In the world of musical theater, shows are often separated into groups depending on when they were written. Shows written from around 1940 to 1970 are called Golden Age productions, while shows written from 2000 to the present are considered more contemporary. However, the span of time in between, while unnamed, has yielded a plethora of must watch-shows.
Although many of my favorite shows fall within those years, one that stands out to me is Ragtime. Ragtime opened on Broadway in 1996, but the story itself starts in New Rochelle, New York, close to the turn of the century, but spanning multiple years. It follows the relations and coexistence of three groups in the US: an upper class white family, a group of African Americans from Harlem, and Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.
While at first wary of each other, these three groups find their worlds colliding when the matriarch of the white family (simply called ‘Mother’) and her youngest son meet Tateh, a Latvian immigrant, and his young daughter at the train station. Soon after, Mother is astonished to find a Black baby, buried alive in her garden, and rescues him. We later learn that the baby’s mother, Sarah, buried him out of desperation, as the baby’s father, a ragtime pianist named Coalhouse Walker Jr., didn’t know that Sarah was pregnant. To her own slight surprise, Mother offers both Sarah and the baby a place to stay in her house. As various events unfold, Coalhouse arrives at Mother’s house and begins again to court Sarah. Set alongside the lives of important historical figures such as Emma Goldman and Henry Ford, Ragtime paints a vibrant and intricate picture of turn of the century America.
Ragtime is a beautiful and thought-provoking musical that combines elements of contemporary shows with those of some older Golden Age shows. While the story is set in what would be the Golden Age era (but written later on), and the music aligns with the Golden Age or Vaudeville style, the plotline and transpartisan dynamics examined cover topics that are more congruent with contemporary themes. For instance, a show that comments on the rampant racism and xenophobia that was and still is visible in America would never have been written in the Golden Age. The Golden Age was right after the Great Depression, and people wanted things that were lighthearted and joyous to counteract the hardship of their everyday lives. Therefore, most entertainment didn’t speak about any complex or controversial issues.
When it comes down to it, Ragtime epitomizes the idea that people are scared or wary about the things that they are unfamiliar with — something still prevalent in our current social climate. This struggle is clearly evidenced by the interpersonal relationships of the characters, and how they change over the course of time. At the beginning of the show, Mother and the Little Boy see Tateh and the little girl as strange and foreign. At the end, Mother is married to Tateh, who has accomplished the American Dream and is now a successful filmmaker, and the children are the best of friends (as well as half siblings). At the beginning of the story, Mother and the Little Boy are apprehensive about having Sarah, Colehouse, and their child around the house, but by the end of the show, Mother and Tateh have adopted Sarah and Colehouse’s child, Colehouse Walker III, as one of their own.
Ragtime encourages us to look beyond the social constructs that we are told separate us, and instead focus on the quality and character of the human being inside. As Tateh says in the finale number of the show, “Tateh had an idea for a movie: a bunch of children! White, Black, Christian, Jew, rich, poor … all kinds … but together despite their differences. He was sure it would make a wonderful movie — a dream of what this country could be. And he would be first in line to see it.”
This column is dedicated to the memory of Ragtime’s playwright, Terrence McNally, who died of complications related to the coronavirus earlier this year.