Book by Terence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahern
adapted from the book Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow


Opened at The Ford Center for the Performing Arts    January 8, 1998    834 performances (revived in 2009, 65 performances.)

Original Director: Frank Galati
Original Choreographer: Graciela Daneille
Original Producer: Garth Drabinsky, Livent
Original Leads: Colehouse Walker: Brian Stokes Mitchell    Mother: Marin Mazzie    Sarah: Audra McDonald    Tateh: Peter Friedman
Cast Size: Male: 7 plus 1 child    Female: 4 plus 1 child    Ensemble: 16 or more at least!    Total Cast Size: 30 or more.  More likely 36-40.
Orchestra: 28, or 22 (I believe there is an alternate and smaller orchestration.  Hmmm.)
Published Script: None
Production Rights: MTI (Music Theater International)
Recordings: The original 2-record set from Broadway is wonderful.
Other shows by the authors: Once On This Island, Lucky Stiff, Suessical
Awards: Nominated for 13 Tonys, it won 4, including Best Book (McNally), and Best Score (Falherty & Aherns), as well as Best Supporting Actress (McDonald)


Opera companies, large regional theaters, Broadway. Some colleges and universities with large theater arts departments. There is a “reduced” version which apparently appeals to High Schools and such. Hmmm. This is too wonderful a show to receive anything less than a wonderful production.

Be Warned:

Ragtime is an enormous show. The cast is huge. It calls for a larger-than-normal orchestra. The requirements for the set can be quite strenuous. All the costumes are period 1900 or so, and there are a whole lot of them. Not a show, in this humble fan’s opinion, for anything short of top-drawer pros, or the most advanced colleges. But I’d be happy to be proven wrong in this case!

THE STORY: (Outline from Wikipedia)

ACT ONE: The 20th century begins with introductions of three families from different worlds. The upper class Protestant family—Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother, Grandfather, and the Little Boy, Edgar—represents what life was like in the rich, white neighborhoods of New Rochelle, NY. Their extremely sheltered lives were markedly different from those of the African-American and Eastern European Immigrant families headed by Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Tateh, respectively. While Tateh travels to America with his daughter hoping for a new and better life in the land of riches and the first American celebrities (each with their own story of upward or downward momentum), Sarah and the people of Harlem were filled with the joys of Coalhouse’s music. What he played was “Ragtime”.

Mother and her Family say goodbye to Father as he embarks on a journey to the North Pole. Father assures her that nothing will change in his absence but Mother hopes differently. (“Goodbye, My Love”) On board Admiral Peary’s ship, Father catches glimpse of the rag ship carrying Tateh and his Little Girl to America and sends them a hail across the water. (“Journey On”)

Meanwhile, Younger Brother takes his regular seat in the balcony of a theatre where Evelyn Nesbit, a vaudeville personality, takes the stage in an act about her husband, Harry K. Thaw, who murdered her lover, Stanford White. (“Crime of the Century”) After the show ends, Younger Brother confesses his love to Evelyn but she has no interest in his advances. Back at the Family’s home in New Rochelle, Mother unearths a newborn black baby in her garden. The police arrive with Sarah, the baby’s mother, for whom Mother takes responsibility. (“What Kind of Woman”)

At Ellis Island, the Immigrants arrive at their new home (“A Shtetl Iz Amereke”) and Tateh begins his new life as an artist making silhouettes but quickly finds the American Dream not so readily accessible. (“Success”) Meanwhile, the people of Harlem dance to Coalhouse’s music (“His Name Was Coalhouse”) and he sings of his lost love, Sarah. (“Gettin’ Ready Rag”) When he has a plan to get her back, Coalhouse goes to Henry Ford’s factory for a brand new Model T. (“Henry Ford”)

Back in New Rochelle, Mother and Edgar wait for the trolley to New York City and meet Tateh and the Little Girl (“Nothing Like the City”), Sarah sings to her son in the attic of their new home (“Your Daddy’s Son”), and Coalhouse arrives at the Family’s door on his quest to find and win back Sarah (“The Courtship”). Months later, Father returns home to find Coalhouse playing Ragtime in the Family’s parlor. He sings about the unexpected and unorthodox changes to his household and how unsure he is of his world. But Mother and Younger Brother have embraced the changes and immeasurably opened their hearts. (“New Music”) Coalhouse finally manages to persuade Sarah of his good intentions and takes her on a picnic. With their child in their arms, the pair sing about the promise this country offers their baby boy. (“Wheels of a Dream”)

