WARNING: This synopsis of the play contains spoilers.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.