Ragtime (musical)

Ragtime is a musical with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty.

Based on the 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime tells the story of three groups in America, represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician; Mother, the matriarch of a WASP family in New Rochelle, NY; and Tateh, a Latvian Jewish immigrant. Historical figures such as Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Stanford White, Harry Kendall Thaw, Admiral Peary, Matthew Henson, and Emma Goldman also appear. The music includes marches, cakewalks, gospel and ragtime. The show is mostly sung-through, with very little spoken dialogue.

Production history


The musical had pre-Broadway try-outs in Toronto and Los Angeles before opening on Broadway on January 18, 1998 as the first production in the newly renovated Ford Center for the Performing Arts (since renamed the Hilton Theatre). It was produced by Livent Inc., a Canadian company headed by Garth Drabinsky. (Shortly after the musical's Broadway opening, Livent filed for bankruptcy and Drabinsky was indicted in New York for fraud.)

Directed by Frank Galati and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, Ragtime ran for two years, closing on January 16, 2000, after 834 performances. It was not financially successful, and some Broadway insiders consider its lavish production to have been the financial "undoing" of Livent.

The original cast included Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marin Mazzie, and Audra McDonald, who were all nominated for Tony Awards.

Ragtime received mixed reviews, many critics noting that the dazzling production (with an $11 million budget, including fireworks and a working Model T automobile) overshadowed problems in the script. Ben Brantley's review in the New York Times was headlined "A diorama with nostalgia rampant." Nonetheless, it led the Tony Awards with 12 Tony Awards nominations in 1998, and was considered the front runner for the coveted Tony Award for Best Musical; however, it was upset by Disney's The Lion King. The musical won awards for Best Featured Actress (McDonald), Original Score, Book, and Orchestrations

Other productions

Ragtime has become very popular with regional theatre groups including the historic Fulton Opera House's production winning the 2004 Footsie Award under direction of Robin McKercher and choreographer Bernard Monroe.

Following its European premiere in a concert performance at the Cardiff International Festival of Musical Theatre in 2002, it was produced in London by Sonia Friedman in 2003. This production starred Maria Friedman in the role of Mother, for which she won the 2004 Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical.

The European Amateur Premiere was produced by Thurles Musical Society, Ireland in March 2004 and won numerous AIMS awards in the same year.

The expected revival by the New York City Opera had been postponed, and then cancelled altogether.

Concord-Carlisle High School in Concord, Massachusetts was the first high school to stage Ragtime in 2003.

A highly successful production in Auckland, New Zealand opened at the Auckland Music Theatre in 2007.

In July 2008, PCPA Theaterfest on the Central Coast of California produced the show on a thrust stage, and then took it to an outdoor amphitheater in Solvang, CA.

NewImi Theatricals produced Ragtime in Japan.

Musik und Buehne has produced a German version of the show.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has announced an all new production to premiere in 2009.


Act I

The main characters introduce themselves ("Prologue"). The style of music changes as each represented ethnic group--upper class Protestant, African-American, and Eastern European Jewish immigrant--is introduced. From the Protestant group there is Edgar, a young boy and only child of Mother and Father; Father, a well-to-do businessman and explorer; Mother, his homemaking wife; Mother's Younger Brother, a "young man in search of something to believe in"; and Grandfather, a crotchety old man. Those who live in their rich, white neighborhood say that their life is pleasant, placid, and extremely sheltered, with "no negroes" and "no immigrants". From the African-American group there is Coalhouse Walker Jr, a professional piano player and a Ragtime pioneer; Sarah, his ardent admirer; and Booker T. Washington, a historical figure known for trying to soothe race relations. Among the immigrants are Tateh, a Latvian widower who has come to America to give his daughter a new life; Harry Houdini, another historical personage as an escape artist and a role model for downtrodden immigrants, as he was an immigrant himself, who is warned by Edgar to "warn the Duke". The focus shifts to more historical figures: Henry Ford, creator of the Model T and the assembly line; JP Morgan, the richest man of his time; Emma Goldman, a radical anarchist and fanatic opponent of American capitalism; and Evelyn Nesbit, a vaudeville actress whose former lover, architect Stanford White, was murdered by her husband, Harry Kendall Thaw.

