Terrence McNally honored as ’Ragtime’ comes to Dorchester
Rarely or ever do you expect to hear the words "Let's put on a play!" from a civic organization.
But the American Civil Liberties Union is not your ordinary group.
So, two years from when the ACLU's executive director Carol Rose approached Fiddlehead Theatre's artistic director Meg Fofonoff to do a play with the ACLU's sponsorship, the 1998 multi-Tony Award-winning musical "Ragtime" is set to open on September 28, 2012 in Dorchester's historic Strand Theatre.
Fittingly, that recently renovated and restored 1000-seat house was built a hundred years ago about the time when the "Ragtime" story takes place. The vibrant exploration of the immigrant experience in America will have a two week run at the Uphams Corner theater.
They got the ball rolling this past Saturday night, September 15, at The Taj Boston over-looking the Boston Public Garden when "Ragtime" playwright Terrence McNally came to town to accept the ACLU's Beacon of Liberty Award.
An infinite well
The evening reception was attended by the musical’s 40-member Fiddlehead Theatre Company cast of New York and Boston area actors who performed and a host of excited supporters of this unusual theatrical venture. Also there was a representative of Playbill magazine which is a sponsor of the production.
Accepting the award, Mr. McNally noted that his collaborators on "Ragtime," lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, were unable to accept this honor with him as they are in Frankfurt for the opening of their "Rocky Das Musical" (book by Thomas Meehan) done in German which is slated to come to Broadway in English next season as, of course, "Rocky The Musical." (Drew Sarich plays Rocky Balboa based in a story based on Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 film).
First of all McNally praised E.L. Doctorow. the author of the 1975 best seller, for a story that is "an infinite well we kept drawing from.
"It’s a slender book, you could read it if you put your mind to it, in a single evening; but every sentence, every moment of it could have been musicalized.
"We tried to express the spirit of the work, a work I believe is The Great American Novel. So to my mind the ACLU also honors Ed Doctorow with this award."
In this together
Both novel and the musical depict three groups in the U.S. in the early 20th century: African Americans represented by Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a Harlem musician and race man; upper-class suburbanites of New Rochelle, New York, represented by Mother, the matriarch of a family whose interests run from capitalism to women’s rights; and Eastern European immigrants, represented by Tateh, a Latvian Jew. There are also historical figures of the time such as Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, J. P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, and Admiral Perry and Matthew Henson.
Mr. McNally went on to say that he thinks it’s significant that that ACLU would sponsor a production of "Ragtime" at this point in American history, which McNally sees as "a crossroads with the (Presidential) election coming up.
"Why is equality so hard?" he pondered aloud. "We get to our little place of achieving it and our hearts shut down to others."
For McNally, an inspirational moment in his play is when Mother finds an abandoned African American infant in her garden. Without hesitation she takes the child in to raise the baby as part of her family, doing so, McNally noted, "without a thought of any ramification (from racism).
"We’re all in this together, we need to bring the ship (of equality) home with everyone aboard," he said.
His words were the preamble to the "Ragtime" cast coming out to sing from the show the stirring "’Til We Reach That Day," which brought the gala to its feet.
Struggle for identity
The production also has the support of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who, uniquely among city mayors, has been at the core of revitalizing a considerable number of historic theater buildings from, for example, the Broadway Across Boston run Boston Opera House on Washington Street to the Strand, which is run by the city.
"Ragtime" opens the Strand’s 2012-2013 season which also includes performances by the Boston Ballet, the Boston Children’s Chorus, and Jose Mateo’s Ballet Theater’s annual "Nutcracker," along with some plays from Boston’s Haitian community.
The mayor’s director of arts, tourism, and special events, Christopher Cook, told EDGE at the reception that staging "Ragtime" is an "honor because the show’s story reflects the struggles and themes of American identity."
He added that the Strand is the perfect theater for the musical because it sits in a community that historically has been a haven for immigrants from the Irish escaping the famine to today’s new citizens. He noted that the mayor is particularly interested in having the beautiful theater stage works that are pertinent to the Strand’s neighbors, and observed that nearby Jones Hill "is a gay enclave in Dorchester that we’d love to see put on programs at the Strand."
ACLU of Massachusetts executive director Carol Rose also spoke privately with EDGE. She is pleased with the right fit with ACLU of "Ragtime"’s theme.
It has a story she sees as "dedicated to the notion that all human beings long for equality" and how in this generation, ten years from the musical’s debut, and more than 30 years from the novel’s publication, the power of that theme resonates so strongly with the LGBT community’s striving for its civil rights including gay marriage.
A transformative show
It’s the people listening to the message that gives it, its contemporary resonance. "The Founding Fathers who were slave holders wrote of liberty for themselves but the slaves were hearing the message too," she said.
Noted philanthropist Ron Ansin, who chairs the ACLU board of trustees, told EDGE that he finds the experience of seeing "Ragtime" as transformative and that the show "puts the ACLU message of equity to music with artistic expression." (His contribution to the Fenway Health Center resulted in a building named for his family).
For Mr. McNally, a gay man, the pursuit of equality expressed by "Ragtime" has a very personal angle. He is amazed by "the changes I’ve seen in my lifetime. Seventy-four years later I’m a married man. The fight (for gay rights) and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will never stop, of course."
The gains are enormous, however, he said. "and marriage for me is happiness."
"Ragtime" opens September 28, 2012 at the Stand Theater, 543 Columbia Rd. in Boston to run through October 7, 2012. For tickets or more info please call 866-811-4111 or visit www.fiddleheadtheatre.com. For group sales (10 or more) please call Show of the Month at 617-338-1111.