Ragtime: A syncopated, turn-of-the-century march

[The following feature and sidebar were written for the current Arvada Center program guide, artscentric, under the title, "Ragtime: A syncopated, turn-of-the-century march."]

Capturing the tenor and tempo of an entire era is no mean feat, but that's what novelist E.L. Doctorow set out to do with Ragtime, whose scope is nothing less than America at the beginning of the 20th Century.

This brief, frenetic period, from the turn-of-the-century to World War I, was filled with wondrous things, including the beginning of the mass production of the automobile, the advent of motion pictures as a mass medium, and the birth of personality cults around flamboyant tycoons, charismatic politicians, and glamorous entertainers. (See "The American Pageant in Ragtime" for a brief description of the historical personalities that appear in the show.)

It was also a time of social change on a global scale, as record numbers of immigrants sailed past the Statue of Liberty or under the Golden Gate to new and promising—sometimes contentious; sometimes notorious—lives in the United States. Doctorow tamed these complexities by creating three families to symbolize the many disparate cultures and influences that were part of the great American melting pot, as epitomized by Emma Lazarus' words on the Statue of Liberty:

... Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

(Left to right) Tanner Gardner as Little Boy, Megan Van de Hey as Mother, Wayne Kennedy as Tateh and Damiana Bruenger as Little Girl
(L to R) Tanner Gardner as Little Boy,
Megan Van de Hey as Mother,
Wayne Kennedy as Tateh
and Damiana Bruenger as Little Girl
Photo: P. Switzer ©2011
Doctorow chose an upper-class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant family (Mother and Father) from New Rochelle, New York, Jewish immigrants (Tateh and his daughter) from Russia, and middle-class African-Americans (Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Sarah) to create a storyline that could absorb the epic scope of events and forces.

Judging from the success of the 1975 novel (National Book Critics Award for fiction), the 1981 Milos Foreman film (8 Academy Award nominations), and the 1996 Terrance McNally stage musical (4 Tony Awards out of 13 nominations), it's a story that works on many levels.

Christina Robinson as Sarah and Jamal Lee Harris as Coalhouse Walker, Jr.
Christina Robinson as Sarah
and Jamal Lee Harris as Coalhouse Walker, Jr.
Photo: P. Switzer ©2011
As Lady Liberty is for so many immigrants to America, Mother is the connecting thread for Ragtime's historical tapestry. Her compassion for others less fortunate than herself leads her, her younger brother, and her husband (Father) to make a connection with a poor, young African-American woman (Sarah), her musically talented and well-educated suitor (Coalhouse), and their newborn child. Later, it is Mother who makes the acquaintance of a talented Eastern European (Tateh), after he has evolved from a silhouette artist and flip-book inventor into a movie director.

One of the fun challenges for audiences is to discover and revisit the events and forces that these interactions represent. For example, by the conclusion of the story, Mother's family has expanded to include both Tateh's family and Coalhouse's family.

It is this swirling tapestry that attracted artistic producer and director Rod Lansberry to the script.

"It's an amazing piece—how it all comes together," says Lansberry. "You have these diverse elements of time, character, and social and economic backgrounds—everything that captures the changes occurring at the turn-of-the-century. Put that together with a great musical score and it's an impressive show."

Lansberry points out that the choreography in Ragtime plays a noticeably different role than in most musicals.

"This is a complicated show artistically, trying to represent how the different social groups interact, but it's not a dance show; the choreography is really more of a staging element."

Wayne Kennedy asTateh and Damiana Bruenger as Little Girl
Wayne Kennedy as Tateh
and Damiana Bruenger as Little Girl
Photo: P. Switzer ©2011
Emblematic of this is the opening number, where we see the white linen dresses and straw skimmer hats of WASP America as it saw itself during the close of the 19th century. Suddenly, other groups of dancers—migrations of blacks from the South and European immigrants of all religions and political persuasions—join them on stage, representing forces of deep social change that still percolate throughout the country.

The issues that arise from this intermingling, says Lansberry, are what make Ragtime relevant to our present circumstances.

"You get into the industrial revolution and how it changed American life. You have the factories, the jobs, and the layoffs—the same elements of workers' rights that we're fighting over now, including unions and outsourcing. Then, on top of that, you add the immigrants who came over earlier and were assimilated into society, and their opposition to newer immigrants. And of course, there are the racial divisions, whites versus blacks. All three of these elements are very strong in this piece."

Just as Lazarus expressed it for the American spirit in her poem, the beauty and hope of Ragtime is that by understanding the issues of our past, we are able to create a better future for all Americans, regardless of when and from whence they came.

The Arvada Center's production of Ragtime runs at the Arvada Center through October 2nd. 720-898-7200 or and then at the Lone Tree Arts Center, from October 6th through 16th, 720-509-1000 or

Bob Bows


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