Saturday, October 22, 2011

“GIVING THE NATION A NEW SYNCOPATION”: A discussion on “Ragtime”

By Anthony James Host

In January of 1998, at the age of 9, I was home from school on a snow day watching The Rosie O’Donnell show. She always had such wonderful guests and lots of funny bits, but the major draw for me was when she had casts of Broadway musicals grace her stage. She gave many wonderful musicals a boost, especially those that were struggling (Jason Robert Brown & Alfred Uhry’s Parade being the best example of that). The one musical that grabbed me, however, was probably somewhat bizarre for a nine-year-old: a period piece with very little movement and stuffy turn-of-the-century characters and costumes -- Ragtime, a new musical based on the amazing 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow (which had been made into a rather lackluster 1981 film by Milos Forman).  I didn’t know anything about the history of the source material at the time, but I was drawn to it -- especially after Rosie gave it such a glorious introduction, enshrining it with a handful of other musicals that were “timeless, classic masterpieces”.

I really loved what I saw, even though the epic prologue was shortened due to the constraints of performing on a television show. Shortly after that appearance, Rosie O’Donnell brought back two of the show’s talented cast members, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald, to perform what could possibly be the show’s most famous song, “Wheels of a Dream”.  I wouldn’t say it is my favorite song in the show, but seeing these two lovely performers really lit a fire in me that shouldn’t be normal for any young boy.

I wanted to see this show.


It took me quite some time to actually get to go to NYC to see it, because no one would take me. I didn’t have a theatre conscious family, but I did have a lot of dear older friends with whom I worked doing regional and community theatre, who wanted to introduce me to more theatre. One in particular, Peter, offered to take me to NYC for my birthday to see not only Ragtime, but Peter Pan, The Lion King, The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Cabaret, 1776, and The Scarlet Pimpernel.

I can’t even believe I was allowed to enter the theatre for Cabaret.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic. That October (thirteen years ago this week), I saw Ragtime. I never realized how truly epic the show was going to be, and I was in awe of the massive sets, the large cast, and the lovely orchestra. I have seen many Broadway shows since then, but none had the same impact as this one.

One thing that really upsets me is how a lot of people claim the show is nothing but full-throated power ballads with very melodramatic titles (okay, that may be true to an extent, but they are still very stirring) and that the sets distracted from the flaws in the book (yes, there are flaws, the timeline is very hard to follow, and some of the dialogue is not exactly perfect), but the one criticism that stunned me was that of Ben Brantley, the famed New York Times Theatre critic. I think Mr. Brantley is a great critic/writer and I enjoy reading his reviews, but this was one occasion where I disagreed with him completely -- he accused the show of lacking soul, saying it had “mechanical efficiency.” I honestly felt this production was one of the most soul-stirring things I had ever seen.

To this day, I feel so attached to the actors in this show that it’s hard to separate them from their characters, especially in the case of Audra McDonald, who played the role of Sarah. Keep in mind, this woman has four Tony awards and by this point already won two before she even reached the age of 30. I honestly feel the legend of Audra McDonald, for me, is traced to one moment in particular, her performance of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s masterpiece, “Your Daddy’s Son”. I just have to say this was quite possibly the best performance of a song that I ever witnessed on Broadway, both in terms of acting and singing. It may have also been the first time I truly realized the power and impact that a performance could have on someone.  Ms. McDonald’s work as the tragic Sarah haunts me to this day. In such a short amount of time (she is primarily in the last half of Act One), she left me believing Sarah was a real person and I still find it hard to shake the image because her portrayal was so compelling and the fate of her character also deeply affected me.

The aura of Sarah is what also deeply affects that of the character of pianist Colehouse Walker, Jr., played by Brian Stokes Mitchell. The dashing, charismatic Mitchell still remains my favorite Broadway leading man: a modern day Alfred Drake, Robert Goulet, Howard Keel, or Ezio Pinza. While Mitchell sang many of these full throated power ballads that people criticized, he (and Ms. McDonald) sold these with the most intensity that never went over-the-top. Mitchell’s 11 o’clock number “Make Them Hear You” could be considered a cliché peace ballad, but its simplicity and the power make it stand out. Mitchell’s last note is stellar and I remember that he got a two-minute standing ovation after he finished the song (one of the 5 or 6 standing ovations the show received that night).

If it went through the rest of the cast one by one this article would be a lot longer than it already is, but I do want to recognize them in some way. Marin Mazzie has always had mixed responses from many people, but I must say no role has ever fit her like the role of Mother did: her look and personality more than made her right for the role. Peter Friedman is usually the forgotten cast member/lead but his work is absolutely wonderful, especially because he never once becomes a stereotype as Tateh, (a dream role of mine). The rest of the cast -- Mark Jacoby, Lynette Perry, and especially Judy Kaye, to name but a few -- are standouts.

This production of Ragtime lives on through its original cast album which preserves the music even though it can never fully recreate the beauty of the full production. All of the lush orchestrations and emotions of the cast are just as intense and they are live (though live will always be better, especially hearing such great music and vocals).

Thanks to the expensive running costs of Ragtime and an eventual dip in audience attendance, the expectations of Ragtime becoming the American Les Miserables, dwindled away, and it closed in 2000 after a 2 ½ year run.

Perhaps a show of that production’s size couldn’t last nowadays, which is very sad, but Ragtime can work on a smaller scale, as the recent critically praised revival showed.  It began as a Kennedy Center production, before its brief run at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway. I did get to see the production and while I agree that it was a very well put together production with much style and also good work, particularly from Christiane Noll and a unique take on Mother’s Younger Brother by Bobby Steggart, I felt the production actually lacked a certain spark that the original had, even though some felt it was an improvement over the original.

I don’t want to end this article without discussing the creative forces behind the show. Composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens are up first. These two have created so many diverse scores that they can be compared Bock and Harnick (of Fiorello, She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof, The Apple Tree). Ahrens & Flaherty created Lucky Stiff, Once on this Island, My Favorite Year, Seussical, A Man of No Importance, Dessa Rose, and The Glorious Ones --all very different shows with different styles.  In my opinion, Ragtime remains their best work, and I really hope they write a new musical soon and bounce back to Broadway (they have not had an original musical there since Seussical closed in 2001).

Book writer Terrence McNally is more known for his plays like Master Class or Love! Valour! Compassion! He has written the books for other musicals like The Full Monty or more recently Catch Me If You Can. His work on Ragtime is great, but sometimes I feel like the dialog can be a little melodramatic, though that could be the fault of the director’s or actor’s interpretation. I do think Mr. McNally is a fantastic writer, nonetheless.

Frank Galati’s direction had moments of genius, but that year he was overshadowed by Julie Taymor and her gigantic vision for The Lion King. Mr. Galati managed to find the heart and soul of the piece amongst the massive moving sets and lighting effects (which were used to create a train track, silhouettes, a massive bridge that lowered down repeatedly, and several huge pictures of the Atlantic City landscape…and that is just the tip of the iceberg).

Due to my intense love for Ragtime, I jumped at the chance to talk about it in my first StageBuzz article. I feel that my views about theatre, why I love what I do, and why I aspire to do it in the future, stem from that first experience with Ragtime. I hope to one day meet Mr. Flaherty and Ms. Ahrens to express my respect and gratitude for them creating such a wonderful score.

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