Sunday, November 22, 2009

Giving the nation a new syncopation...

Ragtime is back on Broadway. Run, do not walk to go see it! I will disclose a bit of personal bias: As a former Kennedy Center staffer I'm more than a bit proud to see the JFKCPA transfer one of its productions to the Great White Way. And even prouder to see DC-theater stalwarts like Tracy Lynn Olivera and Donna Migliaccio get a moment in the sun in NYC. The production has gotten even tighter since its run at the Kennedy Center earlier this's hoping for a sackful of Tonys.

I won't rehearse the plot here or offer too much of an analysis of the story, because you should really see it for yourself. And to let you in on the story ahead of time would take away one of the most magical elements of the show--that despite a cast of what seems like thousands and multiple intertwining plot strands, you never get confused by what's going on. [Nothing that follows is a spoiler per se, but if you want to be extra careful you might skip to the next paragraph now.] And this is in a show that includes, among other things: a couple of trips to the Arctic, an outing to a baseball game, and appearances by erstwhile HNIC Booker T. Washington, rolling-over-in-his-grave-over-TARP J. P. Morgan, and the unstoppable labor crusader Emma Goldman. Oh, and there's also a rags-to-riches immigrant success story, a troubled romance between a young woman and a famous Ragtime pianist--complete with a love child, and some nasty Irish firefighters. And Harry Houdini! And that's leaving out a lot...

Many people read the show's conclusion in a straightforward manner, in which all of the complicated strands of the plot seem to resolve in a satisfying multicultural tableau. America has succeeded...melting pot (or salad bowl, or gumbo...) accomplished. But to take the ending at face value is to miss the larger point of the show. In fact, what's so great about Ragtime is the way it troubles the easy teleologies we get taught in American history classes. The story of this country is not the story of battles and generals and's the story of a bunch of people from a lot of very different places ending up (many against their will) in a place that was never theirs to begin with and very messily going about, for better or worse, building an economic, political and cultural superpower.

We will never know the names of most of the people who made American history happen. In this respect, the show exerts a bit of historical payback--whereas the black and (Jewish) immigrant characters all have names, the wealthy white residents of New Rochelle float about as archetypes--Mother, Father, Younger Brother. Their attempt to hide behind some universal subjectivity appears at first charming, but ultimately kind of sad, since you quickly find out how complicated their lives are as well...they may as well have first names too, since their anonymity doesn't stop them from getting swept up in the great sweep of history along with the rest of the characters.

Ragtime does have a more or less happy ending (it's a musical through and through), but there are enough bumps along the way such that you ought to leave the theater a bit troubled. Yes you will probably be smiling, but there ought to be a few tears not completely dry. And as unemployment and foreclosure stats attest, there are still a lot of tears staining the smiling face of the USA. Ragtime could not have returned at a more opportune time.