By May S. Ruiz
The Pasadena Playhouse is presenting one of its most lavish productions yet – ‘Ragtime: The Musical.’ Directed by David Lee, with choreography by Mark Esposito and musical direction by Darryl Archibald, it is on stage from Tuesday, February 5 through Sunday, March 3, 2019.
Danny Feldman, The Playhouse’s indefatigable Producing Artistic Director, chats with us during the busiest day of rehearsal week, and tells us why he chose ‘Ragtime.’
“This 1997 musical was based on an E.L. Doctorow book written in the mid-1970s. It premiered at the Shubert Theatre in Century City before it was on Broadway. I saw ‘Ragtime’ 21 years ago and it was one of the most incredible shows I’d ever seen. It was a new production but it felt like this old-fashioned epic – with a lot of people, so much dancing, and a large orchestra. I fell in love with it!”
“About a year and a half ago, when I was planning this slot, I knew I wanted to do a big, splashy show for my second season,” continues Feldman. “We hadn’t done something like that in a while and I kept coming back to it. While the book was published in 1975 and the musical was first produced two decades later, ‘Ragtime’ felt tremendously relevant – like it was written today.
“The show deals with America at a decisive moment in our history, right after the turn of the century up until World War I. It was a time when America was going through radical change – when we were trying to figure out who we were, striving to get along with one another, and considering what kind of country we wanted to be.
“Then I realized we were in another one of these moments. We’re again asking ourselves ‘What is America about?,’ ‘How are we moving forward?’ There’s a great deal of clash and conflict right now. ‘Ragtime: The Musical’ explores that conflict – not today’s, but that at the turn of the century, yet there are so many parallels to it. I suspect that people who are watching the show, who’ve seen it before or even those who’ve never seen it before now, will think we altered it to make it about today. But we didn’t change a word!”
Explains Feldman, “One of the through lines in the show was about women standing up for themselves, redefining their relationship in the household, and finding value. Then there was the African-American family who suffered a hate crime perpetrated against them, representing the theme of justice and fighting for what’s right. The third family we’re following personifies Jewish immigrants coming through Ellis Island, what they faced as outsiders, and how Americans treated them.
“These same issues are in the news every day! It’s not a play about 2019 but in many ways it is a play about 2019. And, like any masterpiece or great piece of art, when looked at over time through a new lens, we see different things in it. And with ‘Ragtime’ we’ll find distinct aspects in it today, given where we’re at. As serious as I make it sound, though, it’s also wildly entertaining. It’s a brilliantly constructed show full of sentiment and laughs; it hits you in the heart and the gut all at once. It is, ultimately, an American story that’s uplifting and hopeful. I think it has the power to move people deeply.
“It’s these things all rolled into one great night of theatre. And it’s not done a lot because it’s a pretty big undertaking. It has a 16-piece orchestra and a 21-person cast. We’re jumping all over New York in terms of locations in the story.”
The sheer enormity of the show makes for a truly amazing experience for the audience. Says Feldman, “Our stage is as big as that of a Broadway’s but our seating area isn’t; the Shubert Theatre, I think, had over 2,000 seats. But that’s great because watching that size musical in a 650-seat venue gives you a more intimate experience – you’re really connecting with what’s happening on stage.
“Watching rehearsals, I’m reminded that the combined resonance created by 21 actors with big voices and an orchestra is so powerful, particularly when they’re singing this beautiful score; it knocks you over. It’s pretty exciting! The experience you’ll have sitting in this theatre hearing 40 musicians and actors singing at you, I don’t know where else you get that.”
Asked if he’s making a statement with this show, Feldman replies with a thunderous “Yes! I’m glad you’re listening! The Pasadena Playhouse creates audacious shows. Sometimes it’s in the form of ‘Bordertown Now’ which is the culture of what’s going on today. Sometimes it’s a big celebrity doing a play here. But sometimes it’s a big, bold, ambitious musical. I think everything I try to program and create here has a sense of adventure and boldness in it. I want our audiences, whenever they come here, to be surprised by something we’re doing and to really feel something they’re not used to feeling. This show is in line with all our other ambitious projects.”
“The next play we have coming up, ‘Tiny, Beautiful Things,’ is just as bold in a very different way. I think the impact of a show as grand as ‘Ragtime’ and the intimacy of a little production like ‘Tiny, Beautiful Things’ will demonstrate what we’ve already done since I’ve been here, and what we’re constantly trying to accomplish – that to be a whole theatre experience you need the big and the bold as much as the small and the quiet. And they’re equally powerful.”
Throughout its hundred-year history, the Pasadena Playhouse has retained its core mission. Reiterates Feldman, “A lot of the theatre people go to see are national tours – ‘Hello Dolly’ or ‘Jersey Boys,’ for instance. They’re great! I see all of them and I love them all. I’m a huge fan of bringing in all these big Broadway musicals for people to enjoy. But we’re different here, we don’t see the show in New York and decide we’d rent the sets and the costumes and bring the show here as part of a tour stop.
“However, I don’t want to come off as being negative about national tours and theatres that do. To have a healthy theatre ecosystem, you need those who are building it by themselves and others who are bringing it in; those are necessary components for an interesting cultural landscape.
“My goal is to have as many people as possible see our work. If, in the future, someone sees our show and says ‘Let’s take it to other places’ that would be delightful, but that’s not why we exist. We exist to serve this community. That’s been our mission for a hundred years and we’re continuing to do that. It’s what the Pasadena Playhouse is all about.
“We’re proud that ‘Ragtime’ is made here; it’s pretty much like growing organic grapes. We start with a blank page where people come together and say, ‘For four weeks, we’re going to tell this story on this stage in a big, bold way.’ It is created of, by, and for this community. And that’s what makes it extra special.”
The stories of the three families we’re following in ‘Ragtime’ unfold in New York, yet they could very well happen here. Feldman asserts, “While we have a unique history in Pasadena, we also have conversations about race and instances of segregation. I think Americans, as a culture, don’t want to talk about the troubled parts of our past. We have a way of thinking ‘We know this happened in our past and it’s shameful. But that was the past, it’s not now.’ That’s something we explored in ‘Hold These Truths,’ a play we did about the Japanese internment camps during the anniversary of the imprisonment.
“To me, the reason theatre looks back at history isn’t to shame anyone, but to learn from things we’ve done in the past. Because, whether we like it or not, that’s part of who we are as a people. A production like ‘Ragtime’ speaks to our past as if to say ‘Let’s unpack this.’ There are moments that are uncomfortable. But the goal, particularly with ‘Ragtime,’ is not to dwell in it for the sake of dwelling in it. It’s to show, in many ways, how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. Our job as a theatre, and mine as an Artistic Director, isn’t to prescribe that for people but to put the work out there and let people take from it what they will.”
If audiences, after watching ‘Ragtime’ at the Pasadena Playhouse, examine their own failings and resolve to be better human beings, then theatre will have served a higher purpose than merely entertained. And that would, indeed, be a noble feat.