Ragtime: It’s Big! It’s Safe!It’s Full of Generic Symbolism!

There has been a sharply divided critical response to the $10 million musical Ragtime , and I join the naysayers

There has been a sharply divided critical response to the $10 million musical Ragtime , and I join the naysayers with regret.

I would rather celebrate the musical’s inauguration of its spanking new Broadway theater, even if it is named, in all corporate dullness, “Ford Center for the Performing Arts.” With a name as uninspiring as that-the new theater is an advertising vehicle for the Ford Motor Company-you feel it ought to be attached to a shopping mall in Ohio.

Its faux-marble atrium, with gift store attached, could easily be in a mall, proudly civic-minded, no doubt. The Ford Center has been built by Livent Inc., the Canadian production company that staged Show Boat recently and now brings the epic, heavily presold Ragtime to Broadway. But the new theater, built on the ashes of two period theaters, the Apollo and the Lyric, has no sense of the thrillingly new. It’s architecturally safe-as Ragtime is big and safe when, in this musical without any sense of irony, it ought to be creating the unsafe, the extraordinary, the innovative turbulent danger of a New Age.

A smashing opportunity has been missed with Ragtime along with its comfortably anonymous new home. The musical version of E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel about the tumultuous promise and social revolution of turn-of-the-century America held out hopes of a very rare achievement nowadays: the rebirth of the great, quintessentially American musical. Produced at the close of the century on the eve of a new millennium, Ragtime ‘s panoramic undertow of historic events and colliding themes held out the exciting promise of the shock of the new as much as the rhythmic, seductive syncopation of ragtime itself. Yet the outcome is uncomfortably similar to the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. It is technically smooth, but it fails to excite. It is, when all is said and done, virtuously dull.

Take the first appearance of the mythical Harry Houdini in the big opening number for the entire company. Like Mr. Doctorow’s novel, the musical intertwines fictional characters with historical figures (among them, anarchist Emma Goldman, financier J.P. Morgan and automobile manufacturer Henry Ford). Houdini, the great escape artist, enters descending on a rope, tied dramatically upside down in a straitjacket. My point is, he escapes too easily-without struggle, a breeze. We know he will escape; we have seen the trick many times before. But this Houdini doesn’t thrill us. He is simply there -a symbol, perhaps, of your huddled masses yearning to breathe free (everything in this musical is a simplistic symbol). But he is a magician without magic.

Too much of Ragtime is disappointingly like that. When the leading character known by the generic label of Mother wails in song, “What kind of woman would do what I’ve done/ Open the door to chaos and pain?”-we don’t really see chaos, least of all pain. (We see smugness, actually.) When another lyric tells us stirringly, “The night Emma Goldman spoke at Union Square/ Anger and sweat were in the air”-the anger is programmed and sweat has no place in this pretty pageant. Even the rags worn by Tateh, the Jewish immigrant from Latvia, look nice and clean-and unreal.

Ragtime has created a sanitized panorama of an America brimming with symbolic labels. It’s why the musical doesn’t touch our hearts, though it dutifully touches many bases. Generic types and symbols leave us emotionally uninvolved, like Victorian tableaux. The icons Ford and J.P. Morgan equal Evil Capitalists; Evelyn Nesbit is the all-American Bimbette; Booker T. Washington, the Voice of Reason-and so on. The overcrowded narrative can only scratch the familiar surface of momentous events. But the three central story lines are all generic labels. There’s the symbolic white New Rochelle family known as Mother, Father, the Little Boy, Mother’s Younger Brother and Grandfather. As types, these nameless ones are Virtuous, Blind, Curious, Restless and Irascible. There’s the Black American story of the wronged ragtime pianist and future revolutionary outlaw, Coalhouse Walker Jr. His lover, Sarah, and her illegitimate child, are taken in by Mother. But Father, returning home from the North Pole (read Spirit of Adventure) isn’t pleased. Younger Brother joins black revolutionaries …

The third story line involves the familiar symbolic immigrant success story of the Jew, Tateh, who strives for a better life for his daughter, who’s known as the Little Girl. Tateh becomes a successful movie director and ends up-would you believe?-with Mother. This also means that the Little Girl is now in the same blissful family as the Little Boy, as is another youngster known as Little Coalhouse. But let’s not go into Little Coalhouse now.

The question is, do these simplistic stories interest us? Are they telling us anything new or fresh? Only the Coalhouse Walker story promises to ignite, thanks to a stunning performance from Brian Stokes Mitchell as Coalhouse. Yet Show Boat , created in 1927, has more to tell us challengingly about black and white America than Ragtime .

It’s a disappointment, as I say. The music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (who also wrote Once on This Island ) are ordinary and repetitive, failing to produce even one memorable song. The book by Terrence McNally isn’t his best work. (He is uncharacteristically humorless here.) The “musical staging” by Graciela Daniele-“musical staging” means choreography, I guess-actually reduces the pulse of the show by ending far too many scenes habitually in moody slow motion. Eugene Lee’s industrial cathedral of Penn Station is splendid-but the intimate scenes can look lost on the monumental setting. The director, Frank Galati (whose work on Steppenwolf’s Grapes of Wrath was supreme) has managed to hold it all together-but too well, too neat and clean.

We long for Ragtime to take flight unpredictably, to be incautiously and wonderfully messy, to be, in a nutshell, as inspired as the new gilded age it yearns to capture. Instead, it could have been produced by committee. There are no individuals in the show. There are types, there are emblems, there are generic, symbolic stories. And humanity-true, dirty, teeming humanity? At the dawn of our new age, Ragtime and its anonymous new home, the Ford Center, are themselves unhappy emblems of a virtual reality, bland culture, mall future.

Ragtime: It’s Big! It’s Safe!It’s Full of Generic Symbolism!