Wednesday, July 1, 2009

In Rhythm & Rhyme

It's been rumored for weeks, but today it becomes official. Ragtime will be receiving its first-ever Broadway revival! The recent Kennedy Center production, directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, will begin previews at the Neil Simon Theatre on October 23, with an opening date of November 15.

The musical, which won Tonys for its book and score, but famously lost "the big one" to The Lion King, ran at the behemoth Ford Center for the Performing Arts (now simply the Hilton Theatre) and closed prematurely due to the shady business dealings of impresario Garth Drabinsky and his Livent, Inc. (Or was the show the undoing of Livent?)

Original cast members included Brian Stokes Mitchell, Peter Friedman, Marin Mazzie, Marc Jacoby, Tony-winner Audra McDonald, Judy Kaye, Lynnette Perry and Steven Sutcliffe. The cast was enormous, one of the largest in recent memory. (Lea Michele was Tateh's daughter, Anne L. Nathan understudied Judy Kaye). The orchestration called for 28 pieces in the pit. The lavish staging, which cost a cool $11 million in 1998, was noted for offering pyrotechnics, a functioning model-T and a lot of ornate period costumes.

The show ran for two years in New York, lasting 834 performances. An original London production was well-received but short-lived, earning Maria Friedman an Olivier Award for her performance as Mother.

Ragtime is a successful and unbelievably faithful adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel, first published in 1975. In fact the musical works far better than Milos Forman's 1981 film adaptation. It is also, hands down, the best work of composing team Flaherty and Ahrens. (Terrence McNally provided the libretto).

This musical will always have a seminal place in my heart. I never did see the original production, but was immediately intrigued by the show when I first heard of it. For whatever reason I was home from school one morning and had the TV on. "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" was on and she presented the cast in an excerpt of the title song. From those three or four minutes alone, I was immediately curious about this brand new musical. Ragtime was the first score that I appreciated that was not a product of the Golden Age, and got me interested in learning about contemporary musical theatre. And here I am eleven years later!

Walking among my yesterdays to 1998, I recall picking up the concept cast album, the first contemporary show album I ever bought. Plus, I found a copy of the novel in a used book store for $.25. I delved into the book when I was a freshman in high school, reading it three times in that year alone. The narrative, weaving a tapestry of three diverse families who are fatefully linked to one another, fascinated me. It was the first time I ever heard of such figures as Emma Goldman or Evelyn Nesbitt. Doctorow managed to link the fictional families with actual historical events and figures. As one who was obsessed with history, this fictional treatise of the turn of the 20th century in New York compelled me. I've read the book at least ten times since.

One month after the Broadway closing, I was in Oxford, England visiting my brother where I bought the Original Broadway Cast recording and have played it countless times since. The music has never ceased to be stirring, in its fusing of period styles and integrated storytelling. I've always been especially impressed with the nine minute opening number. It deftly manages to be completely expository and introduce all of the principal and supporting characters without ever once becoming muddled or confusing. Not to mention they retained the novel's famous opening line in the prologue. Taking into consideration its ambitious and serious subject matter, the show is never boring and quite often incredibly moving.

The show is still large in scope, but the creative team hopes that it will be a more intimate experience in the Neil Simon. Casting for the new revival has yet to be announced, though it's believed that the Kennedy Center cast will be offered the chance to reprise their roles in New York.

This is easily the production I anticipate for the coming Broadway season. First preview anyone...?


Bob said...

I'm excited, too! I saw the Chicago sit-down Livent production of the show in 99 twice, which is a lot, since I was a poor college student at the time in MI. I also saw the scaled back national tour in 2000. In all versions and casts, I loved it so hard. That opening number packs a wallop, and the first act closer is amazing. One of the very best.

Esther said...

Oh wow, I love Ragtime, too. I can't wait. And I'd love to see it with both of you!

Vance said...

I was telling everyone today even though most looked at me blankly. SOOOO EXCITED but I hope most of the DC cast can carry over to Broadway. I didn't think they could find a cast to replace Audra, Marin, Brian, etc but THEY DID.

Roxie said...

I'm in - still ticked that I missed the original production!

TeKay said...

Oh Kevin, this is great news! I, too, am very excited. I saw the Broadway cast in the December previews. I fell in love with Stokes, Marin and Audra right then and there..even finding copies of the xxhushhushxx first reading in Toronto. I cry everytime I see the opening number. It is such a performance studies masterpiece of theatre, Frank Galati was an inspiration of mine. YAY! thanks for that.

Kevin Daly said...

I'm just glad there are others as excited as I am.

Truly, a great American musical. Hopefully it will be the smash hit it's always deserved to be in its revival.