Director/choreographer Rachel Rockwell’s new production of
RAGTIME is playing at Drury Lane Theatre Oak Brook through May
23. Based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1974 novel about America at the turn of the last century, the musical
RAGTIME explores paradoxes of racism, capitalism and celebrity culture.
Note for film lovers: The musical RAGTIME (with score by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and a book by Terrance McNally) overlaps with Milos Forman’s 1981 film version of
RAGTIME, but is far more expansive in its coverage of feminist and immigrant themes. Click
HERE for a detailed “compare & contrast.”
Jan Lisa Huttner: Alissa Norby’s
wonderful interview with you for the ShowBiz Chicago website was part of my press kit, so I read it before calling. Tell me how you knew as a director that your biggest challenge was to combine the intimate and the epic.
Rachel Rockwell: In the course of one scene,
RAGTIME goes from teams of two people to 30 or more. So you can’t have something so cavernous that you can’t get intimate. There’s been a lot of talk about how grand and huge this production is. But when you break it apart, half of the time we’re sitting on stage either one person alone with maybe the boardwalk in the back, or a few family members are in the living room with a couch, piano and staircase.
So if our RAGTIME gives the illusion of being grand, then that’s great and mission accomplished. But the bottom line is this: If you don’t take away the immediacy and the stakes of the story, then you’ve missed the entire point of this play. It’s almost embarrassing how pertinent these issues are.
Jan: And how! I’d already seen two prior productions, but now that Obama is president, as resonant as
RAGTIME was before, it's just amazing now.
Rachel: As a nation, we should just go: “Really? We have all the technology in the world, and yet we cannot solve our own sociopolitical issues better than this?” We’re a hundred years later and we might as well be telling the same exact story.
Jan: I went back and read several of the articles and reviews relating to the recent Broadway revival in New York. I didn’t see that production, but I have to say there was that moment where I said to myself, “Thank God I live in Chicago!”
They had the same raw material in front of them, but NYT critic Ben Brantley said Broadway’s
RAGTIME: “…feels like an animated history
lesson, delivered by a liberal but square teacher…” How could he be so far off?
Rachel: The richness of this material is never-ending. You could continue to examine this over and over again and get something new out of it every single time.
But what changes about it isn’t the historical stuff—it’s the human angle. It’s the constant question of what makes a family, and how do women function in a society, and what does it mean to be a father and a man. And how big can your dreams be when history tells you that they can’t come true, that you can only go so far based on the fact that you’re an African American, or that you’re Jewish or that you’re Mexican?
Jan: I gasped at the audacity of your musical chairs game at the beginning, Rachel, showing “the American Dream” as a high stakes game in which there are losers as well as winners. And you do a wonderful job with the tragedy of Father’s arc, showing that Father isn’t a villain.
Rachel: Father’s lack of adaptability is so typical and tragic, and how must those white men feel? I mean they must go: “What is happening to the world around me?” Yeah, but it’s like: “Well then, get on the boat, boys, because the ship is leaving without you. Come on!”
Jan: When Father sings “Have I been away too long?” Well, yes, the answer is yes. Father thought everything would stay the same while he did his thing, but life’s just not that way.
Rachel: Yeah, let’s go back to before when we were happy. It’s like: “No, when
you were happy, Father.”
Jan: Did you have in your original conception to project video images on the back screen?
Rachel: It wasn’t there originally, but I don’t like theatrical drops. I think they’re kind of cheesy, and we needed to be able to switch the tone of this effortlessly. We pursued the images as a pipe dream because there’s no way to do rear projections at Drury Lane. Since the theater has no depth, we had to figure out if front projections were even going to be possible.
We contacted this great projections designer in New York—someone whom our lighting designer had worked with—and she assured me: “I can promise you that they will be elegant and organic.” And that was what got me, because I thought, “OK, this cannot look like technology.”
Using the projections, it has to seem like an artistic element that could be scenery, but it isn’t ‘haul and carry,’ and it’s not going to bog down the pace of this experience. Pace is everything with this play.
I did think about using the projections for Tateh’s flicker book; that was the one idea I had. But I didn’t think about carrying it all the way through as a statement, and then it kind of evolved into that.
Jan: It’s brilliant to bring the flicker book to life, because that’s the melding of Tateh’s technology and his aspirations. Watching that moment launched me into critic’s heaven!
Rachel: Oh good, that makes me really happy. The whole Tateh/little girl relationship resonates with me as a parent and as the daughter of a very devoted father. I identify with Tateh’s storyline almost more than Mother’s. Of course I identify with Mother, but Tateh’s storyline speaks the most strongly for me because of the struggle and the love and the never wanting his daughter to know a day of sadness. That’s how you feel as a parent.
