Springfield Contemporary Theatre Tackles the "Epic" Musical "Ragtime"

Feb 16, 2018

"Ragtime" opens a three-weekend run at SCT Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza tonight (Feb.16) through March 4.
Credit (Poster design courtesy Springfield Contemporary Theatre)

“It’s an epic musical—it’s really one of the great, great American musicals. And... it’s an undertaking!” Rick Dines continues his long association with Springfield Contemporary Theatre by directing the new production of the Tony-winning musical “Ragtime,” based on the E.L. Doctorow novel, tonight through March 4th at SCT Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza.  While “epic” and “SCT Center Stage” don’t naturally go together in the same sentence, Dines couldn’t help himself: he had to get this show on the stage.

“A couple of people have mentioned (“Ragtime”) in the past, and I always kind of laughed it off and thought, ‘Oh, you’re delusional! That show is mammoth!  I don’t know why you would ever think that we should look at that!’  And then, as we were putting the season together for this year, things started coming together after the (2016) election... and my mind went back to this show, and the huge, vast amount of things it deals with. And it spoke to me anew.”

Dines then re-read the “Ragtime” script, and read analyses and criticisms that had been written about the show, particularly the writings of the respected St. Louis-based theatre dramaturg Scott Miller.  “It was maybe a year after the original production in New York was running. And he commented about how, while it is an epic show, most of the show is played on a nearly bare stage.  When there were scenic pieces (on stage) they were suggestive, they were small.  The material is what’s ‘epic.’  It tells an epic story.  The music is epic. But really, he commented, there’s no reason this show can’t be produced on a small stage—it is not ‘Les Mis,’ or ‘Phantom of the Opera’ or ‘Miss Saigon.’ It doesn’t need spectacle: the story IS the spectacle.  And this was before anybody had ever staged it in a way smaller than that original big production.  And over the last four or five years you’ve started to see a rash of smaller-scaled, smaller-sized productions of (“Ragtime”) throughout the country at several major theater companies.” Dines was finally convinced that SCT could tackle it.  “It’s still mammoth—but it’s scaled to the venue.”

“Ragtime” weaves together the stories of three groups of people in America in the early 1900s, between about 1906 and the World War One era, which Rick Dines calls a “really defining decade in American history. E.L. Doctorow did a magnificent job in the novel which (the show) is based on, meshing these three major fictional lead characters and the people that surround them, representative of larger groups.” The representatives are Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr.; a white middle-class mother from suburban New Rochelle, NY; and Tateh, a Jewish immigrant who comes to America with his daughter seeking a new life.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of both book and musical is how they seamlessly intertwine a number of historical figures of the period into the narrative and the lead characters’ lives: people such as Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, JP Morgan, Admiral Peary and Henry Ford. “You truly read the novel, and then you have to go back and go, ‘Now, how much of that happened, and how much didn’t happen?’” says Dines, “because it’s so well interwoven and constructed, all of these people that they come in contact with in different capacities, and how that plays out in defining this era of American history and what we were going through as a country.  It’s a very uniquely American story, set to a very uniquely American music (ragtime). I’ve said to multiple people, as ‘1776’ or ‘Hamilton’ are epic musicals about the founding of the United States, ‘Ragtime’ is really the epic musical about the maturing of this country.  It deals with women’s rights, and immigration, and civil rights, and labor issues. And on and on and on.  Stuff that, coming through the (2016) election, I went, ‘this is all the same things we were discussing a year ago in great detail.’” And it was being discussed over a hundred years ago as well. Dines continues, “Not to give too much away, but there’s a central character, an unarmed African American character, who dies at the hands of the authorities, that ends the first act.  And I just kept sitting there reading this, going, ‘this “historical” piece keeps resonating with everything in the headlines.’ So this had a lot to do with the decision to go ahead and move on it.”

Following the Friday, February 16 opening night, "Ragtime" at SCT Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza will run Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm through March 4. Rick Dines says it’s already selling briskly: Saturday the 17th is basically full, and patrons might have the best luck acquiring tickets if they go for the final weekend March 1st through 4th.  For tickets call 831-8001 or visit www.springfieldcontemporarytheatre.org.