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Curtain comes down on sad 'Ragtime' band

A hit at the Kennedy Center, the complex musical with ensemble cast can't find its legs in New York.

January 05, 2010|By Peter Marks

Before the Dec. 28 evening performance of "Ragtime," the show's producers asked the cast to assemble on the stage of the Neil Simon Theatre for the dreaded announcement that always turns Broadway dreams to cinders: The lovingly crafted musical would have to shut its doors for good Jan. 10.

The producers offered affectionate valedictories, and some of the lead actors, like Christiane Noll and Quentin Earl Darrington, spoke rousingly too. "I told them that they should be proud of what they did," said Emanuel Azenberg, one of the show's lead producers. "I told them, 'You put this experience on the resume of your soul.' It was emotional. They were all gracious, and there were a lot of tears."

Those tears might have been shed not only over the brief Broadway life of the $8.5-million revival -- birthed last April at the Kennedy Center and reopened at the Neil Simon in November -- but also over the death of a passel of assumptions about what can survive these days on the treach- erous shoals of Times Square.

For what lingered after the closing notice went up was a sense that, whatever shortcomings "Ragtime" might possess, the production merited a better fate -- and might even have received one, at another time. Its early demise prompted questions about what's required to bring audiences in when the top ticket price is a whopping $126.50, meaning that on an evening out, a family of four might shell out more than $500 for prime seats in the theater.

The premature death -- and a loss of the show's entire investment -- raised another issue, about the nature of what might appear to flourish in one city and perish in another. Because this production will be remembered as having been a buoyant success in Washington, and an honorable failure in New York.

The autopsy for a Broadway show can be twisted almost any way you want, depending on what you want it to indicate: that the marketing strategy emphasized the wrong aspects of the show; that the ads were beautiful but sent a confusing signal; that the reviews just weren't strong enough; that the material's serious themes and dramatic design didn't jibe with contemporary popular tastes; that only brand-name stars put fannies in seats at these prices anymore.

Whichever path you choose, you eventually come to a truth about the nature of what Broadway has become: a venue not merely for solid nights of theater, but one-of-a-kind entertainment "events" -- some more deserving of that distinction than others. In that sense, "Ragtime" was behind the times. New York did not deem it to be an event.

"We know that what was on the stage was OK, but nobody came," said Azenberg, who has been producing on Broadway for 40 years. "The empirical bottom line is, they didn't come."

By more traditional measures of Broadway worthiness, "Ragtime" should have had its shot -- which is why the venture, however ill-fated, speaks well of its backers, and also why the producing team became passionately devoted to keeping it alive, even after its prospects dimmed. The show had no appreciable advance ticket sales, and, according to its producers, the only time in which it brought in enough money to offset the $550,000 weekly running costs was Christmas week, when the tills should have been ringing even more wildly.

The artistic ingredients surely gave supporters hope. The Kennedy Center revival was to be the vindication of an American musical -- with a flavorful score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and a libretto by Terrence McNally based on E.L. Doctorow's novel -- that had been lavishly overproduced on Broadway a decade ago. (Though it ran for two years, it never earned its way out of the red.)

As it turned out, Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the director-choreographer hired by the Kennedy Center, came up with a sleekly beautiful concept for a show with a complex, interwoven narrative about blacks, Jews and white Anglo-Saxons in New York at the turn of the 20th century: She placed the entire enterprise on a single trellised set and put the myriad characters, fictional and historical, more resolutely front and center -- "Ragtime" not as a history lesson, but as a story about families.

That it lacked a bona fide name player, particularly in the marquee role of Coalhouse Walker Jr., the rag-playing musician-turned-terrorist, reinforced the notion that this was a seamless ensemble -- the depiction of a patchwork country -- rather than a star vehicle.

In a city like Washington with far fewer options for big-scale musicals, "Ragtime" may have had an outsize effect. When it moved to New York, it not only faced more intense competition, it also had to find a niche in a theater world that has grown more and more dependent on tourists.

That it could not find a way to crack that hard shell is a shame, because the production still had a vibrant song to sing.

Peter Marks writes for the Washington Post.

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