Today’s formative-album replay: Ragtime: The Musical (Studio Cast Recording). What are musicals for? I don't just mean what purpose this signature American art form--arguably the American art form--serves but what it stands for. I’d argue that with its hybrid roots in minstrelsy, operetta, Yiddishkeit, and Americana, the musical as we know it stands for the idea of America itself, in all its idealism and tragedy, bounty and perfidy. From Show Boat to Hamilton, the American musical at its most ambitious (and occasionally pretentious, sure) has taken as its implicit or explicit subject the founding (Oklahoma!, 1776) and the foundering (Parade, Assassins) of our nation. (I’d say this is even true when the setting is Anatevka or feudal Japan, though that may be an argument for another day.)
No musical in the canon epitomizes the full scope of the form and its implications more definitively than Ragtime, the brilliant distillation of E.L. Doctorow’s multivocal novel that had its U.S. premiere exactly 20 years ago today at the Shubert Theatre in West L.A. (before later opening with a separate cast on Broadway). In fact it’s almost too on the nose: The panoramic turn-of-the-century story of a black pianist, a poor Jewish immigrant, and a fracturing WASP family, with assorted showbiz figures and captains of industry thrown in for good measure, both cries out to be musicalized and daunts the palate with surfeit. That may be why, as much as I happily binged on that L.A. production and this early studio cast album (which I played more faithfully than the later 2-disc Broadway rendition), I faintly dreaded this replay, as I have a few other records I feared I’d loved not wisely but too well.
I need not have worried. The genius of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’s songs, framed by Terrence McNally’s book, lies in how well and consistently they hit a difficult musical theatre sweet spot: embracing both the big, simple, seemingly obvious ideas and layering in complicated dramatic cross-currents that draw us in and drive the story forward. It’s there from the start, in the title metaphor of a musical collision that will make a decisive tear in the national fabric, for both better and worse (remember that George M. Cohan’s original title was “Grand Old Rag”). There are more bracing juxtapositions to come, all containing both promise and payoff: The linking of Coalhouse’s eligible-bachelor manhood to car ownership in “Gettin’ Ready Rag” and “Henry Ford” (which in turn touches on themes of an industrial revolution against labor) presages the song that broadens this connection into the Pyhrric anthem “Wheels of a Dream.” The surging exchange of idealism and cynicism in “He Wanted to Say” speaks volumes about the divide between liberal wishfulness and revolutionary radicalism, and the final impotence of both. Even more straightforwardly focused songs like “The Night That Goldman Spoke” or “Your Daddy’s Son,” or crackerjack diversions like “What a Game,” travel so far in just a few minutes it’s dizzying. (One reason I can never play cast albums as background music.)
It’s a fair criticism that the score and show are marbled with a streak of deadly earnestness--there may be a few too many broad-shouldered power ballads making Big Statements, a few too many signposted Moments of Significance (“Two men meeting!”), a problem especially forefronted in the so-so 2009 Broadway revival. For what it's worth, I’ve also never been very fond of either of Tateh’s twinkly solos (“Gliding,” “Buffalo Nickel”). For every quibble, though, there are several more beats that land with a gracefully calibrated punch, like the quietly glorious “New Music,” in which the implications of the title's “music of something beginning”--i.e., it will also mean that something must end--play out on an intimate, heartbreaking scale. This is the show’s tricky signature move: both glancing nostalgically back and unflinchingly forward, nowhere better (as Rachel Shukert points out) than in the feminist ballad “Back to Before.”
It helps that Flaherty and Ahrens also work in less rock-ribbed registers, as in the Kander & Ebb-esque “Crime of the Century” or a rueful outtake I cherish, “The Show Biz”; and there are some entirely appropriate echoes of two great musical monsters, Gypsy and Sweeney, in “Coalhouse’s Soliloquy.” I've been more mixed on this writing team’s output since, but with Ragtime they siezed the opportunity of a lifetime and made more than the most of it. They captured a spinning American century in a big, swirling bottle, and I'll be damned if it still doesn't go down like champagne.
Previous cast album replays: Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, Pacific Overtures, Oliver!.