With eyes wide open to the world, Younger Brother takes respite from the cold inside a rally held by the anarchist Emma Goldman and what he finds there changes his life forever. (“The Night That Goldman Spoke”) The rally quickly descends into a riot and mirrors a similar strike taking place in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Once the violence subsides, Tateh calms the Little Girl by showing her his book of moving silhouettes. The conductor of the train they are on offers to buy the book and Tateh sells, realizing this is the first step toward a better life. (“Gliding”)

Returning home, Coalhouse and Sarah are stopped by Will Conklin and his volunteer fire squad. Conklin demands a toll be paid in exchange for passage but Coalhouse will not yield to the injustice. The firemen destroy the Model T and roll it into a lake. (“The Trashing of the Car”) Incensed, Coalhouse seeks justice but the system has none to offer. (“Justice”) Coalhouse postpones his marriage to Sarah until his car is restored, which prompts her to seek justice on his behalf. She hears of a campaign rally in New Rochelle and goes in the hopes that the vice-presidential candidate will be able to help. (“President”) However, she is mistaken for a would-be assassin and beaten to death by the Secret Service. At her funeral, grief and anger overtake her mourners. Coalhouse and Younger Brother are moved to action against the perpetrators of the injustice but Mother and Tateh are convinced by Sarah’s Friend that they should have hope for a day when all people will have justice and equality. (“Till We Reach That Day”)

ACT TWO: Edgar watches Harry Houdini perform his act of great escape, climaxing with an explosion of smoke and fire. Edgar wakes up in bed. The Houdini show has been a dream. He yells for his mother. “Something bad is going to happen,” he says. “It’s Coalhouse.” (“Harry Houdini, Master Escapist”)

Sarah’s death has destroyed the man that Coalhouse once was and he vows to get justice on his own terms. (“Coalhouse’s Soliloquy”) He terrorizes New Rochelle, inflicting death and destroying property. There is a group within the black community, led by Booker T. Washington, who deplores Coalhouse’s actions but Coalhouse’s outrage still reaches the hearts and minds of many. Among them is Younger Brother, who storms out of the Family’s home to join the fight. (“Coalhouse Demands”)

Meanwhile, Mother, becoming increasingly irritated by Father’s actions, encourages Father to explain what is happening to his son. Instead, Father takes Edgar to a baseball game, expecting it to be like it was when he was in college but quickly finding it to be anything but. (“What a Game”) Father’s attempt at distraction is not enough to keep at bay the effects of Coalhouse’s demands and acts of violence. (“Fire in the City”)

As the outside world bears down on the Family, Father decides to move them all to Atlantic City where Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Houdini please crowds and lift spirits. (“Atlantic City”) Upon their arrival, the Family meets Tateh who has made himself into a success as a prominent movie director. (“Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.”) Edgar and the Little Girl become fast friends, prompting the growth of a friendship between Mother and Tateh. Together they marvel in how simple and profound children’s lives are. (“Our Children”)

Back in Harlem, Younger Brother seeks out Coalhouse but is repeatedly turned away until Coalhouse is convinced that he can be trusted. As one of Coalhouse’s men leads Younger Brother to the Gang’s hideout, Coalhouse remembers his first encounter with Sarah. (“Sarah Brown Eyes”) Once Younger Brother arrives, he is unable to articulate why he wants to join the fight but instead tells Coalhouse why he will be useful. (“He Wanted to Say”)

Father informs Mother that he’s been summoned to New York to help reason with Coalhouse. Before he goes, he assures her that everything will soon return to the way it was but Mother has changed too much to allow that to happen. (“Back to Before”) Upon his arrival, Father discovers that Coalhouse and his men have taken over J.P. Morgan’s magnificent library in the heart of the city and are threatening to blow it up. Father suggests that Coalhouse may listen to Booker T. Washington, who finds Coalhouse unreachable until he mentions the legacy Coalhouse is leaving his son. Coalhouse and Washington work out a deal for peaceful surrender but Younger Brother is enraged by Coalhouse’s abandonment of their cause. (“Look What You’ve Done”)

Washington leaves and Father enters the Library as a hostage. The change in his life that he has been so forcefully trying to ignore finally manages to squeeze into his heart as Coalhouse convinces Younger Brother and his men that violence will not solve injustice. Coalhouse charges them all to change society through the power of their words and by telling their children their story. (“Make Them Hear You”) Profoundly affected by their leader, Younger Brother and the Gang leave the Morgan Library peacefully while Father tells Coalhouse about his son. Coalhouse thanks Father for his kindness and, as he leaves the Library, is shot and killed by the police.

