Magnificent in scope and munificent in spirit, the new musical “Ragtime” achieves the surprising feat — rare in any medium — of living up to its own million-dollar hype. This most thematically ambitious of all American musicals, set at the turn of the century, reverberates with ideas — about racism and social justice, the struggles of immigrants and the painful price paid by some for the American dreams of others — that remain hauntingly apt as we look forward to the next century. If the breadth of its vision sometimes comes at the expense of depth — the magic it spins is so complex that it can occasionally seem mechanical — there’s no quibbling with its accomplishment; it’s grandly conceived and grandly executed.
In ragtime music, with its jangled syncopation, its delicate melodies borne aloft on notes seemingly thrown together by chance, E.L. Doctorow found the perfect metaphor for his 1975 novel, in which he illustrated how fortune and fate clash haphazardly with humanity’s dreams and ambitions, and history — for good or ill — is forged from the chaotic conflict.
The dazzling title number is the show opener, a ragtime riff whose chorus ends on a note of urgency that sets the tone for the show’s strong mixture of uplift and plain-spoken truth-telling. The loveliness of the opening tableau — a white-clad flock of white folks posing just so for a photograph — takes on a new note, half elegy, half irony, as they begin to sing about the closing of their era of innocence: “There were no Negroes … and there were no immigrants.”
After the white principals are introduced — the upper-middle-class Mother and Father, their young son and Mother’s Younger Brother — the stage fills with a free-spirited chorus of blacks led by the pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr., and a ragtag band of fresh-off-the-boat immigrants, including the Latvian Tateh and his young daughter. As the three groups move together and apart, Graciele Daniele’s breathtakingly graceful choreography (a highlight of the show throughout) foreshadows the intertwining destinies of these fictional principals, as historical figures who will play upon their lives — Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman — make their own appearances.
And that’s just the opening number. When Mother (Marcia Mitzman Gaven), digging in her flower bed, discovers a newborn black baby buried in the earth, the distinct worlds delineated in that song irrevocably implode.
Mother takes into her home both the baby and her distraught, remorseful mother Sarah (LaChanze), and watches with grudging affection as the baby’s father, Coalhouse (Brian Stokes Mitchell), comes doggedly courting, trying to win back Sarah’s affection.
Coalhouse’s immense dignity and pride are symbolized in his spanking new Model T — the dream of Henry Ford, forged, in one of the many painful ironies that cycle through the show, at the dehumanizing expense of the immigrant workers lashed to his own great innovation, the assembly line.
But Coalhouse’s devotions to Sarah bring him into foreign territory for a man from Harlem, and into conflict with a gang of racist firemen incensed at the sight of a black man in a car that symbolizes to them, too, American prosperity. They trash his car, and Coalhouse’s dogged quest for retribution leads inadvertently to his wife’s death.
Meanwhile, Tateh (John Rubinstein) struggles to find the America he’d promised to his daughter, falling in with Goldman’s (Judy Kaye) labor movement agitators before transforming himself into filmmaking pioneer Baron Ashkenazy.
Younger Brother (Scott Carollo) has his own transformations to make: from dissatisfied youth to besotted admirer of Evelyn Nesbit, the notorious beauty who inspired “the crime of the century” (her millionaire husband’s murder of her former lover Stanford White); to dedicated follower of Coalhouse in his quest for justice at any price.
The density of Doctorow’s novel — there’s virtually no dialogue — would seem almost impossible to reconcile with the economy required by drama (Milos Forman concentrated on just one strand for his 1981 movie), but Frank Galati’s staging deftly blends both: The show is economically dense, with Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics driving the various strands of the show with as much dexterity as Terrence McNally’s spare, witty book.
There are some marvelously felicitous touches: In the number “Success,” J.P. Morgan strides along a factory gangplank that descends as if to crush the immigrants toiling in the factory below him; Houdini, an immigrant himself, appears to magically liberate them, and we see in a flash the psychological symbolism behind his immense fame: If he could escape from seemingly impossible snares, so could anyone wriggle free from the traps of poverty or misfortune.
