Simpler Yet Still Sublime: "Ragtime"

Some might feel it is too soon for a revival of Ragtime, but there is no time like the present for this exhilarating, moving epic musical based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow. The show is well known for its opulent original production, a history pageant that spared no expense in becoming a theatrical event. That production lingers in the hearts and minds of many theatre-goers for its superb original cast, and the Tony-winning score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. It also is remembered for the less than stellar reception it received the first time around, finding itself in competition with the critical darling The Lion King across the street, losing the Best Musical Tony and closing when Garth Drabinsky’s Livent collapsed after 834 performances and a financial loss.

Imported from the Kennedy Center, this production strips away the physical extravagance that some felt overwhelmed the first production, finding at its heart the story of three diverse families whose lives somehow intersect during the post-Gilded Age. More faithful to the source material than the film adaptation, the musical Ragtime opens with one of the most extraordinary pieces of expository writing known to musical theatre. In nine minutes, we are introduced to every major character, every theme and every thread of plot which we are to follow for the next two and a half hours.

An archetype family of affluent WASPS living in Westchester find themselves rattled from their suburban complacency by the discovery of an abandoned African American baby in their garden. The family’s lives are forever changed by this moment, by taking in the young woman and exposing themselves to much of the unjustices and darker underbelly of the American dream (as experienced by the immigrant Tateh, who also becomes intertwined in their lives in the second act). Doctorow’s original novel finds these fictional characters encountering many historical figures such as Evelyn Nesbitt, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan and Booker T. Washington. Those characters are also supplanted into the musical, where they serve as observers and commentators on the main fragments of the plot.

Comparisons with the original production are inevitable, especially given it’s been less than ten years since the original closed at the (now) Hilton Theatre. However, director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, in removing the opulence turns this large musical into an actor driven piece. It’s not as drastic as the family band version of Sweeney Todd from a few seasons back, but it places further emphasis on the characters, who are less stately and more realized in this production. Rather than overwhelming the audience in its history, Dodge focuses on the human connections providing great emotional intensity in her stage visuals.

Quentin Earl Darrington plays Coalhouse with an unaffected earnestness that is tragically contrasted by his grief-stricken vigilantism in the second act. Stephanie Umoh has the the inenviable task of filling Audra McDonald’s Tony award winning shoes as the ill-fated Sarah, but if she doesn’t make you forget her predecessor, she certainly rises to the occasion. Ron Bohmer finds considerable dimension in Father, a man aware of change around him but so grounded in his fastidious manner he can’t accept or adapt to it. Even more pleasantly surprising is his ability to make his character sympathetic. Rob Petkoff exudes considerable warmth and charm as the immigrant turned filmmaker Tateh. Bobby Steggert proves exceptional as Mother’s Younger Brother, simmering with angst and finding himself through activism, and later joining Coalhouse in his quest for justice.

The emotional core of the entire musical is to be found in Christiane Noll’s layered, multifaceted portrayal of Mother. The character with the most overwhelming arc, Mother emerges from docile housewife to an independent woman aware of herself and her responsibility in the world. Noll, known mostly as the woman who wasn’t Linda Eder in the original Jekyll & Hyde, comes into her own with a star making turn that is sure to be the talk of the spring’s awards season. She finds humor and pathos in the most subtle nuances of her performance, enhanced by the singing actress’ sumptuous soprano.

The intimacy of Dodge’s staging is further enhanced by the three-tier set by Derek McLane. Utilizing set pieces and lighting, the stage becomes a Ford factory, the house in New Rochelle, the Tempo Club in Harlem, Atlantic City and the Morgan Library, among other locales. The skeletal abstract nature of the design creates some striking tableau vivants, particularly those seen at the very top of the show and during “New Music.” Supporting actors are often found on a tier of the set, observing the story going on below and is ultimately a spare and effective use of the space. Santo Loquasto, costume designer of the original production, repeats the honor here. The lighting design is by Donald Holder, whose work here is the most atmospheric aspect of the scenography.

I have had the privilege of seeing this musical twice already, once on its first preview and again the other evening (where I found myself behind Ben Brantley). It’s no secret among friends and fellow bloggers that this was the musical production I’ve been looking forward to the most this season. One of the most powerful scores of the last twenty years, Flaherty’s music runs the gamut of period styles including cakewalks, rags, marches as well as soaring anthems and lingering ballads. Ahrens’ lyrics are among her best. One of the strengths of this revival is its retention of William David Brohns Tony-winning original 28 piece orchestration, complemented by exceptional singing. The only severe flaw I tend to find with the show is that it tends to wear its heart and ambition on its sleeve far more than it should, and Terrence McNally’s libretto, while an exceptional example of adapting a novel for musical theatre, fails to match the elegance of the score.

