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Ragtime Dramaturgy -- "THE WHEELS OF A DREAM"

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By Harry Bleattler, Ph.D.

Ragtime, the epic musical based on E. L. Doctorow's classic novel, is a powerful look at America at the turn of the 20th century. The Tony Award-winning score draws on the music of the period in an emotional and vibrant blend of vaudeville, ragtime, jazz, and Jewish folk songs. With music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and a book by Terrance McNally (based on Doctorow's novel), Ragtime is a paean to the differences and commonalities of the diverse people groups that were and still are a part of the American experience.

Set between 1906 and 1914, the musical, like the book, introduces us to three very different American families: upper middle class white, socialist immigrant Jewish and Harlem black. The intertwining saga of these three families is the heart of Ragtime as it sets out to portray the desires and hopes, the wealth and poverty as well as the freedom and prejudice that were and still are a part of the American experience. Interwoven through this rich narrative are real-life characters of the era such as Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, and Evelyn Nesbit, among others.

The story begins with Father and Mother and their pampered existence in New Rochelle, NY. Father's wealth allows him to be a part-time explorer as he accompanies Admiral Peary to the North Pole. While away, Mother, digging in her garden, discovers a new born Negro child that has been abandoned by his heart-broken mother, Sarah. Mother determines to take in the black mother and child in order to stave off Sarah's arrest for attempted murder. It isn't long before the father of the child, Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr., shows up at the New Rochelle home looking for Sarah and their child. It is then that Mother is introduced to the beautiful and passionate music of ragtime.

Sarah and Coalhouse are reunited and Father returns from his journey to find a very different household, one that sees Mother stretching and growing, and yearning for her own personal freedom. As Sarah and Coalhouse begin their new lives together, we are introduced to Tateh, the Latvian Jewish immigrant whose dreams of a fresh start in America for himself and his little girl are being consumed by the inhumane practices of the industrial revolution.

After a terrible act of racism is committed against Coalhouse and Sarah, Coalhouse vows revenge which leads to tragic consequences as his beloved Sarah is killed. Coalhouse, demanding justice, becomes a fugitive from the law. Mother and Father are drawn into this very public crisis and see their peaceful existence shattered. Tateh, however, has managed to find his niche in the business world and begins his pursuit of the American dream of wealth and respectability.

In the end, all three families are forever changed by the triumphs and tragedies they experienced. As the curtain falls, we are both shaken by the turn of events that have unfolded before us, and hopeful for a better and more equitable future for all Americans regardless of race, religion, or social status. Indeed, the promise of America is always there for those who would "ride on the wheels of a dream."

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Page updated: 08/09/13

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