New D.C. version is less lavish than original

Ask a Gotham legiter about “Ragtime,” and many won’t immediately conjure images from the musical’s Broadway preem — they’ll remember the concurrent crash-and-burn of its producer.

But backers of the Main Stem revival, in previews for a Nov. 15 opening at the Neil Simon Theater, are hoping to change that.

The 1997 Broadway bow of “Ragtime,” with a score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and book by Terrence McNally, was far from forgettable, boasting, for instance, a cast that included Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie.

Based on the multistrand 1975 E.L. Doctorow novel about America in the early 1900s, the show also got a spectacularly lavish Rialto staging courtesy of flamboyant Canuck producer Garth Drabinsky.

It was Drabinsky’s shady business practices that came to light during the show’s two-year run, bankrupting producing org Livent. (In August, Drabinsky was sentenced to seven years in prison for fraud and forgery.)

“I think this show got wrapped up into that story, so many people forgot the art in it,” says Kevin McCollum, who brings the new “Ragtime” back to Gotham with fellow producers Roy Furman and Emanuel Azenberg, among others.

Besides, 1997-98 was the season of “The Lion King,” whose phenomenal ongoing success seems to have overshadowed most of the rest of that year’s shows, “Ragtime” included. (While “Ragtime” won four Tonys, including score and book, “The Lion King” took the top musical prize.)

The latest incarnation of “Ragtime” initially bowed in the spring at Washington, D.C.’s, Kennedy Center, which about once a year produces a sizable legit project to slot into the presenter’s season of offerings originated elsewhere.

Kennedy Center president Michael M. Kaiser had begun thinking about “Ragtime” some five years ago as part of a focus on the current generation of Broadway musical creatives, among them Ahrens and Flaherty (“Once on This Island,” “A Man of No Importance”).

It was the composer-lyricist duo who suggested Marcia Milgrom Dodge to direct, after Dodge helmed a notably successful 2006 re-imagining of Ahrens and Flaherty’s “Seussical” for Theaterworks/USA, which is still touring the production.

Ahrens and Flaherty encouraged Dodge to think about staging “Ragtime” with somewhat less extravagance than original helmer Frank Galati turned out for the preem, which had a technologically elaborate set that included fireworks and a working Model T automobile.

“What they really wanted was for me to do the show without being so literal, so there’s a theatricality to my approach,” Dodge says.

The new production has a multitiered scaffold-style set by Derek McLane. The critical raves that came after the April opening in Washington also noted an intimate focus on the musical’s central characters, who include Americans drawn from white, black and Jewish immigrant communities.

“There was much more pageantry in the original. That was Garth’s personality,” McCollum says. “This is much more grounded in the relationships rather than the themes.”

Creatives cast the show on the younger side, partly to reflect the youth of the country that is the musical’s broader subject. Nineteen thesps — including Quentin Earl Darrington, Christiane Noll, Ron Bohmer, Bobby Steggert — are reprising roles they played in the D.C. production.

Though somewhat less lavish than the preem, the revival is a hefty endeavor, with a cast of 40 and an orchestra of 28. At the Kennedy Center, the budget approached $5 million, while the Gotham transfer necessitated $8.5 million more in capitalization costs.

In D.C. the show took in an unusually robust $3 million, according to Kaiser. “It sold really well long before it opened, and we were surprised by that,” he says. “It sold on the name ‘Ragtime,’ I think. It’s also a serious show, and I think people are anxious for something substantive.”

The Washington reviews drew Gotham-based producers including McCollum, who has had a long relationship with the musical. His wife, Lynnette Perry, played showgirl Evelyn Nesbit in the original, and he’d been toying with the idea of a revival even before he heard about the Kennedy Center’s plans.

The producer characterizes box office as good for a crowded market; he doesn’t expect people to start talking about the show until after it opens.

Nor is he concerned that now is too soon for Broadway to revisit “Ragtime,” especially since in his view the original production’s run was curtailed by Livent’s financial drama.

Part of the appeal for the current production, he says, is the fact that many of the show’s themes have taken on greater resonance in the dozen years since the tuner first bowed. Its story of turn-of-the-century bigotry, for instance, has acquired new textures since the election of the first African-American president.

And as Dodge points out, in the show, J.P. Morgan, one of several historical characters incorporated into the fictional storyline, talks about the economy in ways that will play differently in the wake of last year’s fiscal downturn.

“Everything we’re talking about in the show is current events,” she says.

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