Ragtime the Musical
Bill Long 9/24/06
At the Lake Oswego (OR) Community Theater
No matter how you slice it, Ragtime (the musical), a 1998 musical adaptation of Doctorow's best-selling 1975 novel of the same name, is a massively impressive piece. The themes broached in Ragtime (immigration, race relations, upper crust living in New Rochelle, the allure of socialism, industrial strife) all bubbled to the surface in New York in the first decade of the 20th century, when the musical is set. But it is not simply the themes or the impassioned actors that incarnate the themes that give the musical its impressive scope; the music itself is stirring, inspiring, tearful and searching. Unforgettable, for example, are the opening number "Ragtime" and the strikingly intimate "Your Daddy's Son." And, despite the budget limitations, which led to minimalist (too minimalist, in my judgment) sets, the cast generally connects well with each other and the audience.
Setting The Context
The Ragtime music which forms the backdrop for the musical was prominent in the Black community beginning in the late 1890s and lasting until WWI. This playful sound, popularized by the Scott Joplin albums put out in the early 1970s by the musicologist and pianist Jeremy Rikfin, disappeared for decades from American life until its unlikely revival around 1970. I recall going to a concert at Stanford University in the summer of 1972 where esteemed musician Max Morath performed some of Joplin's pieces to a wildly appreciative audience; the music touched my heart and I have been humming it ever since.
But the carefree sound of Ragtime music ought not to obscure the fact that the period which it encompasses was among the least carefree in modern American history. It witnessed probably the most polarized times of race and industrial relations in American history; it saw abjectly poor living conditions for the teeming masses of immigrants. It also was the time of Caucasian confidence, as exploration of the North and South Pole gave the dominant culture the sense that the earth was gradually yielding up its secrets to a strong and hardy race, and as the first generation of Wall Street financiers (JP Morgan in the musical) amassed hitherto unseen fortunes.
The musical tried to portray all of these themes, and this is where its reach exceeded its grasp. Instead of bringing us into the inner world of any of the movements and people, several of them functioned more as stick figures or place holders than genuine representatives of a culture. An exception to this, the socialist Emma Goldman, skillfully exploited the despair faced by workers--the victims of the era of industrialization.
Moving to the Musical Itself
One paradox I have often observed about life is that we seem to long for moral clarity in life yet we really appreciate a story of moral complexity and ambiguity. That we yearn for clarity in the moral sphere can be seen by the growth of churches proclaiming easy black and white answers to life's difficult dilemmas, or by continued public support (albeit with less than 50% approval) of what I consider to be a misguided President when he once more trots out the "Us vs. the Terrorists" language. Yet, when we think about our own lives for more than a minute, we realize immediately the complexity of things. Relationships are complex, money isn't always there in sufficient quantity, family problems sometimes consume us, addiction and health issues stalk us like a bad dream, intimacy often seems to be an unattainable goal.
What Ragtime does is to present effectively the moral ambiguity inherent in life's choices. Mother, an affluent New Rochelle woman, discovers an abandoned Black child in her planter while doing some gardening. She becomes attached to the child, and decides to bring it up, much to the chagrin of her racist husband. The mother of the child (Sarah) is found and ends up living with the prosperous Caucasian family, even while the child's father, Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker, endeavors to win back the affection of the mother. The youngest brother of the wealthy Caucasian family is a visionary and dreamer with one practical skill--he kinows how to make explosives--and he longs for a group with whom he can use his talent. After the predictable but wrenching story of racism which leads to Sarah's death and ater Coalhouse has his auto destroyed by a group of racist firemen, Coalhouse takes a radical, even anarchic route, and lashes out at firefighters in general (killing three) as well as the great representative of the evil White-controlled system, John Pierpont Morgan. It is only through the intervention of Black icon Booker T. Washington, who was duped actually by the White establishment, that Coalhouse ends up giving himself up and getting shot to death when he plans to blow up the Morgan library.
The message of despair and rage, and the pschology of escalation of violence, upon which most of the musical is based, finally gives way, in the last scene to another tone--that of hope. People have died (Coalhouse and Sarah; Father--in the 1918 Lusitania sinking), some have disappeared (younger brother, to Mexico to participate in the Zapate revolution), but a new family rises out of the ashes of the despair. It consists of the mother, a new man she has found (the immigrant Tateh), her son, Tateh's daughter, and Coalhouse and Sarah's son. It is a multi-cultural delight, which seems a bit too perfect an ending for this sad tale of oppression, racism and brutality. Nevertheless, it bespeaks the indomitable spirit of love and the longing for life which allows for another chapter, even when it seems that the book has been fully written.
May it so be for all of us. Thanks to Doctorow, and the Lakewook Theatre Company, under the direction of Greg Tamblyn (playing weekends through end of October 2006) for reminding us of this.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long