Edgar takes on the task of fulfilling Coalhouse’s wishes that their story be told. He proclaims the Era of Ragtime to be over. The Company returns to tell us the conclusion of each of their own stories. And though their stories and fates vary, their hope for the future remains constant. (“Wheels of a Dream: Reprise”)


“Prologue: Ragtime”, “Goodbye, My Love”, “Journey On”, “The Crime of the Century”, “What Kind of Woman”, “A Shtetl iz Amereke”, “Success”, “His Name Was Coalhouse Walker”, “Gettin’ Ready Rag”, “Henry Ford”, “Nothing Like the City”, “Your Daddy’s Son”, “The Courtship”, “New Music”, “Wheels of a Dream”, “The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square”, “Gliding”, “The Trashing of the Car”, “Justice”, “President”, “Till We Reach That Day”, “Harry Houdini, Master Escapist”, “Coalhouse’s Soliloquy”, “Coalhouse Demands”, “What a Game”, “Fire in the City”, “New Music (Reprise)”, “Atlantic City”, “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.”, “Our Children”, “Harlem Nightclub”, “Sarah Brown Eyes”, “He Wanted to Say”, “Back to Before”, “Look What You’ve Done”, “Make Them Hear You”, “Epilogue: Ragtime / Wheels of a Dream” (reprise)

Hits include “Your Daddy’s Son”, “Wheels Of A Dream” (But really, folks, the score is as close to perfection as your likely to experience this side of Heaven, if Musicals are your thing in the first place. There are songs like “New Music”, “Gliding”, “Our Children” and “Make Then Hear You”, that you will not forget once you hear them.)


As always, you may elect to ignore or skip my opinions and rating. If you then get run over by the wheels of a dream, ah, well.

I think that Ragtime and Rent are the two best shows written since 1990, period. I saw Ragtime several times, and was overwhelmed with the production and the beauty and power of the writing. It is a remarkable achievement in the Musical Theater, a masterpiece. The music accomplishes the rarity of being largely pastiche while remaining entirely dramatic and fresh. Worthy of any grand opera house, the score soars with emotion. The lyrics are always exactly right for the character at the moment, there’s never a misstep. The songs are uplifting, deeply moving, and a profound testament to what America has been and where we’re headed. It is a score for the ages.

The book is no less impactful than the score. Mr. McNally has condensed Doctorow’s massive masterwork into a (granted, rather long) scintillating fabric. We are introduced with speed and undeniable affection to many characters who, added up, provide a nearly mythic view of America around 1900. History never gets in the way of entertainment, though. The story and characters are all, and the score, the history lessons, every element of production contributes to our exposure to these wonderful human beings – our grandparents and great grandparents, in many cases. And how I found I ached to know these people, to understand them and their lives, their world, as a lesson for our own time. The finest book for a Musical since 1776. (A note, though, about the book. Though songs are often on the short side, the show runs longer than most shows. It’s huge. Keep the scenes emotionally true, but also keep them moving.)

I think this sort of writing deserves the very best resources a grateful theater can provide. The original Producer, Mr. Drabinsky, certainly seems to have agreed, to his sorrow and his eternal glory. That great production was financially very troubled, as it was so expensive. It was also the brightest gem in the crown of the American Musical, for the past 30 years.

If you’re thinking of producing it, you may want to consider the reduced requirements for “Version 2”, whatever that may be, on MTI’s site. I guess. If that’s the only way, then please do so.

But if you’re an opera company, a big regional theater, a national theater, man, this show will challenge you in every way. It will demand your resources, your genius, your expertise in high order. Get it right, though, and when you go to Theater Heaven, you’ll be able to look all those great producers in the eye with head held high. And I will attend if I’m in town, I promise! (You’ll comp your old buddy, won’t you? Huh?)

This is a show for theaters or Producers with deep talent pools available to them, in way of actors and designers, directors and musicians. If you’ve got a college with a Jim-cracky theater and music and maybe opera department, and you want to show the world just who you are, take a look at this show.

There is always the concert version route, by the way. A reading with all the music sung well, especially with an orchestra, would have a magic of its own. The score, the script are that good.

By the way, yes, the show has the magical and additional quality, shared with only a few other rare Musicals such as 1776, and Fiorello, of being a terrific history lesson. There are many real people in it, such as Evelyn Nesbitt, whose husband committed jealous murder on her behalf, and who then parlayed the press guzzling event into a show-biz career.

Emma Goldman, famed American radical, and Harry Houdini, the most famous magician of modern times.

If you’d like to know more about Emma Goldman, watch this documentary (if the link is still live).

J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford, Captains of Industry and among the wealthiest men of their day.

Watch a documentary about Morgan.

And another, about Henry Ford.

Admiral Peary, the great explorer.

A documentary about the race to the North Pole, an important aspect of Ragtime.

Booker T. Washington.

Various documentaries about Booker T. Washington.

And not to place too fine a point on it, but the three groups of people represented in the story are all-too real. The wealthy middle class of America in 1900. Blacks, who were “free” but without the basic rights guaranteed by freedom. And immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia.

