box office, and a sold out mezzanine.

The show itself is sublime, as I’ve previously mentioned. I’m very much in love with this particular production of the musical and am sad to see it go. So were those folks who sat next to me at this particular performance. To my right was a gentleman with his college-age son. The father had seen and loved the original and found himself overwhelmed by the impact of this particular performance. He expressed bewilderment at the negative reviews for the show from the major critics. His son was looking for a show to see this coming week (the production’s last) and seems have chosen to partake in this show’s lottery (and I wish him good luck, as it looks to be the hottest ticket in town for the next few days).

However, it is the woman seated to my left whom I’ll never forget. We didn’t say anything before the show started, and not even when the lights came up for intermission. However, throughout the show there had been some vociferous responses from the audience. The lights dimming brought on an explosion of applause, and when the curtain rose on that tableau vivant of the entire cast, the house gave an ovation similar to that of the first preview, lasting approximately 30 seconds.

It was toward the end of intermission when James Moore, the musical director and conductor emerged to cheers, bravos and a mini standing ovation by those in the mezzanine wondering who was being applauded by the orchestra. The lady turned to me and asked what all the excitement was about; why the audience reactions were so heightened. I explained to her that many of the folks were fans of the show who had bought tickets thinking it was the closing performance. She said “But it isn’t today, right? I thought they moved it to next Sunday.”

I said yes and also mentioned that there were people in attendance who were ardent admirers and most likely repeat visitors who had purchased tickets thinking it was the last performance (and admitted that I was one of those people). She looked at me with this expression of wonder and said to me, “I’m 81 and I started going to the theatre when I was 16, and I have never seen an audience react like this.” I did a double take, as the patrician and elegant lady looked closer to 61 than 81. When I told her that she didn’t look her age, she quipped, “There’s good lighting in here.”

When the show was over and we were all getting ourselves together to leave, she turned to me and asked, “When did this show start?” I told her the dates of the first preview and opening night. She paused and shook her head slightly and said “What a shame. Such a good show, and to see all those wonderful people working so hard now out of a job.”

The lady also spoke of how it’s not something her generation is used to; that they were raised on musicals were lighter in tone and in subject matter, such as Oklahoma! or Brigadoon. She said that to her Ragtime wasn’t a musical, but more of an operetta. The lady qualified her answer by telling me that it didn’t mean she didn’t like the production – she in fact loved it. She elaborated further:

“But we didn’t handle these subjects with as much honesty then as this show does now, so for my generation it’s a bitter pill to take. I would like to have seen other sides of the story: I’m of Italian descent and my family faced similar unwelcome when they arrived in this country. This is how it happened and that can be hard to accept. What a beautiful, beautiful production.”

Having someone with 65 years of Broadway history behind her, and admittedly little time to talk I asked her what her very first show was.

She responded, “My cousin was enlisted in the military and fighting in WWII. While he was away, his father (my father’s brother) died so when he came home on furlough my father wanted to do something nice for him, so he bought the two of tickets to see Oklahoma! and, oh it was such a night!”

Me: “Original cast?”

She: “Oh, yes! Alfred Drake and Celeste Holm!”

Needless to say, I was enraptured with her. I asked her the next question: “In 65 years of theatregoing, what was your all-time favorite?”

She smiled very broadly at me and said, as she put her hand over her heart, “I’ve loved so many… but I really loved My Fair Lady – and the original cast on that one too.” The last part was added on with bragging rights – rights very much deserved. I observed that the theatre was just around the corner (the former Mark Hellinger) and she said, “You have a better memory for that sort of thing than I do, young man. But I’ve got this large drawer filled with every playbill.” She paused, and smiled wistfully. Then she looked at me, still smiling, and said, “I’ve had a very good life.”

She and her daughter stopped to collect themselves in another row and we said our goodbyes. I took the opportunity to thank her for her recollections and tell her how genuinely happy I was to meet her. She thanked me for the conversation and wished me well as we went our separate ways. I never got her name, and while I would have loved to put the name with the piece I think part of the magic of my experience is in its anonymity. Talking with this woman was as much of a highpoint as was the show onstage. I hope when I’m 81, that I’m still as vibrant and excited a theatregoer as she is.

2 thoughts on “Brief Encounter at "Ragtime"”

  1. When I go to the theatre by myself, I try to make a three-hour friend with whom to share the experience. Most of the time, my neighbors aren't up to it, but when they are it is blissful.

    Tom – thanks for sharing. I love hearing that others have had such rewarding experiences.

    Sarah – Amen!

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