Ragtime, a musical with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty, based on the novel by E. L. Doctorow, began life in 1996: I was surprised to discover this, as I’d assumed it had been around for a lot longer. Perhaps it’s surprising to see it back in London so soon, seeing as the last production – at Regents Park Open Air Theatre – was only in 2011, but as I missed that production I’m only too happy to have been able to catch this one.
As the title suggests, the show uses the music of ragtime to tell a story of early twentieth century America. It starts with upper middle class whites bemoaning the existence of refugees and black people (sound familiar?) and explores how that society changes. There are so many characters – the show features real people such as Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington and Evelyn Nesbit as well as fictional characters – that I did get a bit confused at first. However, the show eventually narrows down to focus on a handful of people: an Eastern European immigrant with a young daughter who is ambitious to make something of himself and his art, a privileged white family, and a black couple and their child. It’s this couple who really provide the focal point of the drama: after young mother Sarah is killed, her lover Coalhouse embarks on a revenge spree which will have profound consequences for all associated with him.
I found the story incredibly moving and particularly timely – would that it were not so! – and filled with memorable characters. Though I did get confused at the sheer numbers, I was impressed at the way the musical threaded all the different stories together. The actor-musician aspect of the production worked incredibly well and the music and singing was very strong.
I have to recommend Ragtime: a powerful piece with memorable songs and a great deal to say, deeply moving and incredibly well performed.