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America, the Musical

E.L. Doctorow kept a close watch as 'Ragtime,' his best-selling historical novel, became a Broadway-bound event. Now he's enthralled with the stage's possibilities.

March 30, 1997|Eleanor Randolph | Eleanor Randolph is a Times staff writer

NEW YORK — E.L. Doctorow, the novelist, settled into an undersized chair at the Rose Cafe in Greenwich Village. He ordered coffee. He tidied his old-fashioned Bolshevik goatee with a quick sweep of the hand. And then he smiled like a man who savors his mischief, be it literary, personal or, in this case, promotional.

"I guess you heard they got their noses all out of joint about this," he begins conspiratorially. "They" are the public relations people who have organized the super-hype around "Ragtime," a new musical based on Doctorow's 1975 best-selling novel about America at the turn of the century. And "this" is this interview that was arranged--not by the official arrangers who are preparing for "Ragtime's" opening June 15 at the Shubert Theatre--but by the novelist himself.

"When I mentioned it, they said, 'Whoops, we have to check this out,' " he continued, laughing silently, "and so I said, 'Go ahead.' " He shrugged, making it clear that he had agreed to talk and therefore he would talk--about "Ragtime," the novel, and "Ragtime," the new musical, about writing and teaching, about historical fiction and fictional history.

"I think what has been created here, well, it is just amazing," he says of the musical now playing in Toronto. "But I must admit that it was not my idea to do this."

Doctorow had not been happy about an earlier adaptation of the book in a 1981 movie directed by Milos Forman. The problem for Doctorow's "Ragtime" is that even though it is easy to read, it is not a simple story. The lives of three fictional families in turn-of-the-century New York are interwoven with the stories of real figures like Houdini, the illusionist; Emma Goldman, the feminist radical; and Henry Ford. "Ragtime" also touches on the big issues of the day like immigration, unionism, racism and automation. It is a tapestry, Doctorow likes to say. If you pull out too many threads, it disintegrates.

So when Canadian producer Garth Drabinsky ("Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Show Boat") made his pitch in 1994 to create this musical, Doctorow wanted to make certain that the production was true to the book. He listened to Drabinsky over a long lunch at Manhattan's Russian Tea Room before he agreed to negotiate.

"I instinctively understood from the first approaches to me that Drabinsky really understood the book and was quite serious about mounting a show of real substance," Doctorow says.

Still, he wanted more than appreciation of his work. He wanted some control over the show, especially if it would have his name on it.

"I made certain conditions before going ahead, and one was that I would have approval of the creative people--the librettist, the lyricist, composer, director. I felt that would give me some protection," he says.

The first choice was apparently easy: Writer Terrence McNally ("Master Class," "Love! Valour! Compassion!") won immediate approval from both Drabinsky and Doctorow. The composers and lyricists auditioned for the job--Drabinsky invited 10 teams; eight produced their versions of "Ragtime." From their tapes, Drabinsky and Doctorow chose lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, a young duo whose previous work had included "Once on This Island" and "My Favorite Year." For director, they picked Frank Galati, who specialized in dramatic adaptations of such classics as Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," a production of which had impressed Doctorow when he saw it at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

"I have participated at every step of the way," Doctorow says now, noting that one song has been dropped at his urging and some "fine-tuning" is still being done in Toronto before the production moves to Century City.

Drabinsky, reached in Toronto at a "Ragtime" rehearsal, said that he "willingly" gave Doctorow approval over the creative team. Beyond that, he sought out the writer's views, comments and suggestions at every stage of the production. As Drabinsky says: "I always looked at Edgar from the beginning as a collaborator."

Some of Doctorow's suggestions were taken, he says, but at other times the novelist's ideas were "frankly, just wrong, mostly because of his inexperience with musical theater," Drabinsky says now.

"But I liked his feistiness, and I liked the fact that he was always looking at us with a critical eye," Drabinsky adds. "He was always pushing us, compelling us to rise to another level of our creative work.

"And, really, in the end if he wasn't ultimately happy with it, what's the point? I didn't want a disgruntled writer going around for three years being unhappy while this show was going on stage.

"I wanted him to be pleased. I wanted to be the student, and I wanted him to be the teacher. I wanted to be the student who pleased the teacher. I have tremendous, reverential respect for him."

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