Here’s a documentary about European immigrants at the time, put together by kids!

And a slew of photos of Black Americans from the period.

Here’s a show with boundless ambition, that touches many of the stars it intends to. A history lesson? Much more? A great entertainment? Yes, but much more? A work of art? Absolutely. A reason to be proud to be working in the Musical Theater? Yup.

MY RATING: *** (An exceptional show, bordering on (if not) perfect, and one of my favorites.)



This is a remarkably rich score, and there’s a lot of it. A rare achievement that utilizes a lot of pastiche while remaining timeless. Your lead voices need to mostly be legit. You’ll be looking for trained, beautiful, controlled and powerful voices with healthy ranges and technique that will allow the actor to survive a lot of singing each night. At the same time, they must be actors who sing, and the characters must always transcend vocal execution and its needs. Perhaps this could be said of any musical, but it is especially true of Ragtime.

Your Musical Director will have a huge job. There is a LOT of music, it is all richly constructed and intricate, the top work of a top theater composer. Teaching the score will take time, and you should start your leads early. The ensemble material is full of interesting harmonic work, and it will take time to teach and to learn. The pastiche quality of many of the songs can’t (and should not) be ignored, of course, but they should be performed in the “now”, as fresh and vital statements of lives being lived today. Don’t go for folksy, old-time stylization, please. Go for character truth. The pastiche qualities in the writing will take care of the period for you, without any help.

This is a score calling for deeply felt, full-throated performances. Every night. And it’s a long show. Your performers, your rehearsal pianist, your orchestra need top be nearly tireless.

Your Musical Director will need to be an excellent musician, and be conversant with all sorts of musical styles of the early 1900s. These can be researched. But the M.D. must also really get Musical Theater, how songs relate to the book, how they contribute to a character and to a moment in a story. You’ll be expected to think, as the composer clearly did, like a Musical Dramatist. Everything contributes to the drama, to the developing story and characters, every word and note.

This is a job for only the most experienced Musical Directors, the finest musicians. Don’t consider this show if you haven’t someone to work with of that quality.

Colehouse Walker – Baritone with a full, rolling, lyrical, romantic bottom register, soaring belt and upper register, capable of profound emotional expression. A voice that can fill a theater with passion, anger, and then back into the sweetest expression of love.

Mother – An alto with a good mid-register belt. A wonderful voice, warm, trained and supple, and with depths of power as needed. As is true of many parts here, must be able to express deep emotion.

Tateh – A tenor with a strong European Jewish accent. A dear, charming voice, endearing and character-driven, but with strength and range. Capable of singing with joy and energy, as well. Able to handle a patter verse well.

Sarah – Alto with great emotional depth, real power up the middle of her range, and strong high notes.

Younger Brother – Lyric baritone, a youthful, enthusiastic voice filled with yearning and dreams, and righteous anger when called for.

Father – Baritone. A clean, strong instrument.

Evelyn Nesbitt – Soprano with a character-driven (knowing “bimbo”) voice.

Emma Goldman – Alto, good belt.

Harry Houdini – Tenor, sings with strong Euro accent.

Little Boy – Tenor, needs a good belt.

Grandfather – Baritone.

Henry Ford – Baritone, good with patter verse-like material.

Willie Conklin – Tenor.

Admiral Perry – Baritone.

J.P. Morgan – Baritone.

Booker T. Washington – Baritone.

Ensemble – Trained, Broadway-type voices with strong belts, good ability to harmonize.


Not a dance show, by any means. But it’s a huge amount of music, and some pieces need musical staging. The movement should be simple, as the vocal demands are extreme. Characters are presented, and presented sometimes in action. The call for “dance” as such would be minimal. What there is should be in period, and never draw attention to itself.

Also, transitions between numbers are sometimes danced by a soloist or two, indicating the group coming on, the new mood, and filling useless blackouts covering set changes (of which there should be none) which are deadly to any production of any show. Do your best to bring the next actors on without delay, and these breaks can be staged with some (not much) choreography, where called for.

Another note - there is a tendency to stage using tableau in this show. (A technique made popular in many larger “epic” musicals of the last 40 years.) It can be effective when it looks “real”, a picture postcard revealing a time in history. But don’t let it be overused. A few moments. But movement is important to any show, and stationary actors singing in poses or facing square to the audience can get flat very fast.

