When "Ragtime" opened on Broadway on January 18, 1998, the sheer spectacle of this turn-of-the-century America musical epic was as acclaimed as was Stephen Flaherty’s (music) and Lynn Ahrens’s (lyrics) rhapsodic Americana score and Terrence McNally’s brilliantly condensed stage adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling novel. A London production was in the planning stages when the show’s producer, Garth Drabinsky, and his partners of the Toronto-based Livent, Inc. were indicted by a New York City federal grand jury for "accounting irregularities." Not surprisingly, "Ragtime" never made it across the Atlantic. Although the New York production ran for two years, it was forced to close prematurely, in part, because of its high operating costs.
It wasn’t until Stafford Arima, a talented young director and former Drabinsky protege, directed a lauded concert version at the International Festival of Musical Theater in Cardiff, Wales, in 2002, that anyone entertained the idea of producing a completely re-conceived and re-constructed version in London. Under Arima’s direction, the reduced but in many ways more embracing "Ragtime" opened in London in the spring of 2003 at the Piccadilly Theater to great reviews. It garnered 2004 Olivier nominations for Best New Musical and Best Director.
Arima’s London production, this time with an all-American cast, plays at the Paper Mill Playhouse through July 17. Paper Mill audiences who have already seen Arima’s alchemy at work with a deliberately humanized "Guys and Dolls" last June have every reason to expect that his new staging of "Ragtime" will be something special. For those unfamiliar with either the Tony-award winning musical or the novel, "Ragtime" entwines the lives of three families – African-American, WASP, and Jewish immigrants – into one kaleidoscopic tale of the American dream that also includes such famous historical figures as Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, J.P. Morgan, and Henry Ford.
At the center are Coalhouse Walker Jr., a fierce African-American piano man who seeks retribution when his Model T is destroyed by white racists; Sarah, the woman he loves; the prosperous white family; and Tateh, the Jewish immigrant who unwittingly becomes an entrepreneur in the motion picture industry. Many supporting but significant characters are excitingly woven into a tapestry of American life within an era of burgeoning industrialization, immigration, the movies, and baseball.
In an interview during a rehearsal break, Arima recalls that London producer Sonia Friedman, who had attended the Cardiff concert, was so moved by the story and the music by the end of the concert’s first act – which builds to the aching duet, "On the Wheels of a Dream" – that she phoned a producing associate to say that they must do this show in London. Because the musical had never before been seen or heard in Europe, nor had Friedman seen the original New York production, Arima says he believes "she was able to experience unencumbered the musical’s bare essentials." What the creative team realized was that they wanted to capitalize on the minimalist concept of the concert.
Arima’s connection with "Ragtime" actually began in 1995 when he was working as a production assistant for the composers during the very first reading of the musical in Toronto, Canada. A native of Toronto, Arima says: "As a young director I wanted the experience of working in the development of a new musical. What helped me in my own production in London was that I was able to draw on my experiences working with the authors and knowing from the beginning their original intent. Who knew that I would be able to draw from all that resourceful material for my own staging and not just remount the Broadway production?"
There is the question of whether a show famed for its spectacle as well as for its story is ultimately better served by a more intimate vision. There is no question in Arima’s mind when he answers, "It allows the characters to be front and center, for us to be absorbed in their journeys without having scenic elements upstage or overpower the story." Arima doesn’t believe that by creating a more universal world for this musical he is in conflict with what many think of as events, issues, and themes that are specifically American. "Although the story may seem to be unique to America, the experiences of these three tribes are universal. Yes, the American perspective of an African-American would be very different from someone in London, but as an Asian who was raised in Canada I know that an act of racism or hatred is something that people can connect with everywhere."
Exactly how different is the Paper Mill production from the one in London? "I know this sounds bizarre," Arima says, "but it is a re-visited production of a re-conceived version. We are keeping the visual and scenic elements, including designer Robert Jones’ costumes and his set, which will be re-built for the Paper Mill stage." Arima takes particular delight in describing the set, with its 14 misty glass panels that open and close for characters to appear, cloudy and in silhouette, and a slanted scrim that flies in on an angle, cutting the stage in half, "so that we can transform the stage into any place," he says, calling it "a psychological landscape of memory." But Arima sees "Ragtime" as more than a memory and more noticeably character driven, as Edgar, the little boy, recalls the events in his life beginning with Coalhouse Walker Jr.’s visit to his family and the discovery in their yard of a black baby in swaddling clothes.
His assertion that the musical has gained in stature by having the story told in a theatrically abstract and impressionistic design, of course, remains to be seen. "Time and place may be blurred," he says, "yet the costumes are true to the turn-of-the-century period. It’s just that the turbulent world that they live in is a little more fluid," and as he sees it, just as applicable to what is going on in America and the world today.
Arima says that staying true to the story was the most challenging aspect he had to confront without having to rely on technology. "I want to create magic without technology," he says, not quite divulging how he makes Houdini disappear down-stage right and suddenly re-appear up-stage left. "It was a challenge for me to trust the audience, the power of the stage, a piece of poetry and maybe one prop to tell a story."
Although this version of the script is a North American premiere, it is the same version used in London. "That we survived in London was a miracle considering that we opened on the day that the United States dropped its first bombs on Iraq," Arima says. "Not only were there were virtually no tourists from that day on but people didn’t want to see an American musical. We couldn’t get past the reality of the world that ironically mirrors what this show is all about. Despite this, we played three weeks longer than the 19 weeks originally schedule."
Arima, a 1992 graduate with a bachelors degree in theater studies from York University (Canada) and a recipient of the dean’s prize for excellence in creative work, is also the director of the current hit "AlterBoyz," the winner of this year’s Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway musical and "Children’s Letters to God," a recent Off-Broadway show. He served as associate director of "A Class Act" on Broadway and for the road company tour of "Seussical." Among his other directing credits are regional productions of "Smokey Joe’s Cafe," "Paint Your Wagon," "The Pajama Game," and "Jesus Christ Superstar."
When it comes to giving credit he refers to his association with both Harold Prince, with whom he worked as an assistant for the world premiere of "Show Boat" in Toronto and "The Petrified Prince" off-Broadway, and Drabinsky, who helped him in his career and helped give birth to "Ragtime."
"I was 10 years old when my mother took me to the theater for the first time in 1979 to see ‘Evita’ at the Shubert Theater in Los Angeles. Although we sat in the last row of the balcony and all I could see were ants scurrying around the stage, I fell instantly in love with the whole art form," says Arima.
Interestingly, Arima points out that musical theater was not indigenous to the Canadian world when he was growing up, but rather the new plays by Canadian playwrights and the classics being revived at the Shaw Festival and Stratford Festival were. But young Arima wouldn’t miss an opportunity to catch the occasional tour of an American musical when it played the Royal Alexandria. It wasn’t until Drabinsky and his company started to build this world of musicals in Toronto that the opportunity arose for Arima to work as a production assistant for a number of years.
Aside from his legal difficulties, Drabinsky is described by Arima as a "force of nature, a passionate man who headed up a company that got too big too fast for itself and just imploded." As for himself Arima says: "I’m a kid from the suburbs of Toronto who didn’t dream in a million years that I would grow up to direct a London musical." Maybe someone should tell the 36-year-old Arima that he too has been riding all along on the wheels of a dream.
Ragtime, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn. Through July 17. $31 to $68. 973-376-4343.