Last night, after a great dinner at Ruby Tuesdays, Jeff, AJ and I went to see Ragtime at Wright State. This musical’s construction is so impressive, and the music haunts me throughout the day. I know it will be my fourth, and last time to see it and it still moved me greatly…
The musical begins with the powerful song “Ragtime”, which is uniquely staged. Right from the start of the musical the audience is introduced to the multiple narrators of the show. It begins with three separate groups of people: the upper class whites from New Rochelle, the lower class blacks of Harlem, and the newly arrived immigrants on Ellis Island, all singing the same song simultaneously on stage, yet set apart by class. As the song continues, other key players of the time are introduced such as Harry Houdini the great escape artist, the radical anarchist Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan the richest man in America, and Evelyn Nesbit the famous chorus girl. Each of these characters has individual beliefs and represents a particular aspect of the time, yet they all play significant roles in the definition of America.
In order to truly understand the era of Ragtime, each separate character adds to the colorful mosaic that makes up the US during this pre-WWI time. The multiple perspectives seen in “Ragtime” can be compared to the writings of John Dos Pasos, in his novels The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money. Like Dos Pasos, Ragtime aims to observe the lives of the ten narrators, and also follow their interactions and influences on each other, no matter how large or small they may be. It is through these multiple points of view that the audience is able to understand the differences in the society that presented so many obstacles for some and a dream life for others. Although each narrator may not directly interact with another character, we can see the individual influence each life has on this society through the song “Till We Reach That Day”.
This song brings all the narrators on stage together to mourn the death of Sarah, a lower class black woman who is the victim of a racial beating. Again, all sing the same song, yet they are not all in the same vicinity. Each of the characters takes their own separate place on stage as they sing of the loss of this woman who has somehow touched their life. Particularly in this scene, we see the aspect of simultaneity put into effect as each character reflects on the same incident, that affects each of them differently. Like Faulkner, the characters attempt to make sense of their own identities in relation to the society around them.
Due to the multiple narrators of the story, there is constant shifting from scene to scene throughout the musical. These scenes do not necessarily follow a particular time sequence, as the story is presented in a fragmented form.
Ragtime presents a panoramic view of life in the United States during the early 1900’s. This show dares to go beyond the sentimental aspects of musical theater and introduces its audiences to a new, experimental, style of performing art. Through its strong music, composed by Stephen Flaherty, and realistic lyrics, written by Lynn Ahrens, this musical captures the hearts of its audiences through the images and sounds that portray the Ragtime era.
When one thinks of a musical, one may associate this term with catchy songs and dances that often have happy endings, yet Ragtime goes beyond entertainment value and instead explains a time in our history. The writers of the musical could have easily fabricated the music, lyrics and story line to make it audience-friendly. By conforming to the normal musical expectations, Ragtime would have been placed in the same group as musicals such as Sound Of Music and Oklahoma, where the audience leaves the theater humming the music with grins on their faces. This musical does not just present the audience with beautiful songs, but also leaves a lasting impression of the events that defined the early 1900’s before World War I, and succeeds in explaining this graphic two hour history lesson while keeping the audience entertained.
The musical Ragtime challenges the norms of musical theater through its vivid portrayals of the realistic life during the early 1900’s. Like Faulkner, this musical attempts to push the limits of coherence, through its fragmented format. Yet, at the same time it stimulates the minds of its audiences by presenting complex problems each character faces, in true to life circumstances. But perhaps the experimental aspects that Flaherty and Ahrens present in the story line, lyrics and music are the most important parallels that Ragtime shares with cubist literature. This musical represents a time when everything was new and anything was possible. A time when experimentation was encouraged and identities were formed. Ragtime can be seen as a separate work of art in itself, which goes beyond the boundaries of a musical play, and instead brings fiction and true history together to recreate life during the turn of the century.
Photos from another production of Ragtime: http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.e2groove.com/files/houdinithm.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.e2groove.com/ragtime.html&h=150&w=143&sz=8&tbnid=iDr1DNGMehwJ:&tbnh=90&tbnw=85&hl=en&start=43&prev=/images%3Fq%3DRagtime,%2Bthe%2Bmusical%26start%3D40%26svnum%3D10%26hl%3Den%26lr%3D%26rls%3DGGLD,GGLD:2003-44,GGLD:en%26sa%3DN