An early look at the Ragtime revival

After nine years, the landmark show is back-and the songwriting team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty think the timing couldn't be more perfect.

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A country growing and changing at the dawn of a new century confronts race, immigration and a technological revolution. We’re not talking about the U.S. today, but a hundred years ago, as it’s depicted in the spectacular musical Ragtime, based on E.L Doctorow’s novel. More than a decade after its premiere, the show returns to Broadway this fall, following a successful run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Songwriters Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music)—who won the Tony for Best Original Score back in 1998—compare then with now.

Does the show seem timelier now than it did in 1998?
Lynn Ahrens: Much timelier in a certain way. There was something very resonant about playing the show in our nation’s capital with President Obama in the White House. We hadn’t changed a word or a note since the premiere, but the times have changed around the show. It’s set at the beginning of the last century, in this time of terrific flux. Here we are at the beginning of this century, and it’s still a time of tremendous change. All the same issues that are in the show are on our front page: immigration and race and talk of change and clashes between rich and poor. It just feels as if it’s landing in its element.

How does this revival compare with the original?
Stephen Flaherty: This production actually focuses on the individual, intimate stories probably more than the original did. There’s something less literal about the visual storytelling. There’s no real Model T [onstage], there’s no real piano. There’s a lot suggested, but it’s suggested by the text and the score.

Would you say the revival is an improvement over the original?
Ahrens: I wouldn’t want to say that.
Flaherty: The thing that’s great about theater is that it’s never fixed in time. This is a new cast, and these actors and singers are extraordinary. They bring out totally new sides to the piece which we haven’t seen. It’s a chance to see the piece fresh again.

How do you think the show will play at the Neil Simon Theatre, which is nearly 400 seats smaller than the Ford Center was?
Ahrens: [The Neil Simon] feels of the period; that’s what’s beautiful about it. It’s not as elegant, fancy, shiny and new as the Ford Center was, but it really feels like there are ghosts of this show already in it.
Flaherty: It’s something for me as a composer to know that this particular theater housed the premiere of Porgy and Bess. There are a lot of ghosts there, but they’re friendly ghosts, and I feel that I’m connected to a piece of New York City history.
Ahrens: I think that part of the problem perhaps in our first incarnation was physical space. [New Yorker theater critic] John Lahr said that the first time he saw the show he was so overwhelmed by the physical production that he couldn’t focus on what they were saying. It was the moment that crystallized for me the thought that the score and the storytelling, [book writer] Terrence McNally’s work, that’s what the show is about. It’s this very dense, beautifully, clearly told story.

What about this production excites you the most?
Flaherty: The show’s about a group of people on the cusp of possibility—and I feel that’s what New York City is feeling right now. I can’t wait to see this particular city interface with this particular show and see what the dialogue is.

What do you think about original producer Garth Drabinsky’s recent fraud conviction?
Ahrens: I’m just so sad about it. It’s the fall of a king. He was a brilliant, passionate, extraordinary producer. His drive and his taste and his own personality were poured into the show and into us.
Flaherty: He’s maybe the most passionate and controversial figure that I’ve ever worked with, and he actively challenged you every moment of the way. There’s something about his love of this piece that infused it. A lot of the working days were maddening, but the result was an absolutely thrilling score and an exciting show. For that there is a debt of gratitude.
Ahrens: It’s very bittersweet and ironic that the show is returning to Broadway just at this point in his own life. We will think of him on opening night. There’s no question.

See all of our Broadway fall preview

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