Just in time for Independence Day and the month of July comes a new staging, at Anaheim’s Chance Theater, of “Ragtime: The Musical,” that star-spangled paean to the promise, but also the social, racial and economic inequalities, of the Gilded Age as it crossed into a new century.
But this is no ordinary “Ragtime.” For decades, fans have come to new productions of the musical for the spectacle and glitz. The original U.S. staging, seen locally at the Shubert Theatre a year after the show’s 1996 world premiere in Toronto, sported elaborate trappings like a Model T that drove onto the stage.
Since the 99-seat Chance can’t hope to match that epic scale, it has reimagined “Ragtime” (scripted by Terrence McNally from E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel) into a more compact, scaled-down staging poised to deliver the kind of intimacy for which the best Chance Theater stagings have long been heralded.
Chance Theater has staged a major musical each summer starting in 2001. It has amassed a lengthy, illustrious list that includes “Hair,” “Jerry Springer: The Opera,” “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” an inventive reimaging of “West Side Story” – and, more recently, “In the Heights” and “Parade.”
But from that roster, “Ragtime: The Musical,” one of the splashiest, largest-scale and most ambitious Broadway musicals of recent decades, has been conspicuous in its absence.
Founding artistic director Oanh Nguyen said the show had been “on our short list of stories to tell for ages,” but until last year, the timing and a viable staging concept failed to emerge.
Leading into the 2018 season, award-winning director of theater, opera, and film Casey Stangl reached out to Nguyen and company and made a passionate pitch about wanting to direct a stripped-down version of the show that would highlight the issues of race and immigration.
Nguyen said “the timing wasn’t quite right, but we continued to discuss it, along with other potential projects, for months. Once we started putting our season together – and listening to the barrage of divisive news everyday – we all agreed that now was the time that we needed to try to tell this story, up close and personal.”
Stangl said she “chose to make the small space and limited resources at the Chance an opportunity rather than an obstacle.”
Massive Re-envisioning – and Scaling Down
Not content to do a traditional re-telling of the musical, and limited in terms of the venue’s more intimate nature, Stangl devised a setting “that portrays both past and present ideas – an urban warehouse that represents both the beginning of the Industrial Age and a gentrified industrial chic, emphasizing the great income inequality we are currently living in.”
Characters Stangl describes as “a diverse and divided community” coalesce within the warehouse to tell the story of “Ragtime” as a play-within-a-play – a concept she said was “inspired by Tateh’s line at the end. He dreams of a ‘gang of children – rich, poor, black, white – living together despite their differences.’”
The frame created by Stangl takes the form of a prologue in which what she refers to as “warehouse characters” are established and their relationships are formed and built upon – relationships that mirror and resonate with the characters within “Ragtime.”
Stangl’s concept requires that the show, written for a large number of leads and sizable ensemble, be tightened so that as few as 16 performers could fulfill the script’s demands. During auditions, she realized the show was now “too thin: we didn’t have enough range and weren’t fully covered in all the roles” – so cast size increased by two.
The show’s original principal cast of 23 has been pared down to 12, including the roles of Coalhouse, Sarah, Mother, Father, Tateh and the historical figures Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman and Houdini. A six-person ensemble completes the cast, with some members portraying various characters like the villainous Willie Conklin and the virtuous Booker T. Washington.
How to collapse the original’s elaborate set design constructs without losing a sense of the play’s multiple settings? Stangl calls it “a theatrical rather than realistic approach allowing us to imagine being in Atlantic City simply by carrying a banner across the stage with a vintage picture of the boardwalk, or go to the Morgan Library by seeing a small-scale model of the building.”
Stangl brought her concept to set designer Christopher Scott Murillo, who “helped flesh it out.” Their collaboration, she said, involved “great back-and-forth, with both of us riffing off each other.” She said Wendell C. Carmichael’s costume designs “are achieved with a contemporary nod and use pieces rather than full outfits.”
“We’re distilling the piece down to its essential theatricality and focusing on the characters and their stories, which I believe enhances the piece.”
‘Still a Huge Show’
Despite all the whittling down to the essentials, Stangl said “Ragtime” “is still a huge show. It’s long, there is a ton of music, a lot of stories being told, and a lot of musical numbers and locations.”
“I’ve done a number of large operas that are also quite demanding in the same way, and even when pared-down, you have to be as accurate as you can with the storytelling.”
Encompassing ragtime-style blues, traditional musical theater power ballads, songs that ring of 19th-century Eastern Europe and, of course, Scott Joplin-style ragtime, Stephen Flaherty’s score is normally performed by a full orchestra.
That’s at least triple the size of what’s on hand at Chance Theater, where musical director Robyn Manion and her five onstage musicians will use keyboard, clarinet, flute, trumpet, bass and drums to effect the complex score.
With fewer instruments at her disposal, Manion said, “you’re going to be missing something, so you try to find those that give you as much versatility and color as possible.”
Choreographer Kelly Todd – like Manion, a longtime Chance associate – said using “18 actors, not 60” involves getting “a ton of storytelling out of so few bodies on stage.”
Key to accomplishing this is for the cast to engender “believable circumstances for the characters within the story” and for her to create “dancing that reveals more about the story.”
Todd cites the songs “Success,” “Henry Ford” and “Coalhouse Demands” as examples of“fascinating numbers where the work of storytelling is easy.”
‘Ragtime: the Musical’ in the Trump Era
What Stangl calls the play’s “sense of language” refers to “characters being called the N-word and other racial epithets and slurs. This was very much a part of the world depicted. The question was, ‘are we going to ease our way into it, or just dive in at beginning?’ We decided it’s better to be true to situations and characters right up front and not hide behind it.”
This head-on point of attack, she noted, “shines a light on how the world was and depicts it in a way that uses ugly language and offensive things to show that that is not the way the world should be.”
“Sadly,” Stangl said, the show is “even more relevant today than when it first premiered on Broadway. Our country is polarized, we are struggling with racism, hate, xenophobia, income inequality, and the intense divisions between groups, races, genders. The idea of the American Dream feels less and less attainable for a growing number of Americans – all themes that are explored in a piece with a glorious score and fascinating characters.”
How do the play’s myriad themes and Stangl’s reenvisioning of them fit in with issues generated by Trump-style politics?
“MAGA,” she said, “is a fantasy that never existed in the first place, and part of what the show does is shine a spotlight on the struggles of women, African-Americans and immigrants, all things that are still happening today, and that’s the strongest statement the play makes.”
“We think we’re so much better now, but if you look at situations in the play, they’re similar to today, and that tells me that we need to do better.”
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.