by Braxton Crewell

(Braxton is our artistic intern for the 2017-18 season. This is his interview with Rachael Warren based on the show Ragtime.)

Ragtime has a rich score and vibrant story that has touched the lives of theater artists and audiences alike. Right around the time of first rehearsal, I had the honor and opportunity to talk with Rachael Warren, the resident acting company member portraying Mother in our production, to talk about Ragtime.

Left to Right: Rachael Warren as Mother and Mauro Hantman as Father in Ragtime. Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Directed by Curt Columbus. Set design by Eugene Lee, costume design by Kara Harmon, lighting design by Dan Scully and sound design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz. Photo by Mark Turek.

Braxton Crewell: What is your history with Ragtime? Did you read it in school or have you performed anything from it?

Rachael Warren: I saw the original production of the musical in New York from the cheap, nose-bleed seats and was profoundly affected by it.  Even from that distance Audra McDonald’s performance as Sarah shook me to my core, especially in “Your Daddy’s Son.” I couldn’t believe that a human being was capable of singing that beautifully while experiencing the extreme, devastating emotions Sarah goes through — her singing and acting were so full and so brave and so perfect. That performance absolutely raised the bar for me in terms of what is possible as a singing actor and inspires me to this day. I consider her Sarah the absolute gold standard of musical theatre performance.

Braxton: What is one thing that excites you about the story of Ragtime?

Rachael: The thing that excites me the most is the opportunity it gives us to examine our history — how we keep reinventing and repeating some of the worst parts of it — and to, hopefully, connect those terrible dots to our actions today, to see them, take responsibility for them and to change them. I think there is so much to learn from the choices the imperfect, well-intentioned people in Ragtime make, so much of ourselves to see in their story.

Braxton: What is one characteristic of Mother that you love, and one that you are interested to explore?

Rachael: One thing I love is that, when handed a big choice to make — what to do about Sarah and her infant son — and with no one else to hide behind, she thinks for herself and, finally, follows her own moral compass. She has to be kind of forced to do it — she doesn’t challenge her husband’s authority and politics before then. I wouldn’t romanticize her, but I do admire her choosing to do what she can to help Sarah in that moment. One thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about that I hope is a part of this production is the complicated history of feminism in America. It is not always intersectional — and it certainly wasn’t in 1906 — but it needs to be. I would love to see this production take responsibility for that history in some way and I think Mother can be an important part of that.

Braxton: The music means so much in this story, can you talk about what your favorite song is and why?

Rachael: “Your Daddy’s Son” absolutely tears me up. As a mother myself, I have a really, really hard time watching bad things happening to kids — I think all parents do — and it’s especially painful to think about a parent making the choice to harm their own child. “Your Daddy’s Son” walks us down that dark, dark path so delicately, so honestly, so beautifully, that it’s impossible to look away. It’s impossible for me to listen to that song and not feel Sarah’s humanity and her suffering — and to empathize without judgment. I listen and I put myself in her shoes and my heart just breaks. It’s an astonishing feat of musical theater composition and performance. I will be listening to Mia Ellis sing that one every night for sure.

Braxton: What are some of the messages that we as a contemporary audience can pull from this story set in 1906?

Rachael: On an optimistic day? I feel there is a lot of hope in the way the characters in this story try to do the right thing. None of their ways are perfect, but there is so much action taken to try and bring about social justice and I think that’s inspiring and sobering. Most days? I just feel so aware that we still aren’t there yet. That we somehow keep reinventing ways to separate and subjugate our fellow humans. We trade slavery for Jim Crow and Jim Crow for the corrupt criminal justice system. We trade corsets for coat hangers and coat hangers for measly, if not totally non-existent, maternity leave. Mother sings “We Can Never Go Back To Before,” and yet we do, time and time again. I hope that we all leave this play wrestling with that and taking action to do better.

Ragtime is playing now until May 27.