Mother bids farewell to Father as he embarks on a journey, indirectly lamenting the fact that she cannot go on a journey as well ("Good-bye, My Love"). Father boards a ship to the Arctic with historical seamen Admiral Robert Peary and Matthew Henson. In the distance, Father catches sight of a ragship carrying Tateh and the Little Girl. Father notes Tateh's bravery and mentions that it is all for naught; Tateh "hasn't a chance". Tateh, meanwhile, sees Father and speculates as to why he is leaving "a country like this". Mother chimes in, and all three characters wish each other luck ("Journey On").

Evelyn Nesbit mocks the trial of her husband in her vaudeville act ("Crime of the Century"). Younger Brother confesses to the audience, and later to Evelyn, that he is in love with her. His affections are thoroughly rebuffed.

While gardening, Mother unearths a newborn black baby buried in the topsoil. She wonders aloud "What Kind of Woman" would bury her child alive, and chastises herself for allowing her husband to leave and therefore being unable to tell her what to do. She also reflects on how little she knows about the lives of her black maids. The police arrive with Sarah, the baby's mother, and inform Mother that Sarah will be tried for attempted murder and the baby placed in an orphanage. Mother tells the police that she will take responsibility for both mother and child. She wonders at herself for her nerve, but asserts that she could not respect herself had she let them go to a cruel legal system.

The immigrants arrive ("A Shtetl Iz America"). Tateh settles into his new life as a silhouette artist. At first he is optimistic, certain that he will be a "Success", but no one seems willing to buy from him. Despite the encouraging words of JP Morgan and Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, who has befriended Tateh informs the audience that the tenements are worse than life in Latvia, and the Little Girl often falls ill. After a rich man offers to buy the little girl, Tateh rages at God and America, and swears to find the life he dreamed about, and makes plans to leave New York.

In Harlem, Coalhouse is a respected and talented ragtime musician ("His Name Was Coalhouse Walker"). Coalhouse confesses his love for a woman named Sarah, who he admits he loved "not too wisely, and not too well". He confides that even though she has disappeared, he still loves her. He tells his audience that he has found out where Sarah lives and plans to "do [his] damnedest to see that she takes [him] back". His audience offers their support and encouragement, though Coalhouse decides to improve himself before presenting himself to Sarah ("Gettin' Ready Rag"). This includes buying a car. Henry Ford enters and sells Coalhouse a Model T, while he and his employees sing a paean to Mass Production and its creator, Henry Ford himself.

Tateh and the Little Girl leave New York City via New Rochelle, where they run across Mother and Edgar ("Nothing Like the City"). As Tateh and the Little Girl leave, Edgar asserts that they either know or will know them, though Mother thinks the idea is ridiculous.

Sarah sings to her son, explaining that his father had left her for "other ladies and other tunes". She gave birth alone, frightened, and with extreme difficulty, which led her to unthinkingly bury her child. She admits that she can't forget his father, and asks forgiveness from her baby ("Your Daddy's Son").

Coalhouse knocks on the door, looking for Sarah. While Mother goes to fetch her, Edgar shows Coalhouse the baby, his son. Sarah refuses to see Coalhouse, who says that he will return next Sunday. After weeks of such visits, Mother and Coalhouse become well acquainted ("The Courtship").

Father returns from his expedition to find Coalhouse playing a Ragtime tune on the family piano. He wonders at the oddity of a black man sitting comfortably in his house and playing his piano, while Mother realizes that she has begun to hear "New Music". Coalhouse serenades Sarah (leaving Mother and Father to realize how dry and impassionate their own love is). Sarah finally comes down, effectively forgiving and reuniting with Coalhouse.