A Choreographer may find they are involved in staging “Prologue: Ragtime”, “The Crime of the Century”, “A Shtetl iz Amereke”, “Gettin’ Ready Rag”, “Henry Ford”,”The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square”,”Justice”, “Coalhouse Demands”, “What a Game”, “Atlantic City”, “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.”, “Our Children”, “Harlem Nightclub”, “He Wanted to Say”, “Back to Before”, “Look What You’ve Done”, “Make Them Hear You”, “Epilogue: Ragtime / “Wheels of a Dream” (reprise)

The opening is a slow step, genteel piece demonstrating the laid back life of the White gentry in America at the turn of the century. It is relaxed, almost romantic, certainly nostalgic. Women with hats and parasols dance with men sure of their destiny. It is the calm before the storm. And then the “Negroes” march on, performing a more energetic, angrier set of steps, establishing their differences with the family we just saw. The stage divides up. Then, a third group enters center, immigrants humbled by their poverty, their unfamiliarity with America. And three distinct groups who will tell the tale are established, each with its own distinctive movement, its own cultural motif. And the wealthy then show up to comment, from on high (literally if it can be done on your stage). A sense of many forces at play is established, the stage is divided and subdivided, perhaps to the discomfort of the upper classes, to everyone. It grows more complex as Emma Goldman enters amongst the people (please, not isolated), to enthrall and incite. All of this should be played front. It is a parade of history given flesh, and faces. They unite to end the number to move as one, a photo from our collective past, haunting, suddenly given breath, moving together with small, careful steps, filling the stage. (The number gives me chills whenever I see it, even when done less than brilliantly.)

Coming out of this scene, I personally would not go to a blackout. Get your applause on the final pose, have everyone wander out as the family steps forward, Father with suitcase in hand, out of the group, and change the background to a dock, a ship of the day. (If it’s just a photo, that’s easy.) And move immediately in, playing the underscore meant to bridge the scenes if you must, but softly as underscore. Have Nesbett exit slowly so Younger Brother can get a look at her. This way, your action is nonstop. It’s a long show, I would look for ways to do this sort of thing constantly. Blackouts are a bit of death in a show like this one.

“The Crime Of The Century”, sung by a chorine on a swing, made suddenly famous (or infamous) by a murder committed over her affections, is a comic number meant to establish some historical context. The “crime of the century” would be considered a joke compared to what history has in store for the nation during the 20th Century. The actress is backed by numerously and similarly scantily-clad chorus members as she sings this upbeat number, fulfilling the ancient need in Musicals for a chorus of attractive women showing off their features. The movement should be out of 1900, and is at the same time a bit of a lampoon of Nesbitt’s trial. (Another tradition going back to Gilbert & Sullivan.) Boas would be workable here as the 1890s are just ending, and shrill squeals of pleasure are required for the actress doing this number. Keep it fun, keep the two-step light and easy.

Do not succumb to the instinct to choreograph “A Shtetl iz Amereke”. The people are literally right off the boat, behind a gate or in line, a freshly onto the street. Small moves by individuals indicating a new sense of openness, of freedom, may work. Awestruck glances up and about. But organized choreography implies, well, organization, and these people are disoriented. Move right into “Success”, without any real choreography. “Success” show the ebb and flow of the streets of NYC in 1900, but should not be choreographed. Insert Morgan and Houdini almost as wild cards, unexpected, surprises, history demanding attention.

“The Gettin’ Ready Rag” is a can use full-on tap, and any other up-beat dance typical of the period, and of the street and street-wise. But it should focus on getting Colehouse ready to woo – changing his clothes, getting his appearance together, perhaps a flower in his lapel, while being all flash and fun. We should like him immediately for his romantic instinct and hopeful outlook. A chance to do some real dance so long as it all stays focused on getting him ready.

“Henry Ford” represents life in a factory, the assembly line being created by the ensemble. It is all industry and kinetic motion. Build the assembly line choreographically, one worker at a time, growing ever more complex and perhaps dangerous. It should be a breathtaking number if staged creatively, a representation of the energy, the drive and creativity of the machine age at its birth. Sure, keep Ford there, approving, perhaps waving an arm now and then in direction. He is the orchestrator, the father of the assembly line, and hence the father of much of modern industry. But the line should be athletic, fascinating, a high-wire act using 10-15 bodies in ever more intricate and interesting mechanistic gestures, all working together. If you can build in the line genuflecting to Ford as they do their work, that would be wonderful. And it all must be able to speed up – as they all sing. (Please don’t have them “march.”) An artistic representation of a life truth – these people worked themselves to the bones. (But Ford payed better than anyone, he wanted his employees to be able to buy his cars and live decent lives. Complex man, Ford. He also supported the Nazis before WW II.)

“The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square” should be staged rather than choreographed. The crowd is whipped up, as if the son, by Goldman’s passion and words. (Even as he songs, we see her and the crowd continue, miming, and the crowd should become increasingly vociferous. Not handled with enough energy, enough passion, this will become silly looking.) But I think this one is mostly the Director’s to make work. The strike is staged, not choreographed, again.

