KPBS AIRDATE: June 25, 1997
MUSIC up: “Ragtime”
It was a new century, a new America. And a new kind of music was marking the beat. Rhythmic. Insistent. Syncopated. The people called it Ragtime.
In 1975, E.L. Doctorow published the brilliant novel that interwove the stories of three families: privileged whites, disadvantaged blacks, and immigrant Jews. Their fictional lives were magically entwined with real people of the time: Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman. It was the story of America, of finding the American Dream. Of poverty and wealth, of melting pots and prejudice. It was our story.
Ten million dollars later, it’s our musical story — a big, sweeping, powerful, moving show now in Los Angeles, and on its way to a January opening on Broadway. So we get an early jump at a surefire Tony-winner. A musical that touches on our history and touches our hearts. But this isn’t only about our past; as we approach the next century, there’s no clear abatement in our economic stratification, racial conflicts and immigration issues. Ninety years later and little has changed. “Ragtime” is so close you can feel it.
And you feel for the characters: the starchy, white bread Father, Mother and their family in New Rochelle; the poor but ambitious Tateh and his silent, wide-eyed daughter; and the smiling, swaggering Coalhouse Walker, Jr., with his seductive piano-playing and his beloved Sarah.
From the first moments, the first bars of music, you get the sense of something significant going on up there, something portentous and important. Okay, it’s only a musical. But it’s one you oughta see.
It’s three hours long, it sags a little in both acts, and not every song is a winner, but every performance is, in a cast of 59 — one of the largest in theater history. The singing and dancing are wonderful, as are the orchestrations. The book, by playwright Terrence McNally, is pretty true to the original, which isn’t easy, given the lust intricacy of the novel. The music and lyrics, by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, are catchy, clever and emotionally engaging. Frank Galati’s direction, coupled with Graciela Daniele’s staging, is spectacular.
The big budget is used to great effect. But the show isn’t overdone; it’s understated. Constantly moving, like the century, and the country. It’s quite beautiful, with its evocative costumes, 18 inventive settings, in smooth, seamless transitions, gorgeously lit. It has touching anthems and ballads, rhythmic gospel, blues and rags, and political -isms to beat the band: unionism, feminism and brash, kaleidoscopic patriotism.
At the center of all that is America — hope and pain, passion and sorrow, achievement and destruction — is Coalhouse, stunningly and charismatically played by Brian Stokes Mitchell. His bearing, his smile, his moves, his voice: This is an unforgettable character, a bright, talented, educated black man who dares to have big dreams for himself and Sarah and their little son.
MUSIC: “The Wheels of a Dream”
But America has some surprises for Coalhouse — and for his audience. As Mother puts it, ‘We never know when our feelings will creep up on us and go ‘Boo’ and startle us, do we?’ No, we really don’t. Bring tissues, just in case.
MUSIC , under and out: “Ragtime”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.