Musical ‘Ragtime’ is an American classic

Almost 20 years after it first arrived in Central Texas, ‘Ragtime’ is revived at Texas State


Almost 20 years ago, the breakthrough musical “Ragtime” first arrived in Austin by way of a road show at Bass Concert Hall. Since then, the epic invention from Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally has only grown in stature.

A large-scale musical about the American experience — including ethnic tensions — in the early 20th century, it has been revived three times in New York and three times in London and has played the Kennedy Center. After that 2000 touring version, “Ragtime” electrified Austin audiences again during the grand opening of the Topfer Theatre at Zach Theatre in 2012. It has also become a staple for high schools, colleges and regional theater companies.

It returns next week to Central Texas, staged by Texas State University in San Marcos, which has gained a reputation as the best musical theater training program in the state. It recently was ranked ninth in the nation.

In anticipation, we offer a look back through an edited version of our large-scale feature story about the show, published in July 2000. The connections to contemporary life are even more self-evident 18 years later.

A revival for a revival

Set against the backdrop of a spectacular sunset, an actor polishes a Model T Ford. Fictionally, the time is 1909, the place a hill overlooking New Rochelle, a suburb of New York City.

In “Ragtime,” the burnished Model T belongs to Coalhouse Walker Jr., an African-American pianist. Walker joins Sarah, his intended bride, singing about the America they intend to explore with their infant son.

With the promise of happiness

And the freedom he’ll live to know

He’ll travel with head held high

Just as far as his heart can go

And he will ride

Our son will ride

On the wheels of a dream

Just a few scenes later, Walker’s mood has changed. First, racist firemen insult the proud musician and vandalize his car. Then, hoping for justice in the prolonged dispute, Sarah approaches a vice presidential candidate at a whistle-stop rally. Believing that she carries a gun, Secret Service men beat her to death. Distraught beyond measure, Walker promises to avenge Sarah by taking the life of Chief Willie Conklin and other firemen.

I’ll play them the music

Of something beginning

An era exploding

A century spinning

My law and my justice

In rhythm and rhyme!

Listen to that ragtime!

(We hear the sounds of gunshots.)

What do these scenes tell us?

Clearly, the artists behind “Ragtime” intended more than mere distraction and entertainment in telling their story about three intertwined families — one black, one white, one immigrant. They aim to persuade us that the America of today reflects the America of the early 1900s, with its persistent optimism, deep cultural divisions and outbursts of social disruption.

This summarizes the ambitious, intricate and, as we shall see, sometimes contradictory project of “Ragtime.”

The first of the cited scenes delivers hope. Flaherty’s sonorous melody — first hushed, then bombastic — ripens into the style of an anthem, recalling folk music and even the themes of movie westerns. Ahrens’ lyrics strike themes both panoramic and personal: “Yes, the wheels are turning for us, girl/And the times are starting to roll/Any man can get where he wants to/If he’s got some fire in his soul.”

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An unmistakable patriotism undergirds the couple’s anticipation of freedom, justice and happiness. The Model T (first mass-produced in 1909), crimson-purple sky and fastidious clothing convey Americans’ fondness for technology, nature and middle-class values.

This upbeat song, “Wheels of a Dream,” is not, however, without its problems. How many African-Americans in 1909, for instance, really believed that the country lay open to them, available to anyone who’s “got some fire in his soul”?

The second scene delves into more difficult territory. Walker’s heartfelt grief at the death of Sarah elicits an undeniable sympathy. We are ready to share his rage for justice, echoed in the jangling music and erratic rhythms. When Walker screams, “Listen to that ragtime!” we join his cry for racial equity.

But no. Walker intends to kill even those who took no part in his humiliation. Does Sarah’s death absolve Walker from the murder of innocents? Obviously not, but “Ragtime” wages such a fierce battle for our souls, we are lured into approving his radical actions.

Such is the tricky business of artistic rhetoric. Because we identify with Walker’s feelings and his cause, we are, in the phrase of his followers, “all Coalhouse now.”

Three editions

Since 1975, “Ragtime” has made the rare smooth transition through three media. It greeted the world as E.L. Doctorow’s best-selling novel, returned as Milos Forman’s 1981 movie, starring James Cagney and Howard E. Rollins Jr., and then as the 1998 hit musical. Each time, “Ragtime” shifted its techniques of persuasion to fit the peculiarities of printed words, exhibited images and vocalized emotions.

But also to fit the times. The ability to persuade depends, partially, on the receptivity of one’s public. And public tastes change.

Luckily, “Ragtime” is surprisingly nimble. Something about the story, its characters and ideas not only please, but teach Americans about themselves.

Its construction is complicated, but in all three formats, it follows three main threads. First we meet a WASP-ish family — Father, Mother, Younger Brother, Grandfather and a Little Boy — living prosperously, if not contentedly, in New Rochelle. Of equal importance are Coalhouse Walker and Sarah, he a spiffy, ragtime pianist, she a demure woman of untested depths. The story gains momentum when, in a panic, Sarah abandons the unmarried couple’s newborn son in the white family’s New Rochelle garden, bringing together the main narrative streams.

A third storyline belongs to the Jewish Latvian immigrants Tateh and his daughter, called the Little Girl. Arriving with great hope in America, they are crushed by tenement life and near-starvation in New York. They attempt escape into socialism and finally through Tateh’s artistic gifts — he’s a silhouette portraitist who eventually becomes a moviemaker.