“Gliding” is a waltz that should not be choreographed in any way. Staged as simply as possible, in fact.

At this point, the Model T is destroyed by a group of bigoted firemen. You can’t actually do that every night, it must be done representationally. Movement, yes, perhaps in slow-mo as they trash the car and roll it into a pond. But nothing literal. The movement used should be more brutal, hateful and suggestive than actual contact with the car.

“Justice” surrounds with Colehouse with injustice in the form of government functionaries and even Black civil rights leaders bent on more important abuses. He should feel hemmed in. You can stage this with a little kinetic movement, surround him, or treat it like a river passing him by, a river of people and injustice. Don’t go too crazy, or let it feel anything like dance, though. It’s a story point. (BUT do not let the end of Act I get too big on posing and inaction. Get some motion, something kinetic, going on up there. It is an angry time, and the bomb is about to explode. The audience must sense this so they will wish to come back for Act II.)

“Coalhouse Demands” involves people reading newspapers, a rather stationary concept. So it’s usually staged with various groups entering and exiting, reading and commenting. It’s not the most aggressive opening for an act. Do what you can to avoid dance, but do pile up the groups, keep it moving and staged, keep it fluid.

“What A Game” is very funny, and sort of useless to the story. It’s the first explosion of energy in Act II, a welcome comic relief. It does demonstrate just out of touch Father is, but we sort of know that already. It could be cut to trim the running time, but it is a welcome comic interlude. You can coordinate the movements of the fans in the stands without getting into anything resembling “dance,” and that will provide the number some needed structure. Stand, hands to heart, spit on cue, sit together on the same count, that sort of thing.

“Atlantic City” is a strut from the turn of the century, high-stepping, similar to the opening number. Avoid using the same steps, but the feel is similar. People should look like they are having fun, set free from the big city and out in the salty air. Clothing can be funny, here, by the way. A polite party atmosphere should predominate. This number can be open, embrace the stage, use dance. It can be (and should be) choreographed. It is a chance for the Choreographer to show off a bit, but in period. And remember, they’re being filmed, especially Houdini and Nesbitt, so have them ham it up without reality intruding, until we know they’re in a movie.

“Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.” is a patter verse, so don’t make the poor actor move too much. Still, it’s about “motion pictures”, and should have some movement to it. It is a celebration of the ability to create something, and to succeed. Tateh is an artist, and has found his way, and expresses true joy here. The others can b e moved to some extent – they do not need to stand still. But Tateh must remain the focus. When he calls “action”, remember they’re shooting the same film he was shooting during the last number, “Atlantic City”…but perhaps more perfectly…and perhaps sped up to get some real high kicks and laughs? Have fun with this – the second act needs the relief received in this early part of it. Whatever you do, though, don’t have the actors run in front of the camera and pointlessly flounce. The action being filmed should feel staged and directed.

The Choreographer for this show is truly going to have a hand everywhere. This is one of those rare shows that is so carefully integrated, it would be best if the Director and Choreographer are the same person – one with inexhaustible energy and a lot of time, as the show is long and requires a lot of staging…an argument for a separate Choreographer, I suppose.


A general note about casting – People in 1900 had a look (or numerous looks). They did not weigh as much, as a rule, as modern people do. This would certainly have been true of poor immigrants in 1900. Watch your casting in this regard, or your show will lack the hungry, lean, more exercised look of the period. I know this may sound a bit cruel, but way it is.

Colehouse Walker – 20s-40s. Bright, creative, deeply emotional. A handsome, imposing Black man who is driven to make something of his life. A fine musician with a love for the music of his day, “ragtime.” Alive with life and love, and then with hate and the drive for revenge. Fiery in love and despair, and in his determination for vengeance, but always with a certain nobility of spirit and carriage. Cast for voice, acting, type. A star.

Mother – Mid 30s- mid 40s. A deeply good person, moral and accepting far beyond the norm of her day. A fine mother, dedicated to family, but who longs for something more. Lovely enough for a film director to consider her, for Tateh to fall for her almost instantly. A truly wonderful human being who does not understand why others do as they do sometimes. As can be seen from her younger brother’s behavior as well, they had to have been raised in a highly idealistic family (unlike Father). The message – we are largely the result of our upbringing. Cast for voice, acting, type. A star.

Tateh – Late 20s-30s. Loveable, creative, bright, determined, utterly committed to his daughter, to those he loves. A European Jewish immigrant who has lost his wife, and who would do anything to keep his daughter safe. He is a man of great courage who has come to a foreign land without any wherewithal. A strong comic and dramatic actor required, who sings well and moves well. A star.

