By Ed Rampell
E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel Ragtime is a panoramic political period piece featuring fictitious and real characters in early 20th century New York. Doctorow’s progressive panoply of Americana is interspersed with historical figures, including anarchist immigrant Emma Goldman (played in this production by Valerie Perri), banker J.P. Morgan (Tom G. McMahon), educator Booker T. Washington (Dedrick Bonner), capitalist Henry Ford (Ryan Dietz), and escape artist Harry Houdini (Benjamin Schrader). Ragtime “follows three families: An upper class white family [in New Rochelle]; a Black musician in Harlem; and a Jewish family passing through Ellis Island. Their three worlds collide,” notes Danny Feldman, Producing Artistic Director of the Pasadena Playhouse, which is launching the first major revival in 20 years of the musical based on Doctorow’s page-turner. The production is directed by David Lee.
The Bronx-born Doctorow’s landmark work of historical fiction was turned into a musical in 1996 that debuted at Toronto, had its U.S. premiere at Los Angeles’ Schubert Theatre in 1997, and opened on Broadway in January, 1998. Ragtime: The Musical was nominated for a dozen Tony Awards, winning in four categories, including Terrence McNally for Best Book; lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty for Best Original Score; plus Audra McDonald as Sarah for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical. (Miloš Forman adapted Ragtime for the cinema in 1981 as a non-singing drama, boasting Jeff Daniels’ movie debut and James Cagney’s film farewell.)
When mounting works written to transpire during a specific era and at a particular place, theatrical producers have different options available for staging the play and attracting audiences. How does one make sure a play is a blockbuster revival, instead of a lackluster retread?
In order to make its revival of the musical iteration of the 1931-born Doctorow’s novel about turn-of-the-last-century America accessible and timely for a contemporary audience, Pasadena Playhouse is embarking on a different path intended to provide historical and cultural context for Doctorow’s enlightening and entertaining brainchild to 21st century spectators.
Ragtime deals with themes of prejudice and injustice in the U.S.A. According to the Playhouse’s Feldman, “In season planning last year, I was exploring shows that were socially relevant at the moment. I was listening to Ragtime and… it is more relevant today than when the musical came out in the late ’90s, but also when Doctorow’s novel came out. It’s a story about America at a time of defining itself, going through a great moment of change, of conflict, and a unifying force trying to bring itself together… But America trying to define itself out of the conflict, and talk about its own values, and who we are as a country. I think that’s wildly relevant today.”
Dionna Michelle Daniel, Pasadena Playhouse’s Community Engagement and Learning Programs Manager, believes the early 20th century and 2019 “are both times that look at what’s happening in the United States and with radical change. Different groups coming together and being at the nexus of what it means to move forward and build together a better America.”
Acting singer Clifton Duncan, who portrays Ragtime’s pivotal character Coalhouse Walker Jr., believes “what’s relevant about this story, especially right now, is it’s a story about multiculturalism and the question of whether or not it works. Here in the U.S. there’s lots of division along lots of lines – not just racial, but political lines… In Ragtime there’s the question: What does it mean to be an American? All of the major characters in this story are shooting after the American Dream – whatever that means to them. It leads back to questions of American identity,” stresses Duncan, who was born in Germany and spent much of his youth overseas, the son of U.S. Army personnel.
One of the complex work’s storylines follows an immigrant from Latvia “named Tateh [Marc Ginsburg, who was Ovation Award-nominated for playing Che in Evita at Cabrillo Music Theatre] who is Jewish, and his young daughter [Iara Nemirovsky, whose credits include the First National Tour of School of Rock], their journey and struggles coming through Ellis Island,” recounts Feldman, who – like Doctorow – is also Jewish. “He works in a sweatshop and lives in a tenement in [Manhattan’s Lower East Side] in pretty horrific conditions. We watch his American Dream become realized… We see that in conjunction with Coalhouse’s journey in the show.”
Daniel sees a relationship between what befalls Ragtime’s lead African American character and acts of racial violence in contemporary America. “Going into this idea of gun violence and gun control and what it means to seek justice in a world where it feels like there is no justice. That is the similarity between Coalhouse and the Black Lives Matter movement,” states Daniel, who wrote Gunshot Medley: Part I, which Rogue Machine Theatre presented in 2018.
Duncan describes Coalhouse as being “from St. Louis… a man who created himself, he’s very educated, speaks, extraordinarily eloquently… Through his love for Sarah [Bryce Charles, whose credits include The Book of Mormon’s national tour and Blues in the Night at the Wallis Annenberg Center] he transforms himself into an intellectual and creative force, one of the most respected figures in the Harlem scene at that time.”
However, Duncan goes on to say the “Black entertainer has his car destroyed. And all the legal means by which he tries to have that rectified are turned off to him and eventually… he becomes a vigilante,” says Duncan, who traveled to Pasadena from New York, where he appeared on Broadway in The Play That Goes Wrong and Off-Broadway in Carmen Jones. (The astute Duncan adds that Doctorow “pretty much lifted the Coalhouse plot from a[n 1810] German novella by Heinrich von Kleist entitled Michael Kohlhaus” and – as Laurents did with West Side Story – added an explosive ethnic dimension to Doctorow’s “genius adaptation.”)
When Doctorow died (about a month after Trump declared his candidacy for president in 2015), The Nation observed: “Ever since Ragtime made a literary and commercial splash in 1975, he has given us highly original novels that slyly subvert our received ideas about the American past and offer a radical critique of contemporary culture.” A pianist, Coalhouse plays ragtime music, from whence Doctorow derived his novel’s title – and the play’s polyphonous style with multiple storylines and cultures.
Ragtime: The Musical is being performed from February 5 – March 9 on Tuesday-Friday evenings at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. (no performance on Sunday, February 24 at 7:00 p.m.) at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. Info: (626) 356-7529; www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.
Read the review in Stage Raw here.