Monday, 17 September 2012

Music theatre Mondays: The people called it ragtime

15627 / 50000 words. 31% done!

I have a weird sort of fascination with mediocre creative products. You can see it in my Goodreads reviews- when I like a book I'll leave a few lines of "yeah, I really enjoyed this," but if the book is bad- or has good points that unfortunately don't outweigh the bad ones, then I'll spend several paragraph citing examples and explaining why the book didn't work for me. I love reviews like that- both of my own work and of others'. "I liked it" or "I hated it" don't elucidate much about why the consumer liked or disliked; detailed reviews help readers understand whether or not they'll enjoy a product, and creators understand what did and didn't work in their creative process.

Which brings me to Ragtime.

Ragtime is based on a 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, which was also adapted into a movie in 1981, starring a young Samuel Jackson. It's a sort of modern-day Les Miserables, with the cast of thousands and the political backdrop. There are three families, none of whom (with the exception of Coalhouse Walker and his girlfriend Sarah) have names- they're just called Mother, Father, Tateh (which means "father") etc, because this is a Serious Allegorical Novel that Needs No Names. The book was adapted into a musical in 1998, and won multiple Tony Awards. It's playing now at the Shaw Festival, which is where I saw it. Upon seeing it, I came to the following conclusions:

  1. The music is great! 
  2. The script is terrible.
I can see very well where the problems came from- the book is a panorama of 1910s New York, much in the way that Les Miz covers a vast scope of French society of the 1800s. The problem is, the musical bites off far more than it can chew. It wants to tell a story about every single one of its characters and, in the alotted two and a half hour running time, manages to tell none of them. It wants to make a statement about American culture and the American Dream, but ultimately says nothing because they haven't had time to build to any kind of thematic conclusion. They stuff the stage with cameos from various historical figures- here's Henry Ford! Here's Evelyn Nesbit! Here's Emma Goldman!- but none of them have any real, long-lasting impact on the plot. With the possible exception of Booker T. Washington, who actually influences one of the characters' decisions, absolutely none of these people need to be here. They definitely don't need to have their own songs, which they all do. (Ironically enough, I think Washington is the only major figure without a song.) Some of this, from what I understand, is  a holdover from the novel- where Nesbit had a subplot involving Tateh's daughter (who also doesn't get a name)- but the fact is, she serves no purpose other than the Younger Brother character crushing on her and then throwing an entitled rich boy temper tantrum when she won't love him back. This character is possibly one of the most eminently punchable I've ever seen in musical theatre, second only to Roger Davis. (Oh believe me, I'll get to him one of these days.) "I'm rich! My sister's husband gave me a job! But Evelyn Nesbit won't love me! My life is empty and without meaning! Wahhh!"

The face of First World Problems

I find most of the rich family offputting for exactly this reason- they don't need to be here. It's amazing how much they don't need to be here. Their only purpose is to walk in and become the White Saviour characters for the audience to sympathize and identiy with, despite the fact that nothing in their background indicates that they would be this compassionate and non-racist. They exist to make the audience feel better about their grandpa who still cracks racist jokes. It's as simple as that. And considering how little connection these characters have to each other in general, we don't even need them around to tie everything together, because they just emphasize how little sense this story makes. Coalhouse comes off as massively selfish, since he abandons his son to become a terrorist; poor Sarah gets virtually no characterization before being stuffed in the fridge; Tateh bobs in and out of the story, undergoing massive development offstage; and the various historical figures, as I've said, have nothing to do with anything. So if the musical is so terrible, why am I so fascinated by it?

Well, I love the subject matter. Immigrant history fascinates me, especially urban immigrant history, especially in this time period. And for all that the musical fails so epically at tying their themes together, I do at least respect them for making the effort. It's not like I can't appreciate panorama stories; Gangs of New York is one of my favourite movies, and for similar reasons. But Ragtime is a musical, not a movie; it doesn't have the advantage of gorgeous cinematography and period detail to capture the audience. So what does it have?

Well . . . the music is amazing. Really, truly amazing. I have a good chunk of the soundtrack on my iPod, and  I listen to it regularily. For all that the historical figures don't need to be in the show, they have some of the best numbers. I could happily play "Crime of the Century" or "Henry Ford" or "The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square" for hours. "Wheels of a Dream" is beautiful and heartbreaking. The Prologue is breathtaking, even if it does take TEN MINUTES to introduce everyone. I challenge you to listen to this and not want to jump out of your seat and dance. (Although: what's up with the choreography? You've got this big showstopping number, and you . . . have the actors stand in a circle and stomp their feet? Come on, guys.)

But most of all, I think I really just respect the authors for trying. Did they succeed? No, not in my opinion. But I have a lot of respect for people who are willing to make the effort to shine a light on some little-known parts of history. Even if it does mean watching John Hinckley up there whine about how he can't get in Evelyn Nesbit's drawers.

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