Flitting in and out of the narrative are historical figures — celebrated beauty Evelyn Nesbit, her former lover, architect Stanford White, her jealous husband, Harry K. Thaw, radical anarchist Emma Goldman, and the better-known likes of Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan and Booker T. Washington — all fictionalized to greater or lesser extent.

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The major plot twist: Walker, while journeying by car to court Sarah, is blocked by racist Irish American volunteer firemen. They bait Walker and wreck his cherished Model T. After Walker cannot obtain satisfaction from the legal system and Sarah dies, he organizes a black crusade that climaxes in the takeover of the Morgan Library, a repository for some of civilization’s great treasures, collected by the obsessive tycoon.

Beyond this basic outline, the book, movie and musical diverge.

Book: Doctorow, already a successful novelist and teacher, wrote as America was emerging from one its darkest periods — Vietnam and Watergate lingered in the public mind, as well as years of social unrest. At the same time, he keenly anticipated an outburst of unifying patriotism that would attend the country’s bicentennial in 1976 and the election (and short political honeymoon) of Jimmy Carter.

Doctorow’s idiom is straightforward. Take the opening lines: “In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, N.Y. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of the stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.”

No tricks, no theorizing. Doctorow felt at home with unadorned prose, the primary American mode of fictional expression.

Doctorow draws us into the lives of his characters with subtle gestures, showing their small kindnesses, but also their foibles. Self-confident Father grows distant from Mother after an overlong trip with Admiral Perry to explore the North Pole; Younger Brother masturbates to the image of Evelyn Nesbit; Nesbit herself finds absolution in nursing the Little Girl.

Say what you will about Doctorow’s glorification of anarchist Goldman or his facile, sometimes patronizing appeals to race, labor, sexual and ethnic resentments, he trims his subjects into human souls as deftly as Tateh creates silhouettes on the sidewalks of New York. His tone of hope at the book’s end, as the surviving representatives of the three families move to California, is not mawkish or painfully symbolic.

Movie: While not a disaster, exactly, this lavish treatment of the book nevertheless rejects just about every strategy Doctorow employed. Part of the problem was sensationalist producer Dino De Laurentiis, who, perhaps sensing the shift in the ’80s to “morning in America,” downplayed the story’s social commentary. His public relations machine promoted sexual interest in curvy Elizabeth McGovern as Nesbit, as well as the appearance of James Cagney in his final (very minor) movie role.

Worse, screenwriter Michael Weller invented scene after scene, cutting important characters, such as Goldman, and narrowing the focus to Walker’s revenge scheme.

Through director Milos Forman’s gorgeous lens, we see lost worlds — crystal palaces of the wealthy, crowded urban streets, the sensuous details of a late Victorian house in New Rochelle. Lush historical epics can be effective, thoughtful movies (“Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago”). “Ragtime,” however, does not fall into this category.

Indulgent, eccentric, overblown, the movie tends to glamorize the America of the early 1900s — its clothing, buildings, inventions — rather than uncovering the profound social divisions and how they reverberate today.

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Musical: Because of an extraordinary condensation of the book by playwright Terrence McNally, the musical “Ragtime” resurrected the soul of the original story. Some characters and plot points were necessarily theatricalized — twinning the vaudevillian aspects of Nesbit and Houdini’s story, for instance. The earthier aspects of the book were sanitized, making it palatable for ticket-buying families (the economics of baby-sitting play an unsung role in the theater).

More important, musicals deal in emotion. That’s their stock in trade. While Doctorow appealed to the intellect, reserved in his authorial voice, disciplined in his rejection of theatrics, the musical-makers did not shun the story’s natural appeal to the heart.

Here, Walker not only occupies the core of the story, but Sarah grows into a fully realized person. Father and Mother live nuanced lives. Tateh emerges with a multi-hued personality, and Younger Brother is no longer the psychopath he became in the movie.

Instead of showing the grand and the gritty through the simulation of everyday reality — the movie’s language — the musical depends on organized activities such as labor rallies, funerals, trials and so forth, to meld the public and the personal.

But perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the musical is the score. Flaherty catches the thumping rhythms of ragtime, but also its unpredictability, its cross-cultural improvisations. Ahrens’ words are little masterpieces of understatement (“His fingers stroke those keys/And every note says, ‘Please’/And every chord says, ‘Turn my way’”). While avoiding simplified ideology, the lyrics tell us the multilayered story clearly, while drawing us back into the realm of ideas (“And say to those who blame us/For the way we chose to fight/That sometimes there are battles/That are more than black and white”).

Here the rhetoric roars with passion. We understand the characters’ journeys by empathizing with their feelings, as expressed primarily in song. In fact, the musical is superior even to the book interpreting the central dilemma — Walker’s choice of violence against innocents to revenge public humiliation and the death of his beloved.

Why did Walker do it? Not for calculated political goals. Not for progressive social improvements.

The catalyst was honor, that ancient cloak that disguises our psychological nakedness.

Yet no book, not even Homer’s “The Iliad,” can make modern audiences understand honor as a motivation. We must see faces. We must look into the eyes of the dishonored. We learn something profound about human nature from the musical version of “Ragtime,” which is seldom the case with any work of art.

So the book, movie and musical employ different strategies of persuasion, appealing to mind, senses and feelings, taking us on three different wheels of a dream.



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