When Ragtime comes to the TUTS stage this month, theatergoers might feel like they’re looking in a mirror. Sure, the story takes place at the turn of the last century, but the themes of the musical, which sprawls across decades, will likely feel incredibly contemporary. Immigrants fighting for a new life. Minorities fighting to overcome prejudice. An established upperclass fighting to hold onto its place. In short, this is a show that pierces straight to the heart of what this nation we call home really is.
The intertwining story of three families, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty, Ragtime first premiered in Toronto in 1996, and moved to Broadway in January 1998. It would go on to be nominated for 13 Tony Awards, winning four. (The 2009 Broadway revival, which began its life at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., would be nominated for six).
“When I directed the show 10 years ago, there was such a different feeling [in the country],” says Marcia Milgrom Dodge, who was nominated for a Tony for her direction of the revival and is directing the TUTS production. “There was this feeling of ‘anything is possible.’ It was Obama’s first term in the White House, we were embracing immigrants and their desire for a better life. Today, the show feels electric for different reasons. There is a much brighter spotlight on the immigrant story—both in the national conversation and in the show. This is a hell of a story to be telling now.”
Robert Petkoff, who played Jewish immigrant Tateh in the 2009 revival and will reprise the role here in Houston, agrees.
“At the heart of our notion of America is that new people arrive and have an opportunity to succeed,” Petkoff says. “That’s how it was for my grandfather [an immigrant from Bulgaria]. So, the show resonates with me.”
As the characters in Ragtime progress through the story, audiences will find the familiar themes of love and loss and sacrifice. Both Dodge and Petkoff noted that the piece has a realism to it; it’s not a happy-go-lucky musical.
“There’s not always a lot of deep examination of things in the musical landscape,” Dodge says. “Ragtime isn’t a ‘come on, it’s fun!’ kind of show. But, something that was amazing when we did the revival was that people left feeling uplifted and changed, that they had had this great experience together.”
She says she thinks that Houston’s audiences are likely to feel the same way, especially given the city’s diverse population and its welcoming-to-all-outsiders ethos.
But for all its deep themes, Ragtime isn’t a ponderous, plodding piece of theater. Dodge’s approach to the musical—indeed, her approach to much of theater she’s directed—is to offer an almost bare bones look at the action. Given the production's themes of what home means, her production has, at its heart, the shell of home. There are staircases that come in and out, her nod to the idea that people move up and down in search of their dreams and throughout their lives. That kind of minimalism, she believes, will cast the story into larger relief.
“And then, well, there’s that music,” says Petkoff. “It’s just incredible. You have these gorgeous melodies, ‘Back to Before’ and ‘Wheels of a Dream’ that just emotionally get you. This is a story that doesn’t get old.”
April 16–28. Tickets from $30. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. 713-558-2600. More info and tickets at tuts.com.