Sarah, Coalhouse, and the baby go on a picnic, where they make plans to travel south, to California, and all over America in their car once the baby is old enough ("Wheels of a Dream"). The car becomes a symbol of their freedom and the promise of a future.

Younger Brother inadvertently stumbles into a rally on "The Night That Goldman Spoke At Union Square". He imagines that Emma Goldman personally invites him to join the worker's cause, and he joyously asserts that he's found his meaning in life. The rally turns into a riot. Another riot/strike is taking place at the textile factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts where Tateh now works. He manages to board a train that he had put his daughter on (bound for a foster family). He comforts the frightened child with a flipbook of her ice-skating, though it is evident that he is ready to give up. The train conductor sees the "movie book" and offers to buy it. Tateh realizes that he has invented a lucrative product, and becomes hopeful that he might yet be successful ("Gliding").

Returning home, Coalhouse, Sarah, and the baby are stopped by a squad of volunteer firemen led by Will Conklin, who demand that they pay a toll. After sending Sarah and his son away, Coalhouse leaves to find a police officer. While Booker T. Washington speaks of the need for patience, self-control, forbearance, forgiveness, and love, the firemen destroy Coalhouse's car and roll it into a lake ("The Trashing of the Car").

Incensed, Coalhouse seeks every avenue of justice available, but to no avail: white lawyers refuse to take him seriously, and black lawyers don't consider a case of vandalism to be an important civil rights suit. Furious, Coalhouse calls off his wedding to Sarah until his car has been restored ("Justice").

Wanting justice and marriage, Sarah hears of a rally for the vice-presidential candidate taking place in New Rochelle. Foolishly believing that he can solve the matter, Sarah decides to complain to him ("President"). She runs toward him, yelling and waving her hand. A passerby mistakes her for a would-be assassin, and in the ensuing panic, the Secret Service beats her to death.

At Sarah's funeral, Mother, the Family, Coalhouse, and many of Sarah's friends mourn her loss. Emma Goldman and a passing Tateh wonder why nobody seems to care that Sarah has been murdered. All attendees sing their hope that one day there will be justice regardless of race, and they'll never get to Heaven "'Til We Reach That Day".Act II

Edgar dreams about Harry Houdini, though the pleasant dream quickly turns into a nightmare. He runs to Mother, revealing his prophetic dream of a fatal explosion ("Harry Houdini, Master Escapist").

Coalhouse ends his career in music and asserts that his heart has been buried with Sarah. He vows to get justice on his own terms ("Coalhouse's Soliloquy").

Coalhouse begins terrorizing New Rochelle with guns and arson, demanding that his car be restored and Will Conklin turned over to him ("Coalhouse Demands"). Many unrelated firemen are killed. Will Conklin asks if Coalhouse realizes that Irishmen also faced racism (a claim backed up by a fellow fireman calling him a "goddamn gutless Mic"). The black community is divided: while some refuse to ally themselves with Coalhouse, including Booker T. Washington, a group of young men join him.

Mother asks Father to explain what is going on to Edgar and why they are involved, but instead he takes the boy to a baseball game, expecting it to be a civilized, relaxing way to spend an afternoon, the type of game he played at Harvard ("What a Game"). However, the spectators are rude and violent, and Father notes with horror that nearly none of the players have American names.

Coalhouse announces that unless his demands are met, he will burn down firehouses as the leader of Forbidden America ("Fire in the City").

As social workers attempt to take the baby from Mother's custody and the violence escalates, Father moves his family to "Atlantic City", mourning the end of their domestic happiness. Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Houdini are also in Atlantic City, though under less than pleasant circumstance: Evelyn is divorced and broke, and Harry's mother has died.

Tateh appears, now very successful and under a pseudonym: Baron Ashkenazy. He introduces himself to Mother and Father that after the movie books, he moved to photography and invented a projector, which led to him making his own movies and becoming a director. He has his own company: "Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc".

