The intertwining lives of immigrants reshaping an American city, rich white residents moving out and trying to understand change, new music driving racial mixing, and violence and mistrust between police and people of color are the makings of an epic story.
E.L. Doctorow seized upon those elements to write his award-winning 1975 novel Ragtime, about turn of the 20th-century America. At the beginning of the 21st century, the issues seem as timely as ever.
In Ragtime, Tateh, an Eastern European Jewish artist, dreams of starting his life anew in the United States and arrives by boat in New York. A brilliant piano player, essentially modeled on Scott Joplin, thrives in the demimonde of the Harlem Renaissance but struggles with racial barriers. A rich white family is split by social changes and prejudice. White police brutalize black citizens.
After the success of its socially conscious musical The Cradle Will Rock last August, Cripple Creek Theatre Company looked at doing another musical, and Ragtime was one of the ones they considered — albeit with initial trepidation in a summer marked by national incidents involving shootings of people of color.
"We were looking at Les Miserables, this and The Music Man," says Cripple Creek founding artistic director Andrew Vaught. "With all New Orleans high school bands, Music Man seemed good."
The company chose Ragtime, and the choice has become timely in another summer marked by police shootings of people of color.
Ragtime's characters vie to shape 20th-century America.
"It's three groups merging at historic times," says director and company member Emilie Whelan.
Besides the changing face of the nation, the period was marked by lively artistic and political movements and technological change. Ragtime was adapted into a Broadway musical with a book by Terrence McNally (Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class) in 1996. The production tried to bring Doctorow's sprawling historical fiction about America to the stage. The work features iconic figures such as industrialist Henry Ford, former slave and educator Booker T. Washington, revolutionary thinker and anarchist Emma Goldman and magician Harry Houdini. The show had a large cast, more than 35 songs and lavish sets and props, including a remade Model T Ford.
At Cripple Creek, Whelan has trimmed the production in many ways, but less to reduce its scope than to find its essence. It's down to 16 characters and Jefferson Turner's piano replaces the original production's full orchestra. At the Marigny Opera House, it's performed in-the-round, with room for just more than 100 seats. It uses minimal but evocative props.
"Our goal is to poetically present the situation," Whelan says. "We use only a few objects to hold the spine of the story."
Elements of Ragtime are archetypal, such as the story of assimilation of new Americans and backlash against social progress, but the plight of pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. is complicated. When he is separated from a son born out of wedlock, he ends up fighting to see his boy and for the child's future.
As part of its mission to reach new audiences, Cripple Creek presents the show for free, as it did with Cradle Will Rock. Reservations are all claimed, but 50 seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis for each performance.