Were the Good Old Days really all that good for all segments of society? asks the upcoming the North Carolina Theatre presentation of the Tony Award®-winning Broadway musical Ragtime, staged by director Joe Locarro and choreographed by Antoinette DiPietropolo. The NCT production stars Broadway veterans Norm Lewis, Montego Glover, Julia Murney, and Tony Award® winner Michael Rupert.
Lewis plays popular ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a proud African-American whose chance run-in with a group of racist firemen sets the main plot in motion; Glover plays Coalhouse's girlfriend, Sarah; Murney plays Mother, a white matriarch who befriends Sarah and her newborn baby; and Rupert plays the immigrant paper-silhouette maker Tateh, who sells silhouette of celebrities on the street. (Rupert is a three-time Tony nominee who won a Tony for his performance in Sweet Charity.)
Ragtime is a magnificent PG-rated 1998 message musical based on the award-winning 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow. The show is set in and around New York City, New Rochelle, and Ellis Island, New York; Lawrence, Massachusetts; and Atlantic City, New Jersey, at the dawn of the 20th century.
In examining the dark side of the American Dream, circa 1902, Doctorow mixed compelling fictional characters from three typical turn-of-the-century families — one white Anglo-Saxon, one African-American, and one Eastern European immigrant — with historical personages such as automobile manufacturer Henry Ford, anarchist Emma Goldman, magician Harry Houdini, financier J.P. Morgan, President William Howard Taft, and others.
By skillfully blending fact and fiction, by bringing members of these three very different families together, Doctorow builds bridges of understanding between the races and between natives and immigrants, celebrates the indomitability of the human spirit, salutes American ingenuity, and condemns the persistent prejudices, such as racism and xenophobia, that still plague America at the dawn of the 21st century.
The musical version of Ragtime, with a brilliant book by Terrence McNally and a rousing score by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, had its world premiere in December 1996 in Toronto, where it won the 1997 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best Musical.
This epic musical made its Broadway debut at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts on Jan. 18, 1998 and ran for 27 previews and 834 performances, closing on Jan. 16, 2000. Ragtime earned 12 1998 Tony Award® nominations, including the nominations for Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical [Frank Galati], and Best Choreography [Graciela Daniele]. It won four Tonys, including the awards for Best Book of a Musical [Terrence McNally] and Best Original Musical Score [Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens].
New York actor/director/choreographer Joe Locarro, who will be making his NCT directorial debut with Ragtime, was a member of the original Toronto and Broadway companies of the show. "I was an ensemble member and performed cover for the role of [Mother's] Younger Brother," Locarro says. "The person who played that role did not miss a performance for a whole year, so I didn't actually get to go on in that role until we got to Broadway."
Locarro made his Broadway debut in 1983 in Merlin. He subsequently performed in the Broadway productions of Cats, Les Misérables, The Goodby Girl, and Ragtime.
Joe Locarro says, "[T]he story of Ragtime and the [show's] historical content is a well that will never run dry. The themes are universal. It really is a social-political piece when you break it down and discover the essences of why things were done the way they were. For example, the Henry Ford number is really about fascism — Henry Ford was an infamous anti-Semite — Ragtime is very layered," Locarro notes. "In that sense, there's a great backstory to everything that's on stage. You really have three shows inside of one show, because you have the story about the white Anglo-Saxon New Rochelle family, you have the story of the immigrant family, and you have the story of the African-American family. In reality, each of those stories could have been developed into a separate musical. So, there's plenty there to pique your interest. You keep discovering new things."
Locarro says, "The difficulty, when I run the rehearsals to stage the show, is to stop telling stories long enough to do the staging and the blocking." During rehearsals, he adds, NCT choreographer Antoinette DiPietropolo "makes me promise that I won't give any character background until after the number is finished."
Joe Locarro previously directed the Music Theatre of Wichita's August 2002 production of Ragtime, in which Montego Glover played Sarah. Lessons that he learned in Wichita have proven helpful in Raleigh, Locarro says.
"You learn fairly quickly what works and what doesn't work, both in staging and how you work with the actors," Locarro says. "We actually have a little bit less time in rehearsal this time around. So, a lot of those things that were learned in Wichita are coming in handy here."
