Backstage: ‘Ragtime’

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(Host) This summer the Weston Playhouse is presenting one of its most ambitious productions. It’s a musical adaptation of the sweeping portrait of America at the dawn of the twentieth century by E.L. Doctorow.

VPR’s Betty Smith takes us backstage at “Ragtime.”

(Smith) It’s 1906 and the start of a new industrial age. Actors on stage are at the docks, or maybe a vaudeville theater. They’re in a garden or perhaps at Ellis Island. We’re taken to Harlem and Atlantic City, to a railroad station and a union hall.

Everyone is pursuing some form of the American Dream. They’re getting there by steamship, locomotive and automobile. And it’s all to the tune of the signature music of the era – “Ragtime.”

At first, ragtime sounds like a fairly simple style of music, until you really begin to listen. According to Director Malcolm Ewen, Ragtime evolved from other types of music, mostly African American, though there were also white players and writers of ragtime.

(Ewen) “It’s a syncopated music style where the left hand keeps a rhythm and the right hand does more – the higher notes do a more elaborate and sometimes surprising kind of melody. And it’s the element of surprise that you have the repetition of one sort of base melody with a surprising overplay. And that’s one of the things that I think Doctorow was looking for, was the metaphor of what Ragtime is, and that’s I think why he chose the name Ragtime.”

(Smith) The steady beat of the industrial era provides the rhythm for three central stories in the play. Three families – one white upper middle class, one Jewish immigrant and one African American – become intertwined and along the way they encounter historical figures like J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Harry Houdini. Through it all, music is a nearly continuous thread, weaving stories, character and voice.

A duet between the upper class mother and the immigrant father illustrates how the pieces come together as one. Here, as they watch their children play, they are still only friends, but eventually they will marry. It’s sung by cast members Susan Haefner and David Bonanno:

(Mother) “Look, down there on the beach – the children.”
(Tateh, calling to the little girl) “Not too fast! She doesn’t hear me. No, she hears me but she doesn’t listen.”
(Mother) “All children are like that.”
(Tateh) “What is their hurry?”
(Mother) “I’m very glad ours have become such friends.”

(Duet begins)
(Mother) “How they play, finding treasure in the sand. They’re forever hand in hand, our children.”
(Tateh) “Hoew they laugh. She has never laughed life this.”
(Mother) “Every waking moment bliss.”
(Both) “Our children….

(Smith) Music also defines Ragtime’s main protagonist. “Coalhouse Walker” is a Ragtime piano player confidently pursuing his version of the American Dream. That he is also African-American complicates matters and drives the central conflict of the story.

Not everyone’s dreams are realized. But Ragtime suggests that dreams like Walker’s can be achieved through art, through stories, through music and the play.

In the finale, sung by a big cast of 30, individuals see the dreams of the industrial era being carried on by their children.

(Sound of the finale) “Well, when he is old enough, I will show him America, and he will ride, our son will ride, on the wheels of a dream.”

(Smith) For VPR Backstage, I’m Betty Smith.

Ragtime at the Weston Playhouse runs through August 16. The ragtime piano was played by music director Andrew Byrne.

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