Our fourth day at The Shaw Festival featured a matinee performance of this year’s musical.
Each season, The Shaw Festival mounts one musical production. In 2009, Joshua and I had attended a performance of that year’s musical, “Sunday In The Park With George”. A year ago, the festival had presented “My Fair Lady”. A couple of days ago, the festival announced that the 2013 musical production will be “The Light In The Piazza”.
This year, “Ragtime” was the musical.
None of us had seen “Ragtime” before.
Last season, Park Square Theatre in Saint Paul had presented a lavish production of “Ragtime”—it had been the most expensive production in the history of the company—and we had contemplated attending one of the Saint Paul performances. Local reviews for the Saint Paul “Ragtime” had been encouraging.
We nonetheless decided to skip the production. For some reason, “Ragtime” has never appealed to us—and we did not bother to head over to Saint Paul.
We never considered skipping The Shaw Festival production of “Ragtime”. The reason we had decided to attend The Shaw Festival in the first place was in order to see all ten main-stage productions.
Based upon one exposure to the show in Niagara-On-The-Lake, my belief is that “Ragtime” is neither a distinguished nor a particularly effective musical.
Stephen Flaherty’s score was professional. It was not original or imaginative. It was not the work of a composer with a distinctive voice. The music was impersonal and featureless; it might have been written by committee—or by machine.
Lynn Ahrens’s lyrics were professional only insofar as she had been paid for her work. Had I been a producer of the show, I would have called in another lyricist—or else called off the project. I cannot recall the last time I heard such an unbroken, mindless string of clichés. Nonetheless, I should state for the record that one of our chief pleasures in sitting through the show was listening to the inanity of Ahrens’s words—and giggling.
Of Terrence McNally’s book, of which there was very little (“Ragtime” is mostly sung-through), I have nothing to say—except that it would not surprise me if Ahrens had written the book, with McNally merely lending his name to the project in order that a “bankable” author be connected to the show.
My mind wandered throughout the duration of the afternoon. I spent as much time reading the program booklet as paying attention to whatever was happening onstage. The production came in under three hours, yet it seemed like a four-and-a-half hour presentation.
All through the first act, we constantly exchanged glances with each other, which signified that not one of us was enjoying the show.
At intermission, we talked about leaving. We remained for the second half only because we assumed things were likely to improve (they did not).
It is possible that the production was at fault, and that the material might have been revealed in a better light in a better production. However, my instinct tells me that the problem was not the production but the material itself, a mixture of the second- and third-and fourth-rate. I doubt the show will ever become a mainstay of the musical stage.
Despite unprecedented marketing, the original 1998 Broadway production of “Ragtime” ran only for two years, and lost all of its backing money. A 2009 Broadway revival ran only for two months, and—again—lost all of its backing money. New York audiences twice gave “Ragtime” the cold shoulder—and I believe they were right to do so. “Ragtime” is an empty musical.
At dinner that evening, we talked among ourselves about “Ragtime”, attempting to diagnose the fundamental flaws in what we had just seen and heard.
My father said that “Ragtime” was a pageant, and not a genuine theatrical work. He likened “Ragtime” to an opera of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: more series of pageant-like tableaux than true drama. Rimsky-Korsakov operas, of course, are enthralling—but only because of the enthralling music. The pageant that was “Ragtime”, unlike Rimsky-Korsakov pageants, lacked enthralling music. As a consequence, “Ragtime”, like any pageant, was a chore to endure.
My mother said that Doctorow was the problem. The creators, she believed, had remained too faithful to Doctorow when they should have thrown the novel out the window and recreated the essence of the novel from scratch. She invoked Stravinsky’s maxim that artists must “eliminate, eliminate, eliminate”. The writers of “Ragtime”, my mother noted, had been too timid to trim—or remove completely—plot elements of the novel. The result: the creators had produced a well-meaning but by-the-book stage representation of a novel that had been little more than artificial conceit to begin with.
My brother said, simply, that “Ragtime” was “too Canadian”. His wry assessment, in minimal words, summed up the musical in terms everyone could instantly understand: no wit, no color, no depth, no personality—but buckets of blandness.
We all laughed at what my brother had to say—and Josh said he could not improve on my brother’s analysis: “Definitely, definitely: too Canadian. I have to go with that, too.”
Myself, I believe, in the case of musicals, that it always boils down to the score—and the score of “Ragtime” is simply not good enough to keep the musical before the public.
The Shaw Festival production had been directed by Jackie Maxwell, Artistic Director of The Shaw Festival. Maxwell’s efforts were not incompetent, but I thought she had directed “Ragtime” not as musical but as history play. Everything was a little too serious, a little too earnest, a little too preachy. That Maxwell had a supremely uneven cast did not help matters. Only one character registered: Coalhouse Walker.
At the performance we attended, the audience gave “Ragtime” a prolonged standing ovation.
Our fourth-day evening performance was John Guare’s “His Girl Friday”, adapted from the 1928 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play, “The Front Page”, and the Hecht-MacArthur-Charles Lederer screenplay for the 1940 Howard Hawks film, “His Girl Friday”.
Guare’s was not a successful adaptation of the material.
The setting had been moved forward from the bustling, carefree 1920s to August 31, 1939, the day before Germany invaded Poland. The convicted killer became an anti-Nazi crusader who had struck down a pro-Nazi policeman. Most characters in the play were assigned anti-German political speeches, speeches in which they were required to warn each other—and the audience—that Hitler was a dangerous man, threatening to dominate the entire European continent.
Guare’s changes were bizarre. He had managed to meld—badly—a failsafe comedy with large chunks of the insufferable and hopelessly-out-of-date Lillian Hellman wartime melodrama, “Watch On The Rhine”.
What was the point of such a ridiculous exercise?
The production worked better than, by rights, it should have—assuming that one was able to filter out the elementary-school political speeches and wait for the comedy to resume.
If the evening was redeemable, it was because of the presence of Nicole Underhay in the role of Hildy.
Underhay had been sensational earlier in the week in Shaw’s “The Millionairess”—and she was almost as fine as Hildy, a reporter asked by her conniving boss (and former husband) to cover one last story, an execution, before retiring from journalism and marrying a wealthy stuffed-shirt.
Underhay was the best thing on stage all night. She gave a star’s performance.
I wonder whether we might have been able to endure the play without Underhay’s presence.