About the Show

The Basics

A sweeping musical portrait of early-twentieth-century America, RAGTIME tells the story of three families in the pursuit of the American Dream...

Written by the award-winning composer/lyricist team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Once on This Island, Seussical and Lucky Stiff), noted playwright Terrence McNally, and based on E.L. Doctorow's distinguished novel, Ragtime is the winner of the 1998 Tony Awards for Best Score, Book and Orchestrations, and both the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Musical and Best Score. Called by TIME Magazine "A triumph for the stage," and by the International Herald Tribune "the best musical in twenty years," this acclaimed musical is filled with pageantry, emotion and hope, bursting onto the stage like no other musical.


WARNING: This synopsis of the play contains spoilers.

Act I

Ragtime opens at the turn of the 20th century: a time of progress, a time of excitement, a time of “a distant music changing the tune, changing the time.” The lives of three different families and worlds collide. These families are an upper-middle-class family from New Rochelle (Mother, Father, Little Boy, Younger Brother, and Grandfather), a couple from Harlem (Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Sarah), and a Latvian immigrant and his daughter (Tateh and Little Girl). Ragtime opens with the intersection of these people’s lives and those of prominent historical characters such as J.P. Morgan, the financier; Evelyn Nesbit, the famous beauty; and Harry Houdini, the escape artist and illusionist.

The House on the Hill in New Rochelle, NY(Photo: G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times)
Peary reaches the North Pole(Photo: National Geographic Society)

After Father departs for an expedition to the North Pole with Admiral Robert Peary, Mother finds an African-American baby in her backyard while gardening. The police find the baby’s mother, Sarah, and Mother invites the two to live with her family. Eventually Coalhouse Walker, the baby’s father, comes to court Sarah and after months of charming the New Rochelle family with his music, Sarah agrees to marry him.

Coalhouse’s arrival disturbs the sheltered peace of New Rochelle; a black man in a Model T is a new and shocking addition to the white community. Fire Chief Willie Conklin and his men harass Coalhouse when he tries to pass down the street. The arrival of Coalhouse and Sarah also changes the dynamic for the New Rochelle family, and Father does not know how to cope with his changing family and changing world upon his return. After Sarah and Coalhouse are finally united, the firemen again harass the couple, and when Coalhouse leaves to find a policeman, the firemen vandalize his car. Unable to find justice through the police and the courts, Coalhouse vows not to marry Sarah until justice is served. Younger Brother also experiences unrest during this period. He fosters a serious infatuation with Evelyn Nesbit, and one night after her vaudeville show, she kisses him as a publicity stunt. Younger Brother is heartbroken by the realization that she will not be with him. In his search for love and purpose, he finds himself pondering the larger ideas of life, and ends up at a labor rally led by activist Emma Goldman.

Assembly line worker with Ford Model T(Photo: Fotosearch/Getty Images)
Immigrants arrive at Ellis Island

Meanwhile, Tateh and the Little Girl arrive at Ellis Island after a long journey to America. They find life in New York difficult, and Tateh cannot make a living through his art, the creation of paper silhouettes. After a man offers to buy the Little Girl, Tateh decides that they must leave New York in search of a better life. Tateh finds a factory job working 64 hours a week for minimal pay in Lawrence, Massachusetts. There is a strike, and Tateh tries to send the Little Girl away for her safety, but he cannot bear to hear her cries and accompanies her to Philadelphia. He comforts her by giving her a flipbook he has created, which he later sells to the train conductor, jump-starting his future career. The act closes with Sarah at a political rally where she tries to appeal to the Vice-Presidential candidate for help with Coalhouse’s case. Police, who think she is an assassin, kill her.

Act II

Act II opens with New Rochelle in chaos: Coalhouse has killed three firemen and burned the firehouse, demanding justice and the return of his Model T. Mother decides to take care of Sarah’s child permanently, against the wishes of the child welfare officials and Father. After the pressure builds in the New Rochelle home and Younger Brother angrily leaves the house, Father decides that the best way to cope is to take the Little Boy to a baseball game and the family for an extended stay in Atlantic City.

Atlantic City Boardwalk in the 1900s(Photo: Detroit Publishing Company)
Thomas Edison and George Eastman with early film camera(Photo: Kodak Company)

Upon their arrival in Atlantic City, the family sees a movie being filmed by Baron Askenazy, later revealed to be Tateh, who has turned his flipbooks into a successful film career. The Little Girl and the Little Boy become friends, and in turn, Tateh and Mother form a bond over their children’s relationship.