Rachel: I’m not Jewish, but the part that Mark David Kaplan (who plays “Tateh”) and I really dug into was the immigrant’s goal at that time: just assimilation. It was prior to “embrace your culture” and be a separate entity and be cool with that. So in the very beginning, when the immigrants come out of the hole in the middle of the stage, they instantly disappear. That’s my nod to the fact that they were led to abandon everything they could culturally, just to blend in.
Jan: Whereas most African-Americans can’t “blend in,” because they’re always going to look black?
Jan: So the idea of projecting on the back screen evolved? Tiny things like the flicker book expand, huge things like the train contract, and all the while, you’re keeping the balance between intimate and epic with really simple sets?
Rachel: Definitely. And again, it’s all about changing the scenes quickly enough to preserve the emotional content of what came before. If you wait too long, or if you get too distracted by all the automation, then it just takes you away from
RAGTIME emotionally. There’s no fly house at Drury Lane—you cannot fly things from the air and disappear them. You would think they would have a fly house because they have an enormous proscenium. We had a huge issue with how to quickly change sets without using drops, but I just can’t use drops. It’s not my thing at all.
Jan: Using drops, that’s old-fashioned technology at this point?
Rachel: It is. It’s clunky, it isn’t slick, and it doesn’t allow for physical movement. As a choreographer, I’m always looking at ways to make the set changes and the transitions part of the overall movement of the play, so it never feels like we’re just stopping now just so that we can change locations and then we’ll get back to the intense storytelling.
Jan: The first time I saw
RAGTIME, I saw it as a “Broadway in Chicago” show—a huge production at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts at the Oriental Theatre. I remember being really thrilled by the opening number, but then it just died for me. It was too big, no intimate quality. Now, seeing your production, I understand: If you can’t feel the intimacy emotionally, then the music, as beautiful as it is…
Rachel: Just becomes really anthemic! You stop being able to ebb and flow the music like you ebb and flow the scenes.
Jan: ”Ebb and flow,” ah, yes, your background is dance?
Rachel: I was an actor, and I danced for years and years, but it’s been a while. I haven’t really performed much since my son was born five years ago. I decided that I needed to do something else.
Jan: Well, I could talk all day about your staging of
RAGTIME, so as far as I’m concerned, you’re making really good choices!
One last question: I never noticed before how the music loops. There’s an almost Wagnerian set of leitmotifs, musical themes that keep circling back in new contexts. Did you deliberately
emphasize this aspect in your direction?
Rachel: I’ve always been a huge fan of Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics and Stephen Flaherty’s music. I love their work; I think their stuff is amazing. So, for example, in our production, there's a new version of “He Wanted To Say” in the second act.
Jan: That’s one of Emma Goldman’s songs, right?
Rachel: Yes, because it takes a woman and an earth mother to sing it. The composers had actually cut out the homage back to “Journey On”:
“Two men finding for a moment in the darkness they're the same.”
We put it back in. We spoke to Stephen Flaherty about it. I just thought, first of all, it's one of the most soaring melodies in the entire play. And I thought: we can't lose this. It's too important!
And when Coalhouse echoes Sarah's words: “the anger and pain”…
Jan: In “I Buried My Heart In The Ground”?
Rachel: Yes, in “When They Buried You In The Ground,” well, you don't repeat something in a musical if it doesn't give new meaning. You shouldn't anyway. Finding all of these parallels along the way and then making them mean something more the second time around, with writing as good as this, it's not a hard thing.
Jan: But was Stephen Flaherty surprised when you said you wanted to put lines back in?
Rachel: He was like: “Well, we'll have to look at that.” Roberta Duchak, our musical director, she actually spoke with him. I don't know Stephen very well, but she does.
There's so much in this score and I feel like it doesn't get its due. Our production has gotten some really, really great reviews, but I think
RAGTIME has always deserved them, because the piece is so rich and strong and interesting. I just never understood when people would dismiss this score.
Jan: Well, now that you’ve pulled it all together and rescued it from the barbarians in Manhattan, maybe you’ll get a chance to take it around the country?
Rachel: We'd love to!
© Jan Lisa Huttner (May 1, 2010)
All Photo Credits: Brett Beiner
Courtesy of Drury Lane Oakbrook
April 6th telephone interview conducted by Jan Lisa Huttner.
Condensed & edited with assistance from Dawn Raftery.