A far-off piano plays a tinkling tune out of the past. A young boy kneels in front of a miniature Edwardian house, peers through a stereopticon, and utters the opening lines to E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel, on which this musical is based: "In 1902, Father built a house . . . It seems for some years thereafter that all our family's days would be warm and fair." This is the lad's invocation to the past. Out of the stereopticon comes his family. All in delicate summer whites, they float in a self-contained WASP paradise. They sing of "ladies with parasols, fellows with tennis balls. There were no Negroes, and there were no immigrants." Then, like a jest from an ironic god, a group of shimmying blacks enter, horrifying the Anglos with their defiant joie de vivre. They are soon followed by a flank of hungry European immigrants, shoving their way in.
In a mesmerizing dance of history, the three groups warily circle each other, seeking their stake in the American jackpot. As composer Stephen Flaherty's syncopated title song grows ever more hypnotic, in saunters industrialist Henry Ford, Hungarian escape artist Houdini, show-business vamp Evelyn Nesbit, radical activist Emma Goldman, and black leader Booker T. Washington, all singing: "There was music playing, catching a nation in its prime, beggar and millionaire, everyone, everywhere moving to the ragtime!"
These 10 minutes are the apex of the musical, clearly dramatizing the heart of Doctorow's novel: the birth of the melting pot, the first stirring of female independence, and the decline of Anglo-Saxon patriarchy. This is all presented with the stunning theatrical lucidity that Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein brought to the Jets vs. Sharks dances in West Side Story.
After the opening, the musical loses its veneer of effortless genius and descends to inspired craftsmanship. Doctorow's novel, reminiscent of John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy, is written to approximate the structure of the eponymous music that paralleled the emerging spirit of social emancipation. It is a fable about the birth pangs of the 20th century, following the shifting fortunes of a proud black pianist, a recently arrived Jewish artist, and an archetypal, affluent white upper-middle-class family.
Playwright Terrence McNally manages in his musical adaptation to succeed where the unfortunate film version failed to capture the breadth and scope of Doctorow's material. He sagely keeps the story's sense of being a fable by having the characters speak in the third-person narration of the book. As in Oscar Hammerstein II's musicalizations of countless novels and plays, from Show Boat to South Pacific, McNally succinctly synthesizes and humanizes the rather clinical novel.
Composer Flaherty, along with lyricist Lynn Ahrens, has composed a great second-rate score. In the tradition of Stephen Sondheim (sans the bite), they appropriate antique musical valentines and redecorate them for new-age purposes: a vaudeville specialty number as a murder trial, a buck-and-wing shuffle for a riot, a torch song for a discontented wife breaking the chains of genteel servitude. At best, the score is a vibrant pastiche, illuminating the novel's themes with plangent tin-pan-alley ditties. In a key moment, a ragtime pianist introduces black music into a white household, opening everyone's cultural horizons. The birth of the Model T is shown in a number sung in razzmatazz style by Henry Ford and choreographed as a Chaplinesque dance inspired by Modern Times. At other times, heavy-handed anthems, such as "Wheels of a Dream," come perilously close to the fake uplift of "Climb Every Mountain"-type treacle.
The true stars of the evening are director Frank Galati, choreographer Graciela Daniele, production designer Eugene Lee, and costume designer Santo Loquasto. Galati, who gave a recent stage production of The Grapes of Wrath the epic look and feel of a three-dimensional propaganda poster, here performs the same magic. Along with his production crew, he gives us chaos that seems to come out of Diego Rivera's angry murals. The idealized chiaroscuro passion of D.W. Griffith's silent photoplays and the delicate impressionistic hues of Mary Cassatt's mothers and children seem to spring out of his fevered imagination. As in The Civil War, Wendell K. Harrington's projections act as a time warp, thrusting the audience into a scrapbook of turn-of-the-century cityscapes and artifacts. Invariably, Galati's high-speed, expressionist direction keeps the show moving with high-impact intensity.
The cast easily lives up to the expectations of a professional tour. Cathy Wydner's Mother radiates a special tenderness and refinement; Nicholas Boak's Little Boy (Doctorow's alter ego) has a sense of wonder that cannot be diminished by 45 co-stars and sound amplification from hell. Lovena Fox's lambent rendition of the doomed washerwoman, Sarah, and Lawrence Hamilton's enraged pianist, Coalhouse Walker, are memorable.
Ragtime's innovations, stirringly blended to a bracing old-time theatricality, make it, along with Sondheim's Passion, the most enduring musical of the last decade. Even though some cynics believe the traditional musical to be on the brink of extinction, on the road this dinosaur still lets out a healthy roar.
Keith A. Joseph can be reached at [email protected].