‘Ragtime’ the musical is a period piece for the present period

Chris HewittPioneer Press

September 22, 2016

The musical drama “Ragtime” opened on Broadway 18 years ago, but it’s not much of a stretch to call it a show for the Black Lives Matter era.

Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, “Ragtime,” which Theater Latte Da opens Saturday night at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis, connects three stories in the years leading up to World War I: Latvian immigrant Tateh and his daughter try to make their way in America; a wealthy New York family (the youngest has the same first name as Doctorow, Edgar, but the others are known as Father, Mother, Younger Brother, etc.) faces choices that may rip it apart; and an African-American ragtime pianist named Coalhouse Walker embraces anarchy after he is sent over the edge by a series of tragedies.

It’s that last segment that makes “Ragtime” feel timely (or timeless, since you could say the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion was the first Black Lives Matter event, albeit with much different methods). Although “Ragtime” is fictional, protest is real today.

Set at a time of enormous change, “Ragtime” turns many real-world things into the stuff of musical drama, using music — something people of different ethnicities and classes share — as a metaphor for revolution. In fact, one song in the show, called “New Music,” promises that “the world is changing.”

Here are a few of the big changes signaled in “Ragtime”:

Flip book — Called “movie books” by Tateh (the show seems to credit him with inventing them, although they predate the character), they’re a forerunner of animated movies. When you quickly flip the pages of the book, silhouetted drawings on their edges appear to spring to life.

Rag — Doctorow’s book connects the characters to different meanings of the term. Tateh and his daughter come to America on a “rag ship,” an oceanliner bringing European immigrants to America (many of them to work in the rag trade, or clothing industry). Coalhouse plays rags on the piano. And Father’s business turns rags of fabric into American flags.

Ragtime  — A form of music that began to appear in the late 1800s. Scott Joplin, whom “Ragtime” indicates was a friend of the fictional Coalhouse, is its most famous composer and “Maple Leaf Rag” is probably his most famous song. Or it was, until Marvin Hamlisch used Joplin’s music in “The Sting” and made “The Entertainer” a hit. (A side note: “The Sting” is set in the mid-1930s, when Joplin’s music had dipped in popularity.)

Ragtime — Doctorow’s National Book Award-winning novel, inspired by his ancestors and turn-of-the-century history, was considered groundbreaking for incorporating real people such as Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington and Emma Goldman into its fictional universe. The book is substantially altered for the musical. Father, for instance, is a smaller character in the show than in the book, and Coalhouse, who doesn’t appear until the book is half over, is a much larger character.

Suburbs — New Rochelle, where much of “Ragtime” is set, was one of the first American suburbs, its growth made possible by commuter railroads and wide ownership of automobiles. One particular auto, Coalhouse Walker’s Model T, leads directly to the action of the musical and the Model T’s producer, Henry Ford, is a character in it.

World War I — No spoilers on the ending of “Ragtime,” but it encompasses both the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which helped touch off WWI, and the sinking of the Lusitania, which convinced the United States to enter the war that changed the face of the world.


What: “Ragtime”

When: Through Oct. 23

Where: Ritz Theater, 345 14th Ave. N.E., Mpls.

Tickets: $48-$35, 612-339-3003 or theaterlatteda.com