I’M SO INCREDIBLY THRILLED to welcome you to the last show of your 2017-18 season, Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens, and Stephen Flaherty’s epic musical, Ragtime, based on the great 1974 novel of the same name by E.L Doctorow. Set in 1906, the novel tells the story of a white, American family at the beginning of the seismic, sweeping changes that become the 20th century. The family is never named, its members simply referred to as Mother, Father, Younger Brother, and so on. It is as if the family is merely an archetypal rough draft for the experience of such families, the idea of the thing as much as the thing itself. Doctorow’s novel is also told in short, almost telegraphic bursts, with countless, historical figures name-checked throughout (named, very specifically, in contrast to the nameless, central family). It is an extraordinary work in both form and content.
This adaptation of Ragtime is a stand-alone masterwork of the American musical theater. The book by playwright Terrence McNally reimagines the novel substantially, using the thematic and narrative threads of the original story to weave an inherently theatrical yarn, one that could only take place before a live audience. At the same time, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s music captures the colors and rhythms of the novel so perfectly that they are their own form of masterly, musical, narrative adaptation.
So, both the original novel and the adaptation are reasons enough to be presenting this show to our discerning audience. But they are not the reasons that I chose this show for us, now. Ragtime is important to witness today because of its central themes. In both versions, it is a tale of the most important and most dramatic struggles in the American experience: the struggles of women to be seen, of immigrants to find their place in a new land, of African Americans to get the full protection and process of the law, and of workers who suffer to line the pockets of the rich. In other words, the very same issues that we confront in America today.
Our resident scenic designer, the great Eugene Lee, designer of the original, lauded, Broadway staging, has imagined us into a rehearsal room for our production at Trinity Rep, and his scenic metaphor could not be more accurate. That’s because, at its core, Ragtime is about how we Americans rehearse the same issues, time and again, in the telling of the American tale. We rehearse, as in re-hear, re-learn, and then only repeat. The show asks difficult questions like, do we ever progress? Do we even know how?
That’s why I invite you to experience this story with us today; not to celebrate nostalgia for the past, but to unpack the present through narrative and song. All of this, you may ask, in an American musical? Yes, and more. Glorious music, great story, grand themes… welcome to our Ragtime. I can’t wait to talk with you about it, and I look forward to seeing you at the theater, to do just that.