After his rampage in New Rochelle, Coalhouse retreats to the relative safety of Harlem. Younger Brother arrives full of new ideas and passion, and becomes a part of Coalhouse’s gang due to his expertise in creating explosives. Coalhouse and his men take over the Morgan Library and threaten to blow it up if the District Attorney does not meet their demands. Both Father and Booker T. Washington arrive at the library to convince Coalhouse to give himself up for the sake of his men and his son. Coalhouse finally sends all of his men out to safety. After a heart-to-heart with Father about his child, Coalhouse walks out of the library and the police kill him on sight.

The Morgan Library(Photo: The Morgan Library & Museum)
USS Lusitania(Photo: Wikipedia)

The musical closes with an epilogue: Father dies aboard the Lusitania, Younger Brother joins the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in Mexico, and Mother weds Tateh after Father’s death. They raise the Little Boy, the Little Girl, and Coalhouse Walker III together as a family.

Source: Milwaukee Rep Ragtime Study Guide

Historical Figures

Washington was a bi-racial man who was an essential leader to the African-American community, founding the Tuskegee Institute, the National Negro Business League, and delivering the Atlanta Compromise speech in 1895. He believed in Blacks earning social rights and respect through "industry, thrift, intelligence, and property", contrasting with W.E.B. DuBois' more aggressive and demanding approach. Washington would often pacify white Southern leaders by assuring them that Blacks were fit to stay in a lower social rank, content to work laborious and agricultural jobs.
Like other characters who populate the world of Ragtime, the historical “Harry Houdini” came to America as a young immigrant. Son of a rabbi, Erich Weisz was born on March 24th, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, and would rename himself Harry Houdini in 1894 in honor of the famous French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. His show would become the highest paid act in American vaudeville, featuring daring acts of escape and illusion. Through the years, his act escalated from escaping from handcuffs to straightjackets to nailed packing crates. Most famous was his escape from the “Chinese Water Torture chamber” which required him to hold his breath for 3 minutes while he got out of his restraints.
J.P. Morgan was a titan of the American business world in the late nineteenth and early 20th century. By the time of his death in 1913, Morgan had become one of the most influential financiers and bankers in U.S. history. Despite his enormous financial success, Morgan was heavily criticized during the “progressive era” for his ruthless pursuit of wealth. In the play, his monopolistic business practices stand in stark contrast to politics of Emma Goldman and “Younger Brother” who represent the working class Morgan was accused of oppressing.
Born in 1863, Henry Ford was one of the most influential American industrialists of the early 20th century, most famous for his creation of the Model T automobile which democratized car ownership in the U.S. Ford advanced a way of mass producing his cars by using an assembly line of specialized workers for maximum efficiency. In the musical Ragtime, Coalhouse Walker’s purchase of one of Ford’s automobile’s stands as a statement of his claim to participate in the American Dream. The relationship to this car –and to the dream it symbolized – ultimately becomes a catalyst for the tragic actions that unfold in the play.
Notorious for her activist political rhetoric, Goldman was a prominent figure in the development of the anarchist political philosophy in North America and Europe during the earlier parts of the Twentieth century. A Russian immigrant herself, Goldman joined the anarchist movement in 1889 and was at the prime of her anarchist involvement in 1906, where she also founded the anarchist journal Mother Earth. She lectured on women's rights and social issues, and was jailed numerous times mostly due to starting riots and inducing violent acts.
Born as Florence Evelyn Nesbit, the young American chorus girl and model was at the prime of her entertainment career at the top of the 20th century. Considered the Marilyn Monroe of this era, Nesbit began as a novice model in New York where she was known as the prominent source of income for her family, as early as age twelve. In 1901, she began exploring the realm of live performance by joining the chorus line of a popular show by the name of Florodora where she met Stanford White, another company member and notorious womanizer who immortalized her as The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. Starting one of the most scandalous love triangles in history, White was murdered at the hands of her jealous husband, Harry Kendall Thaw.
White was an architect who designed various public projects in New York City, such as the second Madison Square Garden and the Washington Square Park Arch. He also designed homes for high-society families in the city, as well as in New Rochelle, New York. He was romantically involved with his chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, until Ms. Thaw's husband Harry Kendall Thaw murdered White on Madison Square Garden's rooftop.
Thaw was an heir to his father's railroad fortune, and he carelessly spent it as he tried to attain the lavish party life of a socialite, allegedly coining the term "playboy". With exhibitions of sociopath behavior, Thaw's mental illness caused him to engage in dangerous activities, harming himself and others. Thaw is most well-known for murdering Stanford White, the lover of Thaw's wife, Evelyn Nesbit Thaw.
Admiral Robert E. Peary, US Navy (1856 – 1920) was an American explorer, most famous for his expeditions in pursuit of the North Pole, which Peary was credited with reaching in 1909. Peary embodied the American spirit of adventure in the age of Teddy Roosevelt, who said of his trip to the North Pole: 'Peary, I believe in you and if it is possible for men to get there, I know you'll do it.'
An African-American explorer best known for his expeditions with Robert Peary, Matthew Henson may have been the first person to reach the North Pole on a journey with five others in 1906. Though Peary had to be pulled by sled during the later part of the hike, Henson was neglected for his service and assistance on this expedition in particular, skeptically because of his race. Approximately thirty years later, Henson was awarded a duplicate silver medal given to Peary for their excursion to the North Pole in 1944. He spent the majority of his life after the climb working as a clerk in a federal customs house in New York.
In 1909, Whitman was elected New York County District Attorney. In this capacity, he secured representation of the District Attorney's staff in the city magistrate's office, and was active in suppressing arson offenders. He was re-nominated for District Attorney in 1913 and elected almost unanimously.
Although there has been no factual documentation, it has been said that during the transition from novel to stage, the Little Boy was given the name Edgar because of Edgar Cayce, "The Sleeping Prophet". E.L. Doctorow, the author of the novel Ragtime, alludes to Little Boy's psychic powers. He is also heard in the musical exclaiming "Warn the duke!" to Harry Houdini. It has been said that Cayce made a prediction to Houdini concerning the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Cayce suggested to Houdini that during Houdini's travels to Sarajevo, he should warn the Archduke of someone trying to assassinate him. If Houdini had warned the Archduke and he had not been shot, Cayce says the first world war could have been prevented.
Sources: Milwaukee Rep Ragtime Study Guide, ZACH Theatre's online public Dramaturgy resource center, Wikipedia