Tateh and the Little Girl meet Mother and Edgar on the boardwalk. As Edgar and the Little Girl play, Mother and Tateh note how simple and profound children's lives are, especially their ability to run "toward the future, from the past" ("Our Children"). Tateh admits his true identity to Mother.

In a "Harlem Nightclub", Coalhouse watches a couple dance and remembers his first meeting with "Sarah Brown Eyes". Younger Brother seeks out Coalhouse, anxious to join his cause. As Emma Goldman narrates, a scene is simulated in which Younger Brother pledges his allegiance to Coalhouse while confessing his deep sense of justice, but in reality all he says is "I know how to blow things up" ("He Wanted to Say").

The authorities in New Rochelle contact Father, hoping that he will be able to get through to Coalhouse. Father leaves, telling Mother he hopes they will be able to return to their happy lives. Mother, however, realizes that her experiences have forever changed her, and she can never go "Back to Before".

Booker T. Washington informs the audience that Coalhouse and his group have taken over the Morgan Library, a museum containing irreplaceable cultural and historical treasures. Father suggests sending Washington into the library to reason with Coalhouse. Coalhouse initially refuses to listen to Washington's assertions that he's significantly set back civil rights and will be responsible for his group's collective death, but finally returns to sanity when Washington mentions that Coalhouse is leaving his son a legacy of murder and lies ("Look What You've Done"). Washington convinces Coalhouse to surrender peacefully under the condition that his men go free and he receives a fair trial.

Father enters the Library as a voluntary hostage. Coalhouse's men denounce his decision as a defeat. Coalhouse, realizing the error of his ways, tells his men to continue the fight through peaceful means such as sermons, writing, and passing on their story to their children ("Make Them Hear You"). The Gang and Younger Brother leave peacefully, and Coalhouse asks Father about his son. As Coalhouse leaves the library, he is killed by the police.

Edgar turns on a period film projector and announces that the era of Ragtime is over. The characters step forward and inform us of their fates. Younger Brother escapes to Mexico to join the peasant revolution. Several historical instances are mentioned, such as Emma Goldman's deportation, Booker T. Washington's Tuskeegee Institute and his presidentially-attended funeral, Evelyn Nesbit's fall from the public eye, Harry Houdini's mystical experience when Archduke Ferdinand of Austria is assassinated and he remembers Edgar's prophetic warning. Grandfather passes away, as does Father, who was killed on the RMS Lusitania. After a year of mourning, Mother marries Tateh and moves to California with Edgar, the Little Girl, and Coalhouse Walker III. Tateh announces his intention to shoot a movie about a gang of mixed-race, mixed-religion children getting in and out of trouble, together. Coalhouse and Sarah's ghosts, with the company, affirm their hope for the future ("Wheels of a Dream: Reprise").


Act I

  • Prologue: Ragtime
  • Goodbye, My Love
  • Journey On
  • The Crime of the Century
  • What Kind of Woman
  • A Shtetl Iz Amereke
  • Success
  • His Name Was Coalhouse Walker
  • Gettin' Ready Rag
  • Henry Ford
  • Nothing Like the City
  • Your Daddy's Son
  • The Courtship
  • New Music
  • Wheels of a Dream
  • The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square
  • Gliding
  • The Trashing of the Car
  • Justice
  • President
  • Till We Reach That Day
Act II

  • Entr'acte
  • Harry Houdini, Master Escapist
  • Coalhouse's Soliloquy
  • Coalhouse Demands
  • What a Game
  • Fire in the City
  • Atlantic City
  • Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.
  • Our Children
  • Harlem Nightclub
  • Sarah Brown Eyes
  • He Wanted to Say
  • Back to Before
  • Look What You've Done
  • Make Them Hear You
  • Epilogue: Ragtime/Wheels of a Dream (reprise)


External links

Ragtime August 1 - 24 2008 Festival Theater - Solvang CA

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