Sarah – 20s. Beautiful, lovely, but a young woman who gives up all-too-easily at first. She acquires a kind of courage as a wife and mother, she grows into it. Don’t let this role become a sort of cipher. She should have a life, desires, passions (for Colehouse, her son, the life she envisions with them). She grows from a waif to a determined mother and spouse who gives her life to that cause. Cast for voice, acting, type. Must be very strong.

Younger Brother – Mother’s younger brother, perhaps in his late 20s or so. Fresh-faced, interested in life, good-hearted, passionate with the fire of youthful enthusiasm. Driven to action by his own innate integrity, and the cruelty and injustice around him. Somehow, he’s learned how to blow things up. Cast for type, acting, voice. Must be strong.

Father – 40s-early 50s. A man out of step with new times, a bigot (a result of his up-bringing, as his father was). A self-made man, filled with pride, and the typical (and low) opinion of others, including his wife and sons, such men suffered from often at that time in history. Old-fashioned, stiff, stodgy, unbearably smug at times. Cast for type, acting, voice. Must be strong.

Evelyn Nesbitt – 20s, as pictured above. Manipulative, street-smart, sexy, cold in person. Cast for type, acting, voice, some movement.

Emma Goldman – 30s-40s. (As pictured above.) Jewish, a specific look, well known. Angry, Jewish, with a warm but relentless passion, an enormous heart. Cast for acting, type, voice. Must be strong.

Harry Houdini – 30s-40s. As pictured above. Short, powerfully built, suave, determined, ever the showman. The most famous magician in America’s history. Cast for type, acting, voice, some movement.

Little Boy – Plays 6-10. His mother’s son in appearance. A strong actor, likeable, abrupt, funny. Cast for acting, voice, type, some movement. Must be strong.

Little Girl – Tateh’s young daughter, around the age of Little Boy. Bright, serious, sincere, direct. Cast for acting, type.

Grandfather – Elderly, crotchety, bigoted (his upbringing) impatient, comic. Cast for acting, type, some voice.

Henry Ford – 30s-40s, as pictured above. A firebrand of sorts, a true believer in his system of business, enthused and devoted to it, it’s not put-on. Cast for voice, type, acting, some movement.

Willy Conklin – 30s-50s, an overweight small-minded pig of a man, a bigot whose cruelty (he is a coward who only takes advantage of others when he has numbers to his advantage) causes the story to blow up. Cast for acting, type. Be best if it was played by a skilled actor.

Admiral Perry – 40s-60s, an old seaman and explorer, famed. (See photo above.) Cast for type, acting.

J.P. Morgan – 40s-50s, the richest man on earth, as pictured above. Cast for type, acting, some voice.

Booker T. Washington – 40s-50s, the famed historic personage. In his scene with Colehouse in Act II, they represent the same dichotomy essentially that Martin Luther King (Washington) and Malcolm X (Colehouse) represented, peaceful resistance verses violence as resistance. Beware playing him too stiff, he was a fine speaker and a passionate and educated man. Capable of expressions of despair and anger. Cast for acting, type, some voice.

Ensemble – All must sing very well, harmonize excellently. They sing a lot. Faces and bodies appropriate to the period. You’ll need people who move well enough, and some dancers. Must cast multiracial to cover all the roles.


Generally played on a sort of unit set, but with many fly-in sets and cutaways. I believe it could largely be played on an open stage, without many of the “effects” that blessed the original Broadway production. Will it lose some of its power with that approach? Not much – the writing is too fine. And this show will work with multi-media. Photography was long established by the turn of the century, and film was well on its way. A screen is often used at the back, and on it, you might represent (in photographs and also in computer-generated images) every location needed in the show. Then, you can have actors carry in chairs, tables, what have you. Perhaps a few things could be flown in as partial sets, if you felt that three dimensional representation was needed for a certain location. But this could be kept very minimal, and would vastly cut down the cost of production. I recently saw this done, and thought it was sufficient and effective. That said, the screen should be somehow surrounded by a general environ representing 1900 for Act I, 1906 for Act II. There might be walls, a few doors, somehow representative of the period (gas lights, etc). Perhaps those can be turned for Act II, to give another impression.

When Goldman talks, she’s on a soap box of sorts, or at a dais. Houdini is on a stage, and thjat’s pretty easy if you isolate him in light. Nesbitt is often placed on a large, flowery swing suspended and lowered from the rafters, something to plan ahead for.

If you go full sets, then really, not much I can say here will help. You’ll be building a lot of flats, staircases, cut-aways. I loved the way the house on the hill was represented in the original production. You may want to take a look at how they designed that show. Rent what you can, but plan on a lot of building.

