"Ragtime," the musical playing at the Shubert Theater in Los Angeles is based on E.L. Doctorow's novel and presents a powerful slice of American history from early in this century. It tells the stories of three very diverse families, whose lives intersect at the beginning of the American melting pot. It's 1906 and Father has capitalized on the patriotic fervor of this self-satisfied era of Teddy Roosevelt. He has made his fortune manufacturing fireworks and bunting, and we open on a splendid scene of a family photograph session on the lawn in front of the family's new house in New Rochelle with friends and neighbors all dressed in white, the women with parasols, the men in skimmers. As Father leaves New York harbor to go to the North Pole with Admiral Perry, they pass a "rag ship" full of immigrants "from every cesspool in western and eastern Europe." Tateh, a Latvian Jew is coming to America with his little girl to build a new life. They see father and marvel at how anyone could leave such a wonderful country.
Mother, digging in the garden, finds a Negro baby, and as she wonders how anyone could do this, Sarah is brought in by the police, who are going to arrest her for attempted murder, Mother takes in both Sarah and baby. The Harlem musician, Coalhouse Walker Jr. sets out in search of Sarah in his new Model "T" and after finding her returns to the family's home every Sunday, until one day Mother invites him in for tea, and to play the piano. When she hears the beautiful music, Sarah comes down and in "Wheels of a Dream" they resolve to get married and build a life for their son. These characters' lives also intersect with real-life characters of the time. J.P. Morgan is lowered on a catwalk, onto the heads of the huddled immigrants, who are about to be crushed, when that wondrously inspirational immigrant, Harry Houdini, pushes it back up. To the syncopated percussive rhythms of engine and factory, a hard edged Henry Ford explains his theory of the assembly line. Evelyn Nesbitt, America's first sex symbol, sings of the scandalous affair of her husband, Harry K. Thaw who has killed her lover, the famous architect, Stanford White, in the "Crime of the Century." Fortunately Emma Goldman knows there are still ninety-four years left in the century. Goldman appears everywhere as Justice. If she's not The Great Liberator, she at least calls attention to the injustices, whether it's the Lawrence, Mass. Textile Strike, with Tateh working the loom for sixty-five hours a week for $6, or Coalhouse's rampage after his car is destroyed, Sarah is killed, and the law ignores his pleas for justice. It's Goldman who fills the void that Mother's Younger Brother feels when he inadvertently hears her appealing for support for the Lawrence strikers in "The Night that Goldman spoke in Union Square."
"Ragtime" is about the search for hope and justice in an America that was rife with racism and bigotry as Coalhouse and Sarah find their lives shattered and broken. Scott Joplin said "It is never right to play ragtime fast." This is serious music, as Joplin was a serious musician trapped in this period where, because of the color of his skin, he could only work in brothels and saloons, instead of the concert stage and opera house. "Ragtime" is also about an America where a poor immigrant like Tateh can start with absolutely nothing, endure the taunts and indignities, and ultimately strike it rich with his moving picture book and partake of everything this country has to offer. Terrance McNally's stage play with Stephen Flaherty's music, and Lynn Ahrens' lyrics combine to capture all of the vibrancy of this era of change and contradiction. The soaring victories and crushing defeats combine to give an urgency, vitality, and relevance to "Ragtime" that is rarely matched in musical theater. "Ragtime" continues indefinitely at The Shubert Theater in Los Angeles through the summer and into the fall.