24 November 2009


It's been two weeks since I saw the show, so now seems like the perfect time to blog about the Ragtime revival on Broadway, right?


I had a conversation with a coworker yesterday - this place is lousy with theatre refugees - about the production. He enumerated a list of flaws: staging, design, script, score, performance - and I agreed with almost each one. But still, and I am not a sucker for Les Miz bombasticity, it won me the hell over.

I have a deep sentimental attachment to this show. The summer after my sophomore year of high school I was in a teen summer theatre production of Oliver! Surely one of the worst shows I was ever in, but it was an amazing summer, an immersion in the world of teen theatre nerdery that brought me amazing friends and new hights of geekdom. That was the summer I learned all the lyrics to Rent, but even more important, it was the summer I learned every word and note of Ragtime.

I spent too many nights that summer driving around our town in my friend Mike's Rav4, him, me, and Liisa singing along with this CD. I remember most vividly the trio early in the first act, where Liisa sang Mother because she has the most gorgeous voice ever, Mike sang Father, and I sang Tateh either because I couldn't really sing or I was the Jew, or both. So there was that early attachment, there.

I've also realized that for all that going to an ethnically diverse high school left me feeling rather culturally bereft (and racist! ha), I feel a strong connection to the Jewish immigrants who settled on the Lower East Side. The same street names that place my grandmother's stories are dropped into the lyrics of Ragtime, and the song where the Jewish, Italian, and Haitian immigrants sing in counterpoint and then, of course, unison, gets me exactly where it wants me.

I've had two actual moments of patriotic feeling in my life. The first was a couple of months ago, reading Sarah Vowell's newest book, The Wordy Shipmates. Something about how the Puritans who laid the foundation for this country were a bunch of bookish nerds - the way she put it just made me love them, feel a kinship despite the fact that my own ancestors were doing god knows what in a field in the Poland at the time. And the second was sitting in the audience of this revival of Ragtime. I don't even remember when, but I'm sure it had something to do with the diverse portrait of this country, the portrait drawn of a moment of turmoil and change - "It was the music of something beginning, an era exploding, a century spinning. In riches and rags and in rhythm and rhyme," etc. It's cheesy, its overblown, but it's also kind of beautiful and true.

And I do think that for all its overly sweeping music and how close to the saccharine it pulls E.L. Doctorow's really disturbing novel in the course of compression and adaptation, this is a really great show. The lyrics are fantastic, and for the most part the stories are woven together very effectively. Yes, Tateh turns into a total douche in the second act. Yes, the actor's left with a lot of responsibility to make Coalhouse make sense. Yes, it seems really easy for actresses to make Sarah really lame. But - and some people would call this a weakness, but I call it a choice! - the story here is the bigger picture. This country is being turned upside-down and inside-out, and a hundred years later, it's a story we should know.

Which is not to say that the individual characters don't have compelling stories - they do! In this production, especially, I think Mother and Father come through especially clearly and honestly. No one can sing the shit out a song like Marin Mazzie, but Christiane Knoll made Mother funny in a way that I never would've imagined, but that really, really worked.

And this revival is, for the most part, a gorgeous production. Yes, the multi-levelled set, steel girders and all, is something I was sick of in college, when it was overdone there, but this is a beautiful, imposing iteration, and there's a set change in the second act that may have made me gasp. I think I may have also let out some sort of little sound at the insane gorgeousness of Santo Loquasto's costumes. (One black and white print in particular, on an Atlantic City dress, made my heart hurt.)

I mean, yes, every time a soaring ballad ended with the lights bumping to white backlighting on someone standing downstage center - or, at least, each time after the first two instances - I wanted to stab a lighting designer in the eye. And, also, whoever decided that the way to trim the revival's score was to cut an entire verse from one of the show's best songs - "The Night That Goldman Spoke in Union Square" - and then to cut the best little bit of lyrical reprise/inversion, which happens to involve the same characters who lost a verse in the first act, that person should get their dramaturgical license revoked.

Yes, too many characters stride purposefully downstage to sing out to us emphatically. Some of the acting felt a little not-ready-for-primetime. Harry Houdini really needed some sort of shirt. But I don't care. This show has the like-it-or-not soul-stirring grandiosity of Les Miz, but then it also doesn't suck! Which is a huge improvement over the Les Miz formula. It tells interesting stories, with gorgeous, artful lyrics set to interesting and catchy-as-all-hell music.

And, you know what? Bottom line this production is just more than the sum of its parts. It's gorgeous and moving and fun and completely fucking awesome. Like Isaac (who said something like this once, but whose blog's search function is for shit, so I can't link to that specific post), I ate it up like a banana split, as long as the banana split is made with lactose-free ice cream, or this is an imaginary metaphor world where I can eat dairy. (Score!)

And I saw it with Liisa, my best friend from that first summer of driving around the suburbs at night singing this show, which was maybe the best part of the whole thing.

(all photos courtesy of. thanks!)


Joseph Buck said...

Did you previously talk about The Wordy Shipmates somewhere?

Jay Levitt said...

Dear whoever you are:

1. Thank you for being the top (and only) Google result for "Where is your mother dead". I couldn't remember Little Boy's line, and it was driving me nuts.

2. If you're talking about "I know how to blow things up", it made me sad too; I think I read that it was pulled by Ahrens and Flaherty, either when they stripped down the Broadway production or for the First National Tour. Nothing was more depressing than seeing Ragtime diluted year after year, until it finally came to a local theatre-in-the-round with a cast that IIRC consisted of Mark Jacoby, some chick and three hand puppets. But remember: the big Ragtime we love is also the big, mechanical-sets, 70-person Ragtime that cost half a million a week to run. There's never a canonical version of a musical; the cast recording and each tour are snapshots in time of a work in progress.

3. Speaking of, you know there's not only the cast album, but a concept album?

4. Why don't we like Tateh in the second act? Because he says "Well..." to a married woman?

Jay Levitt said...


The final tour's cast was actually *Stephen Zinnato*, some chick and three hand puppets. The Times regrets the error.

anna said...

sounds grand. jealous as usual. and still swearing to read the book.

also, i will not apologize for my love of les mis. this love may have something to do with memorizing it when i was nine, but love is love.

Esther said...

I definitely understand your attachment to the show. I think a lot of times how we feel about a play or musical is related to the context in which we see it or when we first heard about it.

But sadly, this production didn't grab me the way I thought it would. Part of it may be that I saw an early preview. Part of it may be that I read the novel and loved it when it first came out. Unfortunately, that meant there weren't any surprises.

But I also thought the scene with the car was incredibly lame. And while I loved the music none of the actors really got to me emotionally. Although I did like Christiane Noll.

I felt like the story of Coalhouse and Sarah got kind of shortchanged, like we didn't have enough time to get to know them and empathize with them.

Also, post 9/11, the ending made me uncomfortable. I don't think I look at it the same way now as I did when I read the book in 1975.

I enjoyed Ragtime but it just wasn't the awe-inspiring experience I thought it would be.