Colehouse needs a period upright piano, he plays. And a Model T that can move on and off on its own, or on a riser of some sort. (The family also needs an upright, and it can be the same, perhaps with a lace thing atop it when at the family’s home.)

This is no job for a novice!


Easily researched, but must be done well. There’s the upper middle class American family.

American Blacks from the cities.

Immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia.

There is even film from the period you can use to investigate styles. Remember, your leads sing a lot, and must be able to breathe. And get the shoes right.

Much of this may be able to be found in closets and thrift stores, particularly for the immigrants. The middle class Americans, famous personages and such, as well as Black Americans, will probably need to be either rented and adjusted for your actors, or built. A huge job for an experienced costumer.


Guns. The explosives at the end. Flowers from Colehouse to Sarah. Banners and flags for the people greeting the President. Fliers for Goldman’s people to hand out. There will be more, it’s a huge show. Everything we see must speak of the period. Start early, work closely with your Director. A job for an experienced Prop Master.


A fantastically rich assignment. Moods abound. Direction must be directed and diverted through almost the entire show, using lighting if sets are to be simple. You must be able to isolate singers without follow spots, which are inappropriate except in “The Crime Of The Century” number, as Nesbitt is “on stage.”

You’ll need to suggest various locations. The interior of a fine, warm house at the turn of the century. The street corner where Goldman rails. Train stations and Ellis Island. The streets of NYC. Atlantic City’s boardwalk. The show moves rapidly through dozens of locations, and lighting (and lighting effects) should contribute to our understanding of where we are. Work very closely with your Director, and provide as versatile a plot as possible.

A massive job for an experienced Lighting Designer only.


Unobtrusive. Nesbitt can be overly made-up, with ridiculous wigs. The women may all need wigs. That may we’ll be your biggest assignment. This is a large show, no way to start a novice.

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):

Director, Musical Director, Choreographer, Set Designer, Costume Designer, Lighting Designer, Colehouse, Mother, Tateh, Sarah, Father, Younger Brother, Little Boy

If you put a gun to my head and forced me to pick my favorite show (outside of shows I have written, of course) since the mid -1980s, after I wept and prayed and begged for a while, I would choose Ragtime. It is magnificent. It is a testament to how high our lovely art can soar, a deeply moving, ravishingly beautiful, inexhaustibly creative event of a show. I forced 60 of my students to see the show in Los Angeles. None complained (to my face).

This is a show that should, I suppose, be deeply respected. But I love it. I freely wept each time I saw it. It is just too wonderful for words here to describe. If McNally, Flaherty and Aherns live in NYC, then I am bowing to the East as you read, and for religious reasons. This show was, for me, a religious experience, as was the first time I saw The Fantasticks in NYC, Fiddler On The Roof on Broadway with Alfred Molina, Rent in London, Man Of La Mancha in a local pro theater when I was a kid, or when I first heard the cast album of Berlin To Broadway With Kurt Weill accidentally while flipping through radio stations as a teen and song after song stole my breath away, or heard the recording of Rise Stevens doing Lady In The Dark, or first saw the film My Fair Lady and fell madly in love with both Audrey Hepburn and Alan J. Lerner.

As Pseudolus in A Fgunny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum proclaims to the audience, “the theater is a temple.” Exactly.

In the Musical Theater, it does not get better than such moments as one’s first visit to Ragtime. Shows like this one are the goal for most good writers of Musical Theater – a very well-written, beautiful, powerful, entertaining work of art that seamlessly twines every element of theater and music into a tidal wave that cannot be resisted. If you can watch a good production of this show unmoved, well, chances are you passed away five minutes ago. And good riddence.

Yet Ragtime stands in grave shadows as a show, perceived to be too large and complex for almost anyone to do it well. I notice that there are several High Schools who have scheduled it in the coming year, and I commend them for the size of their eyes in relation to their tiny stomachs. They can “do” the show – anyone can do any show. But not well. I am told on the MTI site that there is a scaled down, re-imagined version. I’d be interested in looking at it, to see if it’s worthy. But I can’t imagine it is anything but a degrade from the original in all its glory. Still, this is a show that must survive, and not in a time capsule. If it survives in reduced form, without loss of its genius and power, then so be it, and I’ll be found in the orchestra seats.

And for heaven’s sake, if you can do this show, stop reading and look into the rights. There’s no time to waste!

The other hope for this show is stars. The show is a dream for the lead actors, roles of grand and deep emotion, and gorgeous songs. Colehouse, Mother, Tatah and Sarah are unforgettable once seen. Actors should kill (literally, an alert for Forest Lawn) to play these roles. And perhaps, as is the case with film today, big stars will be able to demand and help make productions of Ragtime happen.

See, I don’t really care how the show happens, so long as it does happen. I’ve said my piece. What are you going to do about it?