The Era of Something Beginning

Entertainments at the Turn of the Century

Ragtime, a distinctly American musical style with a syncopated rhythm, gained popularity at the end of the 1800s. Ragtime evolved out of African-American music, but quickly became a style of music composed by and loved by a wider population. Ragtime was everywhere by the early 1900s—from sheet music to piano rolls to ragtime piano playing contests; the style was the biggest musical fad of the day. Ragtime music characterized an era of change with a fast moving, catchy sound that combined marches with the rhythms of African music. Through the slightly off-meter rhythm of syncopation, ragtime moved along at a pace unlike any other popular music of the time. Controversy met the rise of ragtime music, as it has many other musical styles. A musician’s convention wanted to officially dub ragtime ‘unmusical rot’. Some were also concerned with the moral decay that ragtime music’s jumpy rhythms might bring to America’s youth. Regardless of this controversy, ragtime music has persisted for over one hundred years, and has experienced several revivals of its popularity throughout the last century.
From the 1880s to the 1920s, vaudeville was the most popular entertainment in America. Featuring comedians, singers, plate-spinners, ventriloquists, dancers, musicians, acrobats, animal trainers, and many other performers, vaudeville was the quintessential variety show. Successful vaudeville acts toured over 40 weeks a year, and they often had more than one show in a day. Performers suffered from poor working conditions, but made respectable pay compared to many other jobs. Vaudeville’s 50-year reign over the American entertainment scene ended in the 1930s with the Great Depression and the rising popularity of movies.
Atlantic City built a boardwalk as a tourist attraction in 1870, and the city later expanded the boardwalk due to its popularity. By the turn of the century, the Atlantic City Boardwalk was a booming vacation spot, and new hotels and businesses sprouted up everywhere. Vaudeville acts and other entertainers flocked to “The World’s Playground” to perform and hone their acts. Tourists from all over the United States and the world came to Atlantic City to enjoy the beach, the entertainment, and the atmosphere.
The first films were short snippets of everyday occurrences like a horse running or a train pulling out of a station. Starting in the 1880s and 1890s, these early films fascinated people with the ability to capture the reality of day-to-day life. Soon, the possibilities of film expanded to include plot lines and actors, and audiences flocked to movie houses. Seeing a film became prime entertainment throughout the country, and from 1906 onward, the production and exhibition of films grew worldwide.

Innovations at the Turn of the Century

The age of Ragtime was an era of change, and much of that change came from innovations in technology and industry. The musical Ragtime includes one of the greatest inventors of his day, Henry Ford. Ford was only one of many great innovators; many technologies we take for granted today were created in the early 1900s.

