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Journey On: The Making of an American Classic

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By Harry Bleattler, Ph.D.

The journey of Ragtime from page to stage was a tumultuous one. It is a story of a lavish, epic musical with brilliant lyrics and music the likes of which had not been seen on Broadway in decades. And much like the narrative of the book on which it was based, the fortunes of Ragtime were intertwined with three sub-narratives: the rise and fall of theatrical impresario Garth Drabinsky, the dissolution of theatrical production giant Livent, Inc., and its rivalry with Disney’s The Lion King for the coveted Best Musical Tony Award.

The material on which it would be based, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, suggested success. First published in 1975 and winner of the first National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, Ragtime became an instant classic, going on to sell more than seven million copies worldwide and published in over 30 different languages. The fictional story of three turn-of-the-century families and their interaction with each other and with real historical figures and events instantly captured the imagination of the reading public. Today, the work is standard reading for American literature and American studies courses on the college campus.

When Garth Drabinsky, Chairman and CEO of Livent (short for “live entertainment”), Inc., the Toronto-based Canadian theatrical production company, approached Doctorow about turning the book into a musical, Doctorow was initially reticent as he thought of musicals as full of stock sentiments and unable to convey fully the complex social, economic and political significance of his book. But he also realized that he had occasionally read passages from Ragtime to musical accompaniment; the work itself seemed to have a natural rhythm and musicality about it. Ultimately, he decided to take the risk despite having seen his work fail earlier in another medium, film, in the poorly-received 1981 movie version directed by Milos Foreman.

Careful to find the right creative team to nurture this story to stage, Drabinsky asked seven established and not-so-established writers of musical theater to propose four songs for the show and submit them as an audition. In October of 1994, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, writers of recent Broadway shows Once on this Island and My Favorite Year, were given the job. Terrance McNally, the Tony-winning playwright, was brought in to write the book, Graciela Danielle was hired to choreograph and recent Tony winner for The Grapes of Wrath, Frank Galati to direct. After two years of workshops, Ragtime premiered in Toronto in December 1996 and then played Los Angeles before opening as the inaugural production of the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts, a Livent-built theater conceived as part of the42nd Street redevelopment plan, located just off of Times Square in New York City.

That year’s Tony race for Best Musical came down to two shows: Ragtime and Disney’s The Lion King. While the Tony for Best Score went to Flaherty and Ahrens and Best Book to McNally, the award for Best Musical went to The Lion King. Theater critics and longtime insiders saw this as an upset. In addition, the top acting honors that year went to the leads in the revival of Cabaret, further limiting the show’s Tony Award count and ultimately its box office clout. The show’s timing was off by a year--had it opened a year earlier or later it would have easily beaten those eventual winners for Best Musical. Despite this loss, many felt that Ragtime would settle in for a long and financially-secure run. This was not to be. Within two years of its opening, Ragtime’s producers and parent production company would run afoul of the law. Garth Drabinsky had built Livent Inc. into one of the world’s most powerful theatrical companies. Founded in 1990, it owned six theaters, a number of Broadway-produced shows including the Tony Award-winning Kiss of the Spider Woman, and was the only theatrical company listed on the American NASDAQ. The future of Livent appeared to be limitless. By 1998, however, Livent filed for bankruptcy protection. Plagued by charges of accounting irregularities, on January 19, 1999, Garth Drabinsky and one of his partners were charged with 16 criminal counts of conspiracy, securities fraud and making false statements. In the words of SEC Enforcement Director Richard Walker, “Simply put, Livent cooked the books.” Ragtime, according to insiders, was paying Livent’s bills. Shortly thereafter, in an ironic twist, the last Livent production produced under Drabinsky’s oversight, Fosse, won several Tony Awards including Best Musical in June 1999, bringing the company’s total to 19. Six months later, Ragtime closed on January 16, 2000, after a respectable run of 861 performances. Not having the imprimatur of “Best Musical” from the Tony Awards, in addition to the tremendous weekly operating cost of the lavish spectacle with its enormous cast, led to its early shuttering.

While The Lion King has been the far more successful show, Ragtime is viewed as the more formidable and complete piece of theater. Indeed, it is now seen as one of the great American musicals of the last 25 years and part of the grand tradition of American musicals that includes Showboat and Oklahoma!: biographical musicals of the American people and their values. While critics of the original production described it as perhaps overproduced, the heart of the show, its narrative told through words and music, is now an American classic.

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Page updated: 08/09/13

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