Ragtime is a difficult musical to revive, to re-envision, because, as is, it’s so compelling commercially (interestingly, though, the show didn’t earn out during its initial 1998 run, apparently due to production costs and the salaries of the large cast). Today, whether it’s the fault of the concept or the recession or both, the number of actors in Broadway’s new version at the Neil Simon Theatre is limited to a not insubstantial forty, and the sets are streamlined: a two-tiered unit, reminiscent of Tiffany and Grand Central is used (it’s still big, though, and, at times, it even appears barnlike, dark, and empty). But the decision to read “big,” within a budget, for Ragtime is warranted: This is a serious candidate for hard-earned holiday dollars. The musical, an adaptation of a famous novelist’s arguably most famous novel, can stand on its laurels, too—besides being based on Doctorow’s work, Broadway A-listers won Tony awards for best book (Terrence McNally) and music (Stephen Flaherty). Even if the creators seem a little self-important in a recent New York Times promotional article (Doctorow called the musical an opera and McNally said they weren’t doing “a reproduction of the original,” even if he didn’t rewrite anything), it’s the kind of show you can safety take your kids to (no sex or bad language to speak of ). A kaleidoscopic history of the early twentieth century, its characters include J. P. Morgan and Houdini; Henry Ford and a ragtime pianist named Coalhouse Walker; uptight WASPs and activist Jews, unknowingly, meant for each other–the Irish (uppity), African Americans (hunted), non-immigrant Dads (out of it), and Republicans (Republicans) don’t fare as well in terms of the plot, but, today, in terms of generic cultural portrayals in the media, they’re probably used to it. There’s a contradiction, though. Such lack of dimension, for characters with names like Mother and Father (the same as in the book), is awkward—the audience is reminded of the dangers of stereotyping (and sung to that we’re all the same in the dark), yet quick character thumbnails are what we see on the stage.
Truth be told, Doctorow is right: Ragtime should be an opera. Despite the high artistic and monetary stakes, it should be taken another step—and, amazingly, go beyond high-level Broadway craftsmanship. Maybe the creators didn’t feel they could engage an audience in a different way; maybe there were collaborative dynamics we don’t know about (today, we see the creators posing collegially for the New York Times camera). But the issues of the musical were expressed rather straightforwardly the first time it opened in New York (I didn’t see the show in its initial run, and I haven’t read the current review of Ragtime in The New York Times). In 1998, Ben Brantley wrote, however: “The musical is a carefully constructed pastiche of period charm and contemporary mechanical efficiency. . . . [It] has the aura of something assembled by corporate committee. . . . The skills and virtues . . . are many and undeniable; but a distinctive human personality is not among them.” Given this lukewarm assessment, it’s surprising that Ragtime wasn’t changed more (not that critics are part of a creative team but because Brantley was making sense). What does go right is that McNally really does do a masterful job of condensing the book and tying up loose ends; because he is largely working without an obvious central character, I was concerned that–despite his knowledge of the tricks of the trade and stage devices–the musical would only end up as period events and details piled on top of one another. His book does payoff extremely well, though—he really does make the musical resound before Coalhouse’s last exit. After Sondheim and Kander and Ebb, Flaherty’s work doesn’t seem emotionally complex enough to my ear—but it’s also difficult to fault him; this is a huge score in a huge undertaking for all. He knows the music of rags, cake walks, and marches—and Broadway as well (you’ll also be reminded of Sondheim and Kander & Ebb in Ragtime)–and he can reproduce all skillfully over the two and a half hours of the show, even if he continues to seem too much the mimic (although I really was starting to groove on a song called, “He Wanted to Say” before it was abruptly over). What I’ve been continuing to think about, given this embarrassment of riches, is something that Joseph Papp said way back in 1978 concerning Lincoln Center: “Be careful not to have too many people . . . theatres [and maybe musicals] can’t be run by committees.” And that’s where I think the problem may rest here –the absence of a prevailing artist.
This is a true conundrum given that theatre—and maybe musical theatre most of all–is such a collaborative art. All I can intuit is that somehow, some way the creative team misconstrued getting A’s in entertainment with producing art. If it were art, Doctorow really would have his musical opera; if it were art, Flaherty would have found his own musical voice (and maybe even given us one unforgettable song or aria, like Webber did with “Memory” (in the otherwise rather forgettable score for Cats); if it were art, McNally and Lynn Ahrens would also have found a way to fashion more fully dimensioned characters (even if there are so many of them) and not contradict one of their most important points. I actually think such a feat could have been achieved, I actually think they are very close to the transmutation—but, for now, commerce has won again.
–© 2009 by Bob Shuman
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