In Toronto, Locarro recalls, "[W]e worked out a number of things in the rehearsal process that have been tremendously helpful in restaging it at NCT. For example, we took two months to stage this show when we originated it. Here, in North Carolina, we have a little less than 10 days to do the same staging. So, the process had to be truncated substantially.
"One of the luxuries we had when we put the show together [in 1996] was that we were given the working time with the director [Frank Galati] to come up with individual characters for each character we played on stage," Locarro says. "Even if we were in a group number, each one of our characters had to have a life and a history and a background. This is one of the key things that I try to convey to the ensemble. Basically, I tell them... that they are not just happy villagers standing on stage. They're a group of individuals with distinct lives.... That is always very helpful in making the story rich for the audience members."
At NCT, Locarro says, "[I] don't have a tenth of the time necessary to tell the [background stories] stories or [explain] the historical context. This story combines real figures from history and fictional characters. In reality, the historical time frame for this story is 15 years, so it was compressed into a two-year time period by E. L. Doctorow, and that in turn was compressed into a three-hour musical by Terrence McNally and the rest of the [original] creative team. So, it's a lot of material to cover.
"For a lot of the characters, for both the historical characters and the fictional characters, I try to give them as much of the background as possible, both in print and by discussing things with them. That basically helps them to flesh out their characters," Locarro explains.
He adds, "There was a lot that went into the original production, so I try to convey as much of that as possible to the actors as we go through the process. In a way, [Ragtime] is similar to Les Misérables, but I find the story of Ragtime even more detailed, most likely because, as an American, it is more tangible as part of our American history than Les Misérables was to us."
In addition to director Joe Locarro and choreographer Antoinette DiPietropolo, the North Carolina Theatre creative team for Ragtime includes music director/conductor McCrae Hardy, assistant music director Julie Flinchum, assistant to the director/dance captain Lyndy Franklin, lighting designer Craig Stelzenmuller, sound designer/engineer Jonathan Parke, costumer Annie Bruskiewitz, hair and wig designer Patti Del Sordo, technical director Curtis Jones, and props master Bob Uzabel.
Locarro says, "The rented set for Ragtime really is missing a lot of pieces from the original concept, the original Broadway staging. Trying to build the set out to the full configuration helps the actors and the storytelling."
The number of costumes, and the frequency of costume changes, is a real challenge for the NCT cast. "It's very challenging," Locarro claims, "especially for the principals. You've got props and parasols, and things that people are not accustomed to working with. They have to learn to work with these things in a very short period of time."
Joe Locarro says, "It really takes a strong commitment from the theater and the actors to get this show presented in this short period of time. This is not one of the usual musicals; it's a gigantic piece. I'm not certain, but I believe this is the largest show that NCT has done as far as the setpieces and the number of cast members. I know they did Oliver! with a lot of kids, but they mentioned to me that this is one of the biggest shows that they're ever done. ...Normally they truck everything in. To bring in the additional setpieces was just too big a problem, so they decided to build them themselves. They're doing a great job, by the way. They've rented the Ragtime set that travels around the country, but the local scene department is building all the pieces to fill it out."
Locarro warns parents planning to bring young children to Ragtime that "some sections of the show... are violent. The show [is] about understanding, [but it] is also about bigotry, hatred, and misunderstanding. I don't want to frighten people off, but it deals with serious issues. As with any good piece, it also has funny and charming moments throughout. I guess you could call it a roller-coaster ride of emotion."
Note: There will be a special Student Preview Night Friday, Sept. 10th, with $10 tickets for full-time high school and college students and teachers with valid ID. The preview starts at 7 p.m., and a question-and-answer session with cast members will follow the final curtain.
North Carolina Theatre presents Ragtime Saturday, Sept. 11, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 12, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Friday, Sept. 14-17, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 18, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 19, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $20-$60, except $10 for full-time high school and college students and teachers with valid ID on Student Preview Night (7 p.m. Sept. 10). NCT Box Office: 919/831-6950. Group Discounts: 919/831-6950 or http://www.nctheatre.com/groupdiscounts.html [inactive 9/04]. North Carolina Theatre: http://www.nctheatre.com/showsandtickets.html#ragtime [inactive 9/04]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=7352. In Rhythm and Rhyme: The Ahrens and Flaherty Website: http://www.ahrensandflaherty.com/ragtime.html.