It’s difficult to imagine today’s iTune-driven masses uniting under the banner of one musical style, but for turn-of-the-20th-century Americans, ragtime was the universal soundtrack to a rapidly changing world. So it’s fitting that the musical “Ragtime,” based on E.L. Doctorow’s award-winning 1975 novel of the same name, explores the unifying struggles and triumphs of three distinct social groups in the midst of technological advances, immigration issues, women’s rights, and racial tension. The 2009 Broadway revival of “Ragtime” won seven Tony awards, but the show is rarely produced. Emerson Umbrella Center for the Arts in Concord, however, has risen to the challenge of bringing this musically complex giant of a show to New England theatergoers.
Blast got the inside scoop on “Ragtime,” from director/choreographer, Julia Fiske.
BLAST: I had the pleasure of hearing most of the cast sing on the radio show Standing Room Only on March 20—the music really is beautiful, and the cast sounded great.
JULIA FISKE: Thank you! That was fun. It was strange to do that with just the piano, though: we have a 20 piece orchestra—the show is so much about the music—so it felt odd to perform it that way.
BLAST: I guess anything on a small scale doesn’t really capture such a grand show. Can you characterize “Ragtime” in one breath?
JF: It is pretty epic musical that spans about a decade’s worth of time, and it focuses on three distinct ethnic groups living in turn-of-the-century America. We have a cast of Eastern European immigrants living in tenements in New York City, upper-class white people living in New Rochelle, and black people living in Harlem. All three of those groups have their principal characters, and those principals’ lives all intertwine, bump up against each other and explode toward the end. It’s basically a hymn to America in that time period.
BLAST: How does “Ragtime” fit into Emerson Umbrella’s programming and overall goals?
JF: We are fairly new in terms of our performing arts series; we’re only in our third season, and this is definitely the biggest show we’ve done so far. Up until now, we were primarily a visual arts center. But we have this theater, so we decided to start a performing arts series, looking to do shows that are not typically done in Boston. There are a lot of theaters in the area and we wanted to find our niche. “Ragtime” is not done very often, for various reasons. It’s a very difficult show to put on. Casting-wise it’s just a huge show, there are over 40 people in the cast. But it’s something we felt is relevant to today. It deals with racism, hate crimes, women’s issues, immigration issues, and other topics that are still prevalent in society, in different ways, but still there. We felt like it was an important story to tell, as well as a beautiful show.
BLAST: What was your experience in directing it?
JF: It was a little overwhelming at times! But I had a lot of help: I had two assistant directors and an assistant choreographer, and a great production team. It is definitely the biggest show I’ve ever directed. But we have an amazing cast, and they all came to every rehearsal prepared and respectful and made the process in a lot of ways very easy for me. I remember the first time we saw everybody up onstage for the big opening number—40 people onstage, all singing at the top of their lungs—it’s a stunning experience.
BLAST: Do you have a favorite storyline in the show?
JF: I’d get in trouble with my cast members if I said I had a favorite! I think my favorite moment is in the very end. I don’t want to give it away, but the end ties itself up neatly—and unexpectedly—in the iconic American dream coming into its own.
BLAST: One of your actors, Adam Sell, is creating a video series of short “Stories of Ragtime,” which features the emotional and sentimental connections many of the cast members have with this production, and will be featured on Emerson Umbrella’s Facebook page. How are you personally drawn to the story?
JF: I saw the original production on Broadway and loved it, and thought it was an important musical. But for some reason, both times it was on Broadway, it didn’t last anywhere near as long as it should have. That’s always baffled me because it’s such a beautiful story and such a beautiful piece of music. It has well-written songs and a powerful, emotional story that, like I said, we feel is still incredibly relevant today. I wanted to do a show that sent a message to the audience and made them think. Hopefully audience members will leave the theater considering these issues, talking about them, and thinking about their existence in our society.
“Ragtime” plays April 1-2, April 8-9 and April 15-16 at 8:00 p.m. at Emerson Umbrella Center for the Arts in Concord, MA. Matinee performances will be at 2:00 p.m. on April 9 and 16.