Last summer, while discussing upcoming productions, Pasadena Playhouse Artistic Director Danny Feldman described “Ragtime: The Musical” as “almost shockingly relevant” today. That view is echoed by the director and actors in the show, which begins previews next week.
Set in New York’s teeming environs at the turn of the 20th century, E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel “Ragtime” was adapted for a 1981 film before landing on Broadway as a Tony-nominated musical in 1998, with a book by venerated playwright Terrence McNally and a jubilantly vivid score by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens. Both the novel and musical question what it means to be an American, what constitutes American identity, and the paradoxical nature of the American Dream.
“It was about the difficulties that immigrants have, the difficulties that women had trying to emerge from the shadow of the patriarchy, and the difficulties that black people had with violence against them from the police and others,” notes director David Lee. “It was extremely relevant at the time that Doctorow wrote it. In 1998, all those issues were still relevant [chuckles], if not more so. Twenty years later, here we are again, and if anything they are more urgent than they ever were.”
Clifton Duncan leads the 21-member cast as Harlem pianist Coalhouse Walker, whose wrenching campaign for justice gives the play much of its moral complexity. Marc Ginsburg portrays another pivotal character, Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe. Shannon Warne plays Mother, who embodies upper-class WASP culture even as she evolves in convention-defying ways. The cast also features Bryce Charles (as Coalhouse’s doomed lover Sarah), Zachary Ford (Father), and Dylan Saunders (Younger Brother). Historical figures such as Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, infamous Gibson Girl Evelyn Nesbit, and Booker T. Washington appear at crucial junctures, enhancing the storyline’s verisimilitude.
As Coalhouse, Duncan journeys across a dynamic emotional and musical arc. Backed by a 16-piece orchestra, he delivers some of the show’s most romantic, angry and heartening songs in his robust baritone, including the optimistic “The Wheels of a Dream” (“The times are starting to roll/ Any man can get where he wants to/ If he’s got some fire in his soul”). The classically trained actor offers an insightful analysis of Heinrich von Kleist’s 1811 novella “Michael Kohlhaas,” in which many of Coalhouse’s plot strands are rooted, and the “huge, epic through line that Coalhouse gets to follow.” Having lived for a formative chunk of his childhood in Belgium and Germany, Duncan expresses thoughtful curiosity about people of varied backgrounds, and views “Ragtime” within a broad historical and cultural frame.
“In a way it is about connection, in terms of connecting across socioeconomic lines, across ethnic lines, across cultural lines,” he muses. “It’s also about the way those connections are tense and frayed and sometimes lead to tragic results.
“I hesitate to link the material to any sort of specific political story or movement, because I think it sort of reduces the scope of the material, which is so large. But at the same time, there’s no denying — not just here, but in South America and Western Europe as well — there’s huge, tectonic, paradigmatic shifts that are happening in many ways. It totally is relevant in terms of the turn of the century and you have all these cultural industrial innovations or upheavals that are happening. …
“The idea of multiculturalism is a huge question in the world right now, not just here but overseas. [‘Ragtime’] sort of delves into what can happen when people come up against each other. It’s a bit nuanced as well, to be honest. It’s not just about black and white, for instance, with Coalhouse’s character and the injustices he faces. The main antagonist in Coalhouse’s story is a white man named Willie Conklin, who happens to be Irish, and there’s a great line in the script when he says, ‘Does he think that only niggers get shit? We Irish had to get used to it.’ Which is true. You could say it’s a cautionary tale of the bureaucracy and the state at large. But again, it’s nuanced.”
The societal forces that Conklin represents give rise to Coalhouse’s most inspiring anthem, “Make Them Hear You,” which foreshadows civil rights struggles to come:
“Say to those who blame us
For the way we chose to fight
That sometimes there are battles
Which are more than black or white
And I could not put down my sword
When justice was my right.”
Like Duncan, Warne performs key songs expressing not only the awakening of individual characters but also incipient shifts in cultural attitudes: a duet with Tateh, “Our Children,” and the initially compliant Mother’s stirring declaration of independence “Back to Before,” when she declares she will henceforth make her own decisions and will no longer be constrained by Father or society.
Having been “blessedly busy with musical theater” in LA since moving here from Minneapolis 16 years ago, Warne is emerging from a five-year, motherhood-imposed hiatus. “Ragtime” reunites her with Ford, Lee, and choreographer Mark Esposito, with whom she worked on a 2010 Playhouse staging of “Camelot.” The “Ragtime” cast, she says with a giddy laugh, “is ridiculously talented. It’s exhausting and exhilarating just to take it all in.” With so many people and so much action onstage, she is focusing on clarity.
“Even though the melodies are gorgeous, equal weight has to be given to storytelling,” she explains. “Making sure lyrics are clear, that intentions are clear, and making sure our audience understands.”
Asked if they interpret “Ragtime” as a hopeful tale or a cautionary one, Duncan, Lee and Warne answer: both.
“It reminds us we need to look at our history,” Warne says, “and we need to take action so as not to repeat our history.”
“Out of all the chaos and the misunderstandings and the violence that take place during the course of the story, there is still an ending that points toward optimism and hope,” Lee observes. “And I personally could use a bit of that right now.”
“No matter who you voted for or what your ideology is, now more than ever, this is a time we should all want to sit in a dark room and watch this story,” Duncan says. “There is nuance in the storytelling. I think it’s one of the reasons this musical endures. It’s not just black and white, no pun intended; there are shades of gray within it, and anyone could take something away from that.”
“Ragtime: The Musical” begins previews at Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, Tuesday, Feb. 5, and runs through March 3; tickets are $25 and up. Info: (626) 356-7529. To learn more about “Ragtime,” free Soul of Ragtime concerts, and public talks relevant to the play, please visit pasadenaplayhouse.org/event/ragtime.
During the show’s run, the Pasadena Playhouse is sponsoring four free Soul of Ragtime concerts (to be given by the Michael Haggins Band, John Reed-Torres, and the Vignes Rooftop Revival), and two free Monday-night talks addressing core themes in “Ragtime”: “The Jewish Experience in America,” co-presented with the Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Valley on Jan. 28, and “Till We Reach That Day: The Struggle for Justice in America,” an examination of the African-American experience from slavery through the present day on Feb. 11.