RAGTIME REDUX By Peter Filichia
“Look what I found in the laundry room!”
So exclaimed my girlfriend when I went to her apartment last week. It was a copy of THEATER WEEK Magazine, the periodical for which I wrote a weekly column for much of its nine-year existence, from summer 1987 to winter 1996.
This was one from August 19, 1996: “The Toronto Issue.” As a result, the now-familiar Statue-of-Liberty-topped RAGTIME logo dominated the cover, for the highly anticipated musical would play that Canadian city before the year was out (and just about when THEATER WEEK was about to expire). Broadway was still seventeen months away.
Yes, they wanted to get it right.
How fortuitous that my girlfriend should fetch the magazine only days before the show would mark the twenty-fourth anniversary of its opening on Broadway. However, this five-page cover story by Simi Horwitz concerns “The Making of RAGTIME,” which reveals a few fun facts as well as best laid plans that laid a few eggs.
A generous-sized picture of the show’s staff dominated the first page. That included smiling producer Garth Drabinsky, who wouldn’t be smiling in a few years, after the law caught up with him and incarcerated him for nearly half-a-decade.
None of that takes away anything from RAGTIME itself. Most musical theater’s connoisseurs make it their choice as Best Musical of the 1997-1998 season. That it lost to THE LION KING was, to their minds, The Crime of the Century. And considering that the century only had 907 days to go, it didn’t seem to be a premature assumption.
We learn from Horwitz that if there had been no Drabinsky, there might not be a musical of RAGTIME, He’s the one who first saw musical possibilities in E.L. Doctorow’s novel that won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1975, and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1976.
Drabinsky told Horwitz that he was taken with “the problems surrounding the absorption of immigrants and their terror in leaving Ellis Island to pursue The American Dream.” He added “It will educate and entertain. Some tear duct activity? You bet!”
Whatever he did or didn’t deliver to his accusers, he certainly made good on that promise to theatergoers.
Horwitz reported that the show would have “a December 8 opening” in Toronto. Many readers at the time must have said, “We’ll see. Many a musical has not kept its initial promise of when it would open. FUNNY GIRL’s creators believed that it would debut at the Winter Garden on Feb. 14, 1964; it wound up opening on March 26.
RAGTIME, though, turned out to be right on schedule for that Dec. 8, 1996 date at the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts.” The theater is now known as The Toronto Centre for the Arts. Similarly speaking, Broadway’s Ford Center for the Performing Arts has gone through three more name changes. (It’s now the Lyric, where HARRY POTTER resides.)
That Ford would be involved with RAGTIME isn’t surprising, given that a Ford Model-T is a most important component in the story: Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a black man on the rise, has his car vandalized by jealous racist roughnecks. That sets off more than one downward spiral.
Frank Galati, signed to direct RAGTIME, said that the show “looks at the first decade of a century that has seen the worst carnage in history.” Those words bring to mind what we’re going through now. We can only hope that the 20th century retains the record as the worst.
Horwitz mentions “Galati earned a Tony Award for his direction of GRAPES OF WRATH,” and followed this with “The creative team includes some heavy hitters, most of whom are Tony Award winners: Terrence McNally, bookwriter; Graciela Daniele, choreographer; costume designer Santo Loquasto; and set designer Eugene Lee.”
Only after naming them does Horwitz add in most perfunctory fashion “The lyricist and composer are Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.” After RAGTIME played a few months on Broadway, they too could be added to any sentence that included the words “Tony Award winners.”
When Horwitz mentioned “the fifty-eight-member acting company,” she delivered a detail that has horribly but deliciously dated: “Two-time Tony winner Audra McDonald.” As hard as it is to believe, McDonald has since tripled that number – with RAGTIME one of the reasons why.
(And to think in 2000, when this then-three-time Tony winner was asked if she expected to win another silver medallion for her nominated role in MARIE CHRISTINE, she said, “I don’t anybody thinks I need another Tony.” All right, she didn’t win for that one, but she still turned out to be wrong.)
Horwitz said that Doctorow was a “participant and booster” of the musical but wasn’t of the 1981 non-musical film version; he thought it focused too much on one story (the black crisis) while giving the others (the WASP marriage difficulties and the Jewish success story) short shrift.
(I, however, must wonder if Doctorow was on the cantankerous side. When I met his widow in 2017 – as we were both en route to Cherry Hill, New Jersey to see what turned out to be an extraordinary high school production of RAGTIME – she may have been joking when she said “Every day of our married life, I wanted to kill him.” However, she didn’t sound as if she were joking.)
Horwitz also mentions that Drabinsky has “a new musical on the drawing board”: I LOVE A PARADE. As we all know, the first three words of that title were dropped, but thank goodness the musical wasn’t when Drabinsky experienced the first phase of his troubles and Lincoln Center Theater took over. The result was one of those atypical years when a musical wins Best Book (Alfred Uhry) and Best Score (Jason Robert Brown) but misses out on Best Musical (which went to FOSSE – ironically, another project sponsored by Drabinsky).
“For Lynn and Stephen, it will be their breakthrough piece,” said Drabinsky. Well, yes and no; it became their most significant work, but many of us were thrilled with them at the start of the decade when we heard the heavenly ONCE ON THIS ISLAND.
“We knew Emma Goldman had to be an alto,” said Ahrens. “She was so earthy, she couldn’t be a soprano.” On the concept recording that had been recorded a month before this article was published, Goldman was played by Camille Saviola, who headed “The Germans at the Spa” in the original production of NINE. By the time RAGTIME reached Broadway, Judy Kaye had the part. (The former was certainly capable of alto, but do we think of Kaye that way?)
Ahrens said of Sarah – the young unmarried mother who abandons her illegitimate child – “That would be hard for an audience to take without explanation. In the novel, Sarah’s actions don’t have the same impact. The reader doesn’t have the same emotional investment, either. But that changes on the stage. So I wrote a song for her, a lullaby to her child in which she explains to him her panic and fear.”
Horwitz doesn’t name it, but we now know it’s “Your Daddy’s Son.”
Ahrens and Flaherty had a great deal of praise for Drabinsky. (For that matter, so did FOSSE’s co-conceiver and co-director Richard Maltby, Jr., when I spoke to him about the producer.) All three agreed that whatever writers wanted, writers got. “He gives us unprecedented time and funds for development,” said Ahrens. “Garth always tells us to go as far as we like,” added Flaherty.
Not everything turned out as planned, and learning what didn’t survive is always of more than moderate interest. Here we find Flaherty revealing that Drabinsky “came up with the idea that we needed a Victrola sound someplace. And that in turn inspired us to write a song for Evelyn Nesbit,” he said, citing the sex symbol who caused her husband Harry K. Thaw to murder Stanford White, whom she accused of raping her. The song was “ultimately a recording played over a Victrola.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I know of no such song in either the 1996 concept recording or the 1998 original cast album. And I’ve listened to both quite a bit. The concept album is just right when I only have an hour at my disposal.
However, what usually happens is after that hour I want to hear the entire recording, so on goes the original Broadway cast album, and there goes the next two hours.
That’s okay; RAGTIME is a fine way to spend time.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.