A question I am often asked is “what’s your favourite musical”. My instinctive answer has always been to say Ragtime. The first time I saw it, I was completely knocked out and developed an unhealthy obsession with the original Broadway cast recording. The emotive and creative score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and book by Terrence McNally completed penetrated my thoughts and my emotions; I had never felt so moved by a show. I didn’t think it was possible for my admiration for it to grow any stronger, until I saw the recent production of Ragtime at the Charing Cross Theatre. Seeing the new and inventive staging was like watching it for the first time. By the end I was hit with the full force of why I will always think fondly of this musical as my favourite.
Ragtime, set during the early C.20th, captures a pivotal time in America’s history. The landscape experienced rapid change as a result of industrialisation seeing the rise of capitalist heavy weights such as J.P Morgan and Henry K Ford. The religious persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe resulted in a large of wave of immigration to America’s shores with a whole host of people desperately seeking a slice of the ‘American Dream’. It is also the post-Civil War era, where new generations of African-Americans venture into pursuing their own ‘American Dream’.
The musical focusses in on: a well-off family in New Rochelle; an African-American piano player from Harlem and an immigrant artist struggling to survive with his daughter in the rough tenements in the Lower East side. The three stories intertwine in an unexpected turn of events. The musical, inspired by the E.L. Doctorow novel with the same name, is so rich in the way it presents you with different themes and story arcs. Rather than leave the theatre with a plain and single narrative, I found my head swirling with a variety of thoughts and ideas to grapple with.
The large cast of 24 actor-musicians perform in this undeniably small venue. The staging is minimal and uniquely incorporates instruments to aide the story-telling. I was floored by how creative it was. For example Evelyn Nesbitt (delightfully played by Joanna Hickman), the “passionate and beautiful” performer, grips her cello with her thighs in a suggestive way. In a fight scene, when a man is beaten to the ground and is dealt with forceful blows, the attacker beats the drum of the beaten man. In a scene when a car is vandalised and destroyed, the vandals simply take parts of the piano apart piece by piece. Or the captain of the ship plays out long drones on his accordion reminiscent to a fog horn. I’ve never witnessed anything like it before and found it so thrilling.
The performances from the whole cast were stellar. But the standout performer for me was Gary Tushaw as Tateh, the Jewish Immigrant. His portrayal of a man thrown into single parenthood made to survive in an unforgiving town was so heartfelt and deeply moving. In his moments of happiness, it looked like his heart would burst with joy but in his turns of anger, he was able to express the anguish so painfully on his face.
Although the musical is set in a time different from our own, the conflicts faced by the characters and the attitudes that were prevalent are not too dissimilar from those of today. The theme which struck the closest chord with me was Coalhouse’s (brilliantly played by Ako Mitchell), struggle to find justice. He is an educated musician and is optimistic about the bright future he wants to pave for his son as an African-American. But in an unfortunate turn of events, he goes from being a law abiding citizen to a rogue vigilante which causes significant collateral damage in the process. But even despite his change in tactics to fight the injustice, he couldn’t pierce through to everyone’s hearts and make them understand his pain.
The message that I took away from all of it, is that we should be thankful for people in society who have open hearts and minds and are able to look past the things that make us different such as financial status and skin colour. However it seems that there will also be people who regardless of their education will be completely blinded by prejudice. Now it would be unwise to just shout and rant about it and take up arms as that can just make matters worse. Rather, there is more value in trying to see the world through their perspective. Until we try to sympathise and respectfully challenge their beliefs and assumptions, I think prejudice will always persist.
Quite simply, this show tackles heavy subject matters and you will be taken for a real ride. But in seeing it, you will be presented with something which I believe best encapsulates how wonderful yet powerful musicals can be.
You can also check out my fairly emotional On the Spot Review below: