Just under 10 years have passed since the musical Ragtime was last seen on the Great White Way. But thanks to the transfer of an acclaimed run earlier this year at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, it's officially back for its second time.
Previews start at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre this evening for the musical based on E.L. Doctorow's epic novel that's a slice right out of American history. The musical is told from three distinct vantage points spanning 1900 through the dawn of World War I. With score from Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, Ragtime features a book by Terrence McNally. The new production is helmed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge in her Main Stem directorial debut.
Before the turn of the last century, a very lavish Ragtime first opened on January 18, 1998 at what was then the brand spanking new Ford Center for the Performing Arts (now the Hilton Theatre). Quite apropos given that Henry Ford was among various historical figures (Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington and Emma Goldman) interspersed within the show. With Frank Galati at the helm, that production starred Peter Friedman as Tateh, Marin Mazzie as Mother, Brian Stokes Mitchell as Coalhouse Walker Jr., Audra McDonald as Sarah, Mark Jacoby as Father, and a very young Lea Michele.
Nominated for a whopping 13 Tony Awards, Ragtime would only win four, including for McDonald's supporting role, Flaherty and Ahrens' score, McNally's book and William David Brohn's orchestrations. The production played the Ford Center almost exactly two years, closing on January 16, 2000 after 834 performances. While you might think two years on the boards would translate to success, the show was anything but critically or financially.
The review from Ben Brantley of The New York Times was withering:
Blessed with beauty, ambition, a smashing wardrobe and a social conscience, Ragtime would seem to be the kind of musical that brings Broadway audiences to their knees in adoration. Then why does this $10 million show, which opened last night at the new Ford Center for the Performing Arts, feel so utterly resistible?No wonder Ragtime's biggest drama occurred off-stage. Notoriety ensued shortly after it opened when Livent, its production company, filed for bankruptcy. Foreshadowing things to come, Canadian producer Garth Drabinsky was indicted for fraud. Those charges are still pending.
[T]he production has a correspondingly commemorative quality. A panoramic look at the beginning of this century from the perspective of its end, it often has the feeling of an instructional diorama in a pavilion at a world's fair.
This time around, there's hope that things will be dramatically better in every respect. After all, the show is a transfer from the Kennedy Center, where it received rave reviews. Ragtime's gargantuan cast of 40 is led by Christiane Noll as Mother, Robert Petkoff as Tateh, Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse Walker Jr., Stephanie Umoh as Sarah and Ron Bohmer as Father.
Coming full circle, I never saw Ragtime on Broadway, but I did manage to see the show during its first national tour stop at Washington's National Theatre in 1998. I remember being dazzled by both the production quality and the performances, but was less than wowed by the show itself.
Given the accolades the revival has received in my former hometown a little more than ten years later, I'm excited to see whether Dodge can make this Ragtime swing. Ragtime opens November 15.
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).