If the current revival at the Neil Simon Theatre is in every capacity less stately than the original production, it’s a stirring, overwhelmingly emotional event. Already, I am aching for the opportunity to see the show again, as I don’t know if I’ve ever been so moved by a musical production. I saw the original production of The Light in the Piazza a whopping twelve times, and that’s my personal record and I wouldn’t be surprised if this enthusing, affirming revival smashes that record. I can only hope that this time, Ragtime is welcomed to Broadway with the open arms it deserved the first time around.

Two Pictures

Two musical productions that most excite me this season are The Addams Family and the revival of Ragtime. Here is the first glimpse of the former in Vanity Fair. Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane star as Morticia and Gomez. Jackie Hoffman is Grandmama, Kevin Chamberlin is Uncle Fester, Zachary James is Lurch, Krysta Rodriguez is Wednesday and Adam Riegler (Cubby Bernstein) is Pugsley. Not pictured are Terrence Mann, Carolee Carmello and Wesley Taylor. The new musical has its world premiere in Chicago on November 13, and starts preview performances at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne on March 4.

Then there’s the revival of Ragtime. I’ve already seen it once, and am going back again next week. The show opens at the Neil Simon Theatre on 11/15. Acclaimed photographer Joan Marcus was in taking new press shots of the Broadway company, and this striking image is one of my favorite stage pictures of the evening – the tableau of the entire company seen as the curtain rises.

"Ragtime" First Preview – Some Random Thoughts…

– Sometimes the first preview performance can be more exciting than even an opening night. (If I get to the opening night of this one, I’ll let you know…) Especially with a revival of a popular title. I stood outside the Neil Simon Theatre last night until about 7:55 watching people gathering and entering the theatre. “I can’t wait.” “I’m so excited.” “This is supposed to be so good!” Those were some of the things I overheard being said by the excited theatregoers as they had their tickets scanned. The energy in the house was so palpable you could practically touch it.

– The house lights went down and the audience erupted into applause. We listened to the simple pre-show announcement. At that point the house lights came down entirely as the curtain rose on the entire company posed and poised on three tiers of Derek McLane’s set. The audience reaction was so intense that the show was stopped before it could even begin. After about 20 or 30 seconds, the actor playing Edgar stepped downstage and we were off.

– The opening number of Ragtime is one of the best ever written. It’s a mastery of musical theatre writing: establishing every major character without becoming lumbering, establishing the time and place as well as tone, and culminating in one of the most thrilling finishes known to man. All those high B naturals! Truly stunning, and its staging by director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge is a triumph.

– It’s the very first preview so I’m not going to go into performance analysis or comparisons with original cast members. I will say that the cast is superlative. As actors, as singers and as dancers. Superlative. I also think Christiane Noll is guaranteed a Tony nomination. That is all.

– A good number of the actors were making their Broadway debuts last evening. Among them were Donna Migliaccio as Emma Goldman, Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Stephanie Umoh as Sarah. I do expect at least one or two to be considered for the Theatre World Award.

– Again, first preview and all: there were a few technical glitches with the lighting but nothing outrageous or distracting. However, it did seem like some numbers were missing verses. I couldn’t tell if it was editing or slip-ups, but not knowing was a minor distraction. The score to Ragtime remains one of the most elegant and stirring of the past twenty years.

– At the show’s finale, the audience was one giant weepy mess. The actors hold out the final note of “Wheels of a Dream.” In that instant between the note and the fall of the show curtain, the last thing seen by the cast onstage is the audience rising from their seats in an instant standing ovation – and not one of those where someone starts and people follow. This was genuine, heart-felt and wholly deserved.

– Rob Petkoff delivered the best save of the evening as the show curtain came down after the curtain calls.

– How lovely to hear a full orchestra essaying original orchestrations. When musical director James Moore finished conducting the exit music, the audience burst into applause that was just as vociferous as it had been for the cast onstage.

– I want to go back. And how.

The people called it "Ragtime"

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:

"Ragtime" Rehearsal Video

I didn’t think we’d be getting another production of Ragtime so soon after the original closed (some would say prematurely). The musical was announced to be part of the 2008 lineup at NYCO, with the idea of reuniting original cast members under the direction of Frank Galati (who directed the original 1998 production). For whatever reason, that fell through and was replaced by Candide.

Then last spring, the musical was part of the Kennedy Center season. The run extended from three weeks to five, and sold out for the entire engagement. Reviews were exceptional, and word of mouth positive. Suddenly word on the street was that the show, based on E.L. Doctorow’s acclaimed 1975 novel, was being considered for Broadway transfer. Now, this new production starts previews this Friday at the Neil Simon Theatre. I am so excited because I will in the audience that evening to welcome this exceptional piece of musical theatre back to NY. Here is a video from of the press rehearsal, with performances and interviews that got me pumped up for what’s to come:

Casting complete for "Ragtime"

Casting for the highly anticipated Broadway revival of Ragtime was announced yesterday. Many of the principal actors from the sold out Kennedy Center production will be transferring to NY, including Christiane Noll as Mother, Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Ron Bohmer as Father, Bobby Steggert as Mother’s Younger Brother and Donna Migliacco as Emma Goldman. New to the cast are Robert Petkoff as Tateh, Savannah Wise as Evelyn Nesbitt and Stephanie Umoh as Sarah.