Musical motifs are used intelligently for dramatic effect: the words of the title tune — “An era exploding, a century spinning” — take on a dark hue when Coalhouse turns them into an anthem for his violent struggle for retribution. An early, brief meeting between Tateh and Mother and their children is a graceful amplification of a smaller episode in the book, and its glancing, slight song (“Nothing Like the City”) is one of the show’s lovelier in its subtlety.
(One could very much do without the Little Boy’s powers of prophecy, however: “We’re going to know them,” he says presciently to his mother about Tateh and his daughter, and at other points gives Houdini mystical warnings of historic significance.)
Stephen Flaherty’s music blends a variety of American styles — from various riffs on ragtime to the gospel-inflected anthem “Till We Reach That Day,” to the Sondheimian “Journey On” — and he’s adept at them all, though by show’s end we have perhaps heard one soaring crescendo too many.
Eugene Lee’s sets are uniformly beautiful, lavish when necessary, as for the J.P. Morgan library, where Coalhouse makes his last stand, but spare when providing a backdrop for the characters’ epiphanies. They’re terrifically lit by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; the entire team — including Wendell K. Harrington, who created the projections — has drawn on paintings and photographs of the period to precise and powerful effect. Santo Loquasto’s costumes are likewise impeccable.
First-rate performances virtually across the board are a vital necessity in this show; with so many characters weaving in and out of the show’s fabric, each needs to be drawn with precision and emotional immediacy.
At the top of the list must be put Mitchell’s magnetic Coalhouse, vocally strong and full of both Coalhouse’s upstanding charm and the hardness of his pride. LaChanze is terrific as Sarah, with minimal dialogue drawing a portrait of a real human being caught in the random tides of history; she pours emotion into her songs with a freedom that’s one of the show’s joys.
Rubinstein as well taps instantly into real emotion in his early scenes, nailing Tateh’s desperation made more painful by his ambition. Mitzman Gaven, in the key role of Mother, whose delicate emotional transformation mirrors the more violent changes around her, is a little monotonous; she’s unnaturally high-toned and a little stiff throughout, though that may be built into the somewhat precious nobility of her role; in any case her singing is terrific.
Since the show’s Toronto opening last fall — the Canadian company moves to Broadway in December, while the L.A. company is slated at the Shubert at least through September — some work has been done on the more peripheral historical characters. And if they still don’t always take on the contours of complex human beings, we clearly see how their influence works in the lives of the principals.
Jason Graae’s Houdini plays a particularly poignant role (in the symbolically apt coup de theatre that opens the second act, he escapes from a trap rigged by fire chief Willie Conklin and his thugs, the men whose cruelty Coalhouse couldn’t avoid). And Kaye’s stolid Goldman has a few quieter moments with Tateh.
Only Evelyn Nesbit — played with burlesque charm by Susan Wood — remains thinly drawn and less than deftly integrated into the show. (Her relationship with Tateh and Emma Goldman in the novel is eliminated, and her dalliance with Younger Brother minimized.)
Is “Ragtime” perfect? No; with so much ground to be covered, so much exposition to be exposed, there’s little room left for spontaneity. Coalhouse’s “Gettin’ Ready Rag” early on is the rare instance when the joy of music, of putting on a show, seems to supersede the exigencies of storytelling. (The show’s second act baseball number, on the other hand, is an extraneous bit of Americana that could easily be excised, giving the act a more fluid momentum.)
And there’s a terse relentlessness to the show’s emotional tides — push the anger-at-injustice button in this number, pull the see-a-bright-future lever for this one — that can leave us feeling manipulated by forces no less mechanized than Ford’s assembly line.
But just when the show seems likely to settle for making easy points, the rigorous intelligence of Galati and his collaborators draws it back: The music and our instincts might point to the nobility of Coalhouse’s struggle, but a meeting with Booker T. Washington (a strong Allan Louis) makes us see another side of his tactics. Even Conklin, the racist fire chief whose hatred sets Coalhouse and Sarah’s lives on their tragic course, is given a glimmer of humanity; his bile is a recycled form of the contempt he’s faced as an Irishman.
Indeed, the sheer size of the show and the spectacle of its stagecraft make its determined attention to the hearts of all its characters surprising. That these artists, working at the top of their form, have managed to tell a story of this immensity without losing sight of its humanity is no small magic trick; Houdini himself would be breathless with admiration.