In the 1998 Original Broadway production of Ragtime, director Frank Galati and choreographer Graciela Daniele opened the show with powerful musical staging that depicted the cultural collisions of early 20th Century New York City.
Three communities of Americans – Black residents of Harlem, white families of New Rochelle, and Eastern European immigrants of New York City’s Lower East Side – were introduced one by one, each standing in a large clump distanced far from the others. As the opening “Prologue” progressed, the three communities moved around the stage, sometimes crossing paths and eventually, even intermingling.
The characters danced in this melting pot of movements, colors, and identities, swaying together to syncopated rhythms for a mere eight measures of music before realizing they were surrounded by strangers.
In his Tony Award-winning libretto, playwright Terrence McNally describes the next section as, “BLACKS, WHITES and IMMIGRANTS find themselves in moments of contact or confrontation; there is the potential for violence. The dance swells to a crescendo.” Galati and Daniele created this climax onstage by sending the characters in a scrambled search for their friends and families.
Once each community had reunited, its members congealed into an amoeba, with hands gripping onto shoulders and eyes fixed on the outsiders. The musical number resolved with the three communities swirling around one another in a figure eight-like standoff until they each landed in their own portions of the stage, completely segregated. Twenty five years after the Original Broadway production of Ragtime premiered, its “Prologue” remains one of the most iconic pieces of musical staging in contemporary Musical Theatre.
Ragtime’s exploration of cultural collision extends far beyond the staging of the opening song. It is seen in Daniele’s choreography throughout the Original Broadway production, which featured the distinct physical vocabularies from each of the community's social dances, such as the Cakewalk, Viennese Waltz, and Latvian Sudmaliņas. It is heard in William David Brohn’s eclectic orchestrations on the Original Cast Album, which were brought to life by 26 musicians on instruments ranging from three pianos to piccolo, flugelhorn, oboe, banjo, violin, and mandolin. It is felt in Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ expansive score, which includes the swung ragtime number, “Gettin’ Ready Rag,” legato symphonic waltz “Goodbye, My Love,” and staccato Klezmer-infused song “A Shtetl Iz Amereke,” all in a single act. It is breathed by the diverse casts who speak portions of McNally’s script in African-American Vernacular English, Transatlantic dialect, and Yiddish.
Yet, nowhere was cultural collision more obviously explored than in the original costume designs created by Santo Loquasto.
In clothing the Harlem ensemble in maroon and navy cotton, the New Rochelle ensemble in cream and eggshell satin, and the Lower East Side ensemble in brown and and gray wool, Loquasto intentionally created a mash-up of garments. His designs served as bold, visual representations of the characters’ communities so that even audiences seated in the back of the 1,622-seat Ford Center for the Performing Arts could easily identify the group to which a character belonged. And although the three communities’ costumes differed in color and fabric, they were largely unified by Edwardian Era silhouettes.
The cohesion of these various storytelling elements – each exploring cultural collision in their own way – earned the Original Broadway production of Ragtime four Tony Awards. In collaborating to effectively adopt and theatricalize the story from E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel of the same name, the original creative team gave late 20th Century American audiences the opportunity to experience early 20th Century American cultural collision in action.
In McNally’s libretto, he introduces these collisions at unexpected times, bringing alarming halts to moments of normalcy in the characters’ lives. The conflicts that follow these collisions are not necessarily results of the collisions themselves, but of the characters’ responses to the collisions. And although these characters’ responses vary from whispering ethnic stereotypes to yelling racial slurs, they all stand out and sound incredibly abrasive when delivered within what is otherwise euphonious dialogue. That is the power of McNally’s script.
Ragtime’s powerful script and score have transcended their American roots, moving audiences in the United Kingdom, Norway, Australia, and Canada. In 2016, a site-specific concert version of the musical was even produced in Ellis Island’s Registry Room: the very space the musical’s Eastern European immigrant characters would have entered after disembarking their ships.
Ragtime’s material has also transcended time. Impressively, the musical still provokes present-day theatre-goers and theatre-makers with a story set 11 decades in our past.
Centuries turn, yet cultural collisions continue.
About the Show:
American Stage's annual musical at Demen's Landing Park invites everyone to enjoy "Ragtime - the Musical '' while hanging out in the spring air. Set in the melting pot of turn-of-the-century New York, three distinctly American tales are woven together – that of a stifled upper-class wife, a determined Jewish immigrant, and a daring young Harlem musician – united by their courage, compassion, and belief in the promise of the future and the power of the human spirit to overcome. Drinks, food, and spirits are available before and during the show.
Showtimes: April 12 - May 14
A two-act show.
Park opens at 5:30 p.m.
Show starts at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are available here. $45 single tickets. Call the box office at (727) 823-7529 for group sales.