The show begins previews at the Neil Simon Theatre on October 23, with an opening night set for November 15. The original Broadway production ran for two years at what is now the Hilton Theatre, overshadowed by The Lion King and done in by criminal producing, it closed in the red after only 834 performances (in an ideal world, a show like Ragtime should have had the success of The Lion King). The revival won’t be as expensive to produce as the original (I doubt we’ll ever see anything near the likes of Garth Drabinsky’s spectacles ever again), and has already been acclaimed for its emphasis on the story and characters over scenography. Plus, the revival will be using the entire original 28 piece orchestration.

My only qualm with the production has been the artwork – the new window card art has been released and while some find it superb, I find it rather lacking. Then again, I guess it would be hard to top that iconic image of the title emblazoned across the Statue of Liberty from 1998. However, I’ve never judged a musical by its poster; no matter my thought about the artwork, it’s what’s onstage that counts. And what Broadway has at the Neil Simon this fall is likely to be an epic win.

Here are a couple of brief interviews with Christiane Noll, Quentin Earl Darrington and director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge from earlier this year:

In Rhythm & Rhyme

It’s been rumored for weeks, but today it becomes official. Ragtime will be receiving its first-ever Broadway revival! The recent Kennedy Center production, directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, will begin previews at the Neil Simon Theatre on October 23, with an opening date of November 15.

The musical, which won Tonys for its book and score, but famously lost “the big one” to The Lion King, ran at the behemoth Ford Center for the Performing Arts (now simply the Hilton Theatre) and closed prematurely due to the shady business dealings of impresario Garth Drabinsky and his Livent, Inc. (Or was the show the undoing of Livent?)

Original cast members included Brian Stokes Mitchell, Peter Friedman, Marin Mazzie, Marc Jacoby, Tony-winner Audra McDonald, Judy Kaye, Lynnette Perry and Steven Sutcliffe. The cast was enormous, one of the largest in recent memory. (Lea Michele was Tateh’s daughter, Anne L. Nathan understudied Judy Kaye). The orchestration called for 28 pieces in the pit. The lavish staging, which cost a cool $11 million in 1998, was noted for offering pyrotechnics, a functioning model-T and a lot of ornate period costumes.

The show ran for two years in New York, lasting 834 performances. An original London production was well-received but short-lived, earning Maria Friedman an Olivier Award for her performance as Mother.

Ragtime is a successful and unbelievably faithful adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel, first published in 1975. In fact the musical works far better than Milos Forman’s 1981 film adaptation. It is also, hands down, the best work of composing team Flaherty and Ahrens. (Terrence McNally provided the libretto).

This musical will always have a seminal place in my heart. I never did see the original production, but was immediately intrigued by the show when I first heard of it. For whatever reason I was home from school one morning and had the TV on. “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” was on and she presented the cast in an excerpt of the title song. From those three or four minutes alone, I was immediately curious about this brand new musical. Ragtime was the first score that I appreciated that was not a product of the Golden Age, and got me interested in learning about contemporary musical theatre. And here I am eleven years later!

Walking among my yesterdays to 1998, I recall picking up the concept cast album, the first contemporary show album I ever bought. Plus, I found a copy of the novel in a used book store for $.25. I delved into the book when I was a freshman in high school, reading it three times in that year alone. The narrative, weaving a tapestry of three diverse families who are fatefully linked to one another, fascinated me. It was the first time I ever heard of such figures as Emma Goldman or Evelyn Nesbitt. Doctorow managed to link the fictional families with actual historical events and figures. As one who was obsessed with history, this fictional treatise of the turn of the 20th century in New York compelled me. I’ve read the book at least ten times since.

One month after the Broadway closing, I was in Oxford, England visiting my brother where I bought the Original Broadway Cast recording and have played it countless times since. The music has never ceased to be stirring, in its fusing of period styles and integrated storytelling. I’ve always been especially impressed with the nine minute opening number. It deftly manages to be completely expository and introduce all of the principal and supporting characters without ever once becoming muddled or confusing. Not to mention they retained the novel’s famous opening line in the prologue. Taking into consideration its ambitious and serious subject matter, the show is never boring and quite often incredibly moving.

The show is still large in scope, but the creative team hopes that it will be a more intimate experience in the Neil Simon. Casting for the new revival has yet to be announced, though it’s believed that the Kennedy Center cast will be offered the chance to reprise their roles in New York.

This is easily the production I anticipate for the coming Broadway season. First preview anyone…?