"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


One Christmas many years back, my wife and I made a rookie mistake with our then-two-year-old son. We went a little crazy with the gifts and literally overwhelmed the poor toddler. After tearing open six or seven presents and trying to play with each, only to be confronted with another from one of his pushy parents, he shut down. He just refused to open another present and commenced, very sensibly, to play with what he already had. Luckily, his birthday is in February, and we were able to put some things away and give them to him six weeks later.

I feel like an overwhelmed toddler myself this morning as I think back to seeing Ragtime on Broadway last night. [This page is not meant to be a blog about theater-going, but I can't help but think that seeing this production will have a palpable effect on my life as a teacher, and I need to write about it, so here we are.] To begin, I was overwhelmed by the sheer physical sensation of a 28-piece orchestra, including 11 string players and their marvelous rich sounds shooting straight up at us in the mezzanine (yes, I am a poor schoolteacher) from the relatively deep pit of the Neil Simon Theater. We are so conditioned to machines generating ersatz sounds, even in live performance situations that the actual physical buzz of horsehair against string, lip against mouthpiece was exciting. Add to that excitement the richness, variety and color of William David Brohn's orchestrations, which sound brassy and flattened on the cast recording of the original production from 11 years ago. (I must face it, I am a sucker for a harp.)

Then there was the richness of the singing. Judging by the recording only (I missed the original production), the present cast outsings the original in every role, save only Sarah, originally played by Audra McDonald. (Theoretically, there could be an actress with a richer, more expressive and moving voice than Audra McDonald, but I doubt it.) And Stephanie Umoh, the current Sarah sings the part very well indeed and is stunning--I mean stunning--to look at. Christiane Noll was a revelation--the suppleness, flexibility and warmth of her voice made her the perfect Mother. Where Stokes as Coalhouse Walker in the original production was charm turned to coiled danger, Quentin Earl Darrington is a large man with a large soul as if he was marked to be part of history from the start. (It doesn't hurt that his miming of piano playing is excellent.) But every part--down to Henry Ford and the soprano soloist in the funeral sequence, who blended gospel soul with serious opera chops--was sung to perfection.

Nonetheless, lots of shows open on Broadway with wonderful music and wonderful performances and mean nothing. This show will make you proud of America, even if you're not American. Proud of our ideals, regret for when we fall short of them, but with everlasting hope that we will continue to strive for them. The show has special meaning for me in the age of Barack Obama, who redeemed the promise so long broken. This production quickly aligns its population into three groups: the WASPS who run things (for now), the blacks who serve and/or entertain them, and the arriving immigrants who are ready to seize the dream of America. Marcia Milgrim Dodge's crystal clear direction gets to the point right away and stays with it. To my mind, not only does she clarify the play, she clarified Doctorow's novel for me as well! The setting transforms effortlessly from ship decks to factory floors to Atlantic City boardwalks and the costumes are witty and informative.

Where Frank Galati's original production seems to have been a pageant or a parade (perhaps the result of years of directing opera), Dodge's feels like a tapestry--one of those rich double-textured tapestries which is beautiful at first glance, but has a dark and complex tale woven under the bright top layers.

I have saved the most important comment for last--praise for the incomparable work of composer and lyricist Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Ahrens work as lyricist is always specific, clear, scans perfectly (this has become rare) and is always in character. Stephen Flaherty is a musical chameleon--none of his scores resembles another. For Ragtime, Flaherty has absorbed the gay melancholy in such Joplin tunes as "Solace" and put it in the service of his story. And he is a good musical historian in that he does not limit his 1906 palette to ragtime, but includes marches, waltzes, vaudeville schottisches, etc. The pitter-patter melody of the verse to Evelyn Nesbit's vaudeville song sounds absolutely dead-on to me, having grown up playing from my grandmother's songbooks of that era.

Simply put, everyone who cares about the heritage of the Classical musical should and must see the current production of Ragtime. I wept with joy, and I wish you the same.

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