Summary of the Musical "Ragtime"

by Ana Purna

"Ragtime" is a beloved contemporary Broadway musical.

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The Broadway musical "Ragtime" is based on the 1975 novel of the same name by E. L. Doctorow. Stephen Flaherty composed the music for the show; the librettist was Lynn Ahrens. The musical was first performed at several theaters in the United States in 1996 and debuted on Broadway in 1998. The show was revived in 2009 at the Niel Simon theater on Broadway.

Main Cast and Characters

The major fictional characters in the musical "Ragtime" are Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a Harlem pianist, his wife Sarah and their son Coalhouse Walker III. The New Rochelle family is known as Father, Mother, their son Little Boy and Mother's younger brother, known as Younger Brother. Tateh, the immigrant, and his daughter are also major players. Other icons of the era, including Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J. P. Morgan and Harry Houdini, also have rolls in this complex plot.

Plot Synopsis

The musical "Ragtime" takes place in early 20th-century America, the era of ragtime as represented by the lively piano music of Scott Joplin. The story concerns three intersecting story lines. As Father leaves on a voyage, his ship passes that taking Tateh and Little Girl to America. Sarah and her son are both welcomed by the family in New Rochelle, New York. Coalhouse visits the family weekly in attempts to reunite with Sarah and their son. Little Boy is in love with the iconic celebrity of the era, Evelyn Nesbit. Tateh is woven into the story when Nesbit, on a visit to their lower east side neighborhood, connects with Tateh's daughter and visits regularly. Younger Brother takes up the workers' cause, with violent results. Through several twists and turns, the three story lines eventually converge when Coalhouse Walker's beloved Model T car is vandalized by racists. Sarah appeals to the future president Howard Taft for justice in the vandalism case and is shot by the secret service. In the second act, Tateh has become a successful filmmaker. Attempting to seek justice for Sarah's death, Coalhouse takes hostages at the Morgan library and is shot by police after agreeing to a peaceful resolution. Father dies in Europe. Mother marries Tateh and moves with him, Coalhouse Walker III and Little Girl to California.

Musical Numbers

"Ragtime," the musical, is told almost entirely in song. Several numbers stand out for their emotional content, lyricism and melody. "New Music," sung by Coalhouse, Sarah and the family, introduces the ragtime style of the era. "A Shtetl Iz Amereke" is a song featuring the languages spoken by immigrants to America during the ragtime era. "Wheels of a Dream," sung by Coalhouse and Sarah, describes their dream of owning a car and traveling throughout the country with their son as he grows up. "Til We Reach That Day," the closing song for the first act, is sung at Sarah's funeral, asking if and when there will be an end to racial injustice.

Original Cast

The original Broadway cast of "Ragtime" performed in the 1998 run at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. The family was portrayed by Alex Strange as The Little Boy, Mark Jacoby as Father, Marin Mazzie as Mother, and Steven Sutcliffe as Mother's Younger Brother. Coalhouse Walker, Jr. was played by Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Sarah by Audra McDonald. Tateh and Little Girl were portrayed by Peter Friedman and Lea Michele, respectively.

About the Author

Ana Purna has covered outdoor adventure, travel, health and fitness for a variety of publications since 2003. Her work has appeared on the websites FeministReview and PaperDolls. Purna is a writer and radio producer in Texas who graduated from the University of Houston with a Bachelor of Arts in history.

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