The Model T was an automobile produced by the Ford Motor Company from 1908 to 1927. Ford built over 15 million Model Ts, and due to new assembly line production methods, the cost of the automobile became much more reasonable for the American public. At one point, the Model T comprised 40% of all automobile sales in the United States.
In 1910, after assembling nearly 12,000 Model Ts, Henry Ford moved the company to the new Highland Park complex. During this time the Model T production system transitioned into an iconic example of assembly line production. As a result, Ford's cars came off the line in three-minute intervals, much faster than previous methods, reducing production time from 12.5 hours before to 93 minutes by 1914, while using less manpower. In 1914, Ford produced more cars than all other automakers combined. The Model T was a great commercial success, and by the time Henry made his 10 millionth car, half of all cars in the world were Fords. It was so successful Ford did not purchase any advertising between 1917 and 1923; instead, the Model T became so famous, people considered it a norm.
In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first people to successfully fly a self-propelled, heavier than air aircraft. Inspired by the glider flights of a German engineer, and armed with their skills in building bicycles, the brothers set out to design several versions of different aircraft. After a number of hits and misses with gliders, the brothers finally successfully piloted a propelled aircraft in December of 1903.
In 1901, Guglielmo Marconi broadcasted the first transatlantic radio signal, allowing for safer maritime travel and further communication worldwide.
The first machine patented in the United States to show moving pictures was called a zoopraxiscope, which allowed pictures to be watched through a slit in the mechanism, but was a far cry from what we know today as film. The first motion picture cameras were invented in the late 1890s, and soon watching short films became a source of entertainment for people around the world.

Social & Political Issues in the Progressive Era (1895-1925)

Ragtime takes place in the midst of the Progressive Era in America, a general term used for a series of social and political responses to the problems created through industrialization, urbanization, and different areas of American life.

Race Relations & the Immigrant Experience

The era of Ragtime was a troubled time in the history of race relations in America. Large numbers of immigrants entered the country and racism towards African-Americans continued after the abolition of slavery. In 1896, the Plessy vs. Ferguson case legitimized the idea of “separate but equal,” leading to the continuance of restrictive and discriminatory Jim Crow laws throughout much of the United States. The laws varied by state, but many of the regulations centered on separating white facilities from facilities for people of color, which led to the segregation of most public institutions. While discrimination towards blacks was the most insidious example of racism in America, immigrants also faced bigotry and hardship. Between 1870 and 1900, over 12 million immigrants came to the United States, many through New York, which was then known as, “The Golden Door.” In cities with high immigrant populations, newcomers to the U.S. were often stereotyped, harassed, and sometimes met with violence. Finding work that paid a living wage was especially hard for immigrants, and many people faced discrimination in the workplace and on the streets. Tenement housing was the only option for many immigrants, and the poor living conditions were often unbearable. The obstacles to equality were huge, but individuals including Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois advocated for civil rights. For immigrants, the settlement house movement and other social programs helped them find their way in a new country.

Women's Movement

By 1900, 20% of American women were employed outside of the home. Unfortunately, many women held low-paying jobs with no hope for advancement. As more women found themselves with roles outside of being mothers and wives, they founded organizations to deal with issues ranging from suffrage to the right to vote to working conditions. While the suffrage movement began in the mid-1800s, it gained steam during the Progressive era, with more women becoming involved as the new century arrived. In June of 1919, Wisconsin was the first state to ratify the 19th amendment, and women secured the right to vote nationwide in 1920.

Labor Movement

The Industrial Revolution brought great progress to the U.S., but also many new problems for the laboring class. Overcrowding, child labor, poor working conditions, sweatshops, and excessively long work hours were all issues that arose in the age of industrialization. As conditions worsened, but the economy improved, workers started to organize through labor unions. The first large union was the Order of the Knights of Labor, founded in 1869. Labor organizers hoped to eventually unionize all workers, but that was an uphill battle. Unorganized workers held many strikes and protests in the second half of the 19th century, and these protests brought many changes to labor laws: the enactment of minimum wages, child labor regulations, and maximum hours per day. The advent of the American labor movement met much opposition; factory owners often called in police or punished participants who participated in labor protests. Despite the consequences, the American labor movement continued, with many labor victories and expansion of membership in the first several decades of the 20th century.

New Political Forces

At the turn of the 20th century, several new political movements gained support in the United States: the Progressive Movement and the Socialist Movement. Both political parties sought social change in the form of reforming education, improving public works, supporting workers, and generally finding ways to help the common people. The Progressives were an offshoot of the Republican Party, while the Socialists chose to disassociate themselves with the dominant political parties. Both groups found footholds in the political arena, and social change came from some of the actions of these groups. Anarchism also gained some political clout during this time, due to activists such as Emma Goldman, who is a featured character in Ragtime. The Progressives and Socialists advocated more government involvement, but anarchists thought that a society without government based on social cooperation was the ideal. While their tactics and philosophies seemed extreme, they shared goals of social change with the more accepted Progressive and Socialist movements.
Sources: Milwaukee Rep Ragtime Study Guide, Wikipedia