Listen to that ‘Ragtime’!
Pardon this late article, but I needed to stop, catch my breath, and bathe in the stardust of what I can only describe as one incredible evening. Even as I write, there is a broad smile on my face, my head and heart full and fulfilled.
Week before last, I wrote about our first day of rehearsals for a special concert version of the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical “Ragtime” (held at the Avery Fisher Hall of the Lincoln Center in New York on Feb. 18). With the book (script) by Terrence McNally (who penned “Master Class” last staged in Manila starring the incomparable Cherie Gil as Maria Callas) based on the novel by EL Doctorow, this show has been considered the perfect musical—soaring music, smart and tight book, a cast of characters truly filled with life. Each character undergoes transformation, which makes this musical compelling.
Since this would be a concert version without the majestic set designs or elaborate costuming, the focus would be on the words and the music as performed by a principal cast of 17, an alumni chorus of 24 (whose members have done a version of the show, be it the original Broadway production, the recent Broadway revival, the Kennedy Center production or a national tour), a 150-member choir of high school kids from across the country, and a 32-piece orchestra.
At the helm was Stafford Arima (who earned himself an Olivier Award nomination for directing “Ragtime’s” West End production, and was our “Allegiance” director from the first reading in New York to the staged production at the Old Globe), with music supervision by David Loud, who made sure each of us did the music justice.
The week-long rehearsal period was truly fast and furious. We needed to move quickly and expeditiously, as this production is quite epic in scale. There was a lot of music and plenty of book scenes to dig into, and Stafford did an amazing job keeping everything going. We didn’t have the luxury of time to really explore the script further. After staging one part of the show, we’d all have to move on to the next scene or song. Two rehearsal rooms were always filled and working at the same time: If a big ensemble scene was being choreographed in one room, a solo, duet or smaller scene was being rehearsed in another. But we did quite well, given the abbreviated time.
Things became most exciting once the entire show was pieced together after about four days of rehearsing everything in isolation. That’s when we heard how the individual components fit together; it gave us all a greater sense of context and story. And that’s when we found ourselves weeping unabashedly while sitting in our chairs, as these scenes would happen no more than a few feet away.
Watching a tender scene played by Tateh (Manoel Felciano, Tony nominee for the revival of “Sweeney Todd”) and his daughter The Little Girl (“Annie” star Lilla Crawford), Sarah (Patina Miller, Tony nominee for “Sister Act”) singing a haunting version of “Daddy’s Son,” Colehouse Walker Jr. (Norm Lewis, Tony nominee for “Porgy and Bess”) on his knees when his beloved Sarah is slain, Younger Brother (“Anger Management’s” Michael Arden) exploding at Evelyn Nesbit’s (Tony nominee for “Xanadu” Kerry Butler) rejection of his advances … so many of these moments had us all at the edge of our seats, not to mention reaching for Kleenex and leaning on one another. It was quite difficult to gather oneself for the next scene.
Our last two rehearsal days were in a huge ballroom at the Westin Hotel, as that was the only way to fit the cast and choir in one room. The wall of sound created by these singers when we all sang the opening number together was incredible! A hotel ballroom is one of the least ideal places to sing because the walls, ceiling and floor seem to absorb and deaden sound rather than reflect it. For there to still be this thrilling harmony, the wave of music produced by this many voices, was nothing short of magic.
Early Monday afternoon at Avery Fisher Hall, once we put away our things in dressing rooms and got fitted for microphones (the principals used body mics on top of the stand mics onstage), with book in hand we all headed to the stage to start our final run-through. It was the first time the entire cast would hear the orchestra … and slam into a few challenges that go along with it. Sound check was not the smoothest, as there were things that we had to get used to, and quickly. And since in the afternoon we were rehearsing in an empty concert hall, the sound of everyone and everything kept echoing and bouncing, challenging us to stay on cue and on pitch. Thankfully, the sound situation improved once the hall was filled to capacity.
My new family
As for the show … I don’t think there’s a single word that could adequately describe the experience, but I can hazard a few: miraculous … magical … incredible … sublime … inspiring … and that’s from the performers’ point of view. The reviews gave us an indication of what the audience felt (indeed, we are very thankful), and we feel blessed. It’s been a few days since curtain call, and my feet still haven’t touched the ground.
I have made yet another family in this musical-theater universe composed of some of the most amazingly talented people I’ve ever met in this life. I am grateful for the opportunity, and would like to thank Stafford Arima for approaching me in that darkened Old Globe theater to ask me to play Mother, and taking me on a journey that I’ll never forget. Thanks, too, to Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty for trusting me with this wonderful, beautiful character.
To my brand new “Ragtime” family, know that I adore each and every one of you, and hope with all my heart that our paths cross again, and often.