The Milwaukee Repertory Theatre kicks off its fall season with its largest-ever production, the musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s American epic “Ragtime.” And Rep artistic director Mark Clements, who is directing the show, doesn’t mind telling you he’s both enthralled and exhausted by the process.
“With 35 actors onstage and an orchestra each night, we have the largest cast in the history of this theater company and a fitting start to the Rep’s 60th anniversary season,” says Clements. “It’s quite an undertaking and I’m very excited.”
Doctorow’s novel, adapted for the stage by out playwright Terrence McNally, with music by Stephan Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, is set during the dawning of America’s industrial age in the early 20th century. That’s when the nation charted courses on immigration, mass production, race relations and other issues that have come to define American society as we know it today.
Against this backdrop, Doctorow wove the tales of three interconnected sets of lives that coalesce and collide in ways that define their society. Adapting such a complicated narrative was a daunting task, McNally says.
“The source material is strong, clear and resonant. The biggest challenge for the three of us (including Flaherty and Ahrens) was to choose wisely which parts of the novel to bring to the stage,” McNally says. “We were so eager not to fuck it up.”
The characters McNally and his co-creators chose to include were: Coalhouse Walker Jr., a successful Harlem musician, and his wife Sarah; Mother, the matriarch of a white upper-class family in New Rochelle; and Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia.
The novel also is populated by actual historical figures of the day, including illusionist Harry Houdini, industrialist Henry Ford, radical Emma Goldman, inventor Booker T. Washington and others. Those historical figures add depth to the novel, but created challenges for its adapters, says McNally, who won a 1998 Tony Award for his adaptation.
“Every sentence of Doctorow’s prose suggests music and every scene could be musicalized. But had we done that, we would have had a piece longer than Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle,’” McNally says. “So we focused on the consequences of Mother taking in Sarah and her baby. Everything else in the narrative comes from that single action.”
The appearance of the African-American Sarah in a lily-white suburb prompts a racist act of retaliation that’s designed to put Coalhouse Walker “in his place,” setting the stage for the conflict that drives the show. The narrative sheds light on the emerging concept of the American dream and what it meant for people of different social classes, Clements says.
“Coalhouse trusts in the dream and believes if you live your life right you should be rewarded accordingly,” Clements says. “When it doesn’t happen, he feels an abject sense of betrayal and he has a specific way to handle that disappointment.”
How Walker handles that betrayal, while providing an exciting climax to the show, still leaves the audience asking questions.
“What is the acceptable and appropriate level of retribution for the injustice he experiences?” Clements asks. “There is no distinct answer to that question.”
But the audience is left with a stunning piece of theater. In addition to McNally’s honor, “Ragtime” won 11 other Tony Awards and 13 Drama Desk awards in 1998. The show earned 13 more Tony and Drama Desk awards when it was revived in 2009. Clements and McNally hope the Rep’s production will capture both the spirit and excitement of the original show.
“I hope the show finds enthusiastic audiences in Milwaukee, especially among young people,” McNally says. “I can think of no better show to introduce the wonders, the power and the infinite possibilities of theatrical storytelling to young theatergoers than ‘Ragtime.’”
The Rep’s season at a glance
The Milwaukee Rep again fills its stages with music, drama, laughter and song this season. The schedule offers a number of works that have particular appeal to LGBT audiences. The group’s 2013–14 season includes:
• “Venus in Furs” (Stiemke Studio). In David Ive’s new stage adaptation of the classic erotic novel, veteran Rep director Laura Gordon take on a comic blend of love, libido and literature, Sept. 25–Nov. 3.
• “Forever Plaid” (Stackner Cabaret). Everyone’s favorite 1950s male quartet returns from the dead to doo-wop their way through a playlist of familiar hits, Oct. 25–Dec. 29.
• “A Christmas Carol” (Pabst Theatre). The Charles Dickens classic is an annual favorite at the Rep, offering a holiday libation for those in need of seasonal redemption, Nov. 27–Dec. 24.
• “Noises Off” (Quadracci Powerhouse). Michael Frayn’s “funniest farce ever written” concerns a disastrous touring company and the even worse play it presents, Nov. 19–Dec. 22.
• “Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie” (Stackner Cabaret). A must-see for Guthrie fans, this production features 25 songs from the writer of “This Land is Your Land,” Jan. 3–March 9.
• “End of the Rainbow” (Quadracci Powerhouse). For both hardcore fans and people too young to remember Judy Garland’s legendary 1968 London comeback performance, Hollis Resnick resurrects the gay icon and world’s favorite tragic chanteuse, Jan. 7–Feb. 9.
• “The Whipping Man” (Stiemke Studio). Matthew Lopez’s tale follows a wounded Jewish Confederate soldier who returns home after the Civil War to find a household comprised of two former slaves, also raised Jewish, Feb. 5–March 16.
• “An Iliad” (Quadracci Powerhouse). American Players Theatre favorite James DeVita embodies Homer’s immortal tale in a one-man show sure to enthrall fans of both the epic and the actor, Feb. 25–March 23.
• “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (Stackner Cabaret). This forerunner of all jukebox musicals mixes the height of the Harlem Renaissance with the music of Fats Waller, March 14–May 18.
• “Rep Lab” (Stiemke Studio). The Rep’s lauded intern ensemble comes together again for the Rep’s fourth annual short-play festival, March 28–31.
• “The History of Invulnerability” (Quadracci Powerhouse). Based on a true story, this production chronicles the creation of the character Superman in 1938 by Jerry Siegel, a Jewish boy from Cleveland who needed a hero as much as pre-World War II Europe needed a savior, April 8–May 4.