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  • Kerry Auer Fergus

Ragtime: Beneath the Surface

When I was younger, I had the opportunity to meet E. L. Doctorow. The author was leading a discussion about his work, and when asked about Ragtime he began to explain how the novel was born. Apparently, he was sitting in his home in New Rochelle, suffering from a particularly bad case of writer’s block (a feeling that happens to resonate very strongly with me in this particular moment as it has taken me quite a while to begin this particular article, but I digress). For lack of something better to write about, he began to describe the exposed brick wall in front of him. This led him to think about the house itself. And then Doctorow began to wonder about the family that would have lived in this house all the way back in 1902 when it was first built. Who would they have been? In an age of great racial divides, how would they have interacted with the world around them? Could they, by chance, have crossed paths with any of the famous figures of that age? Men like J. P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, or Booker T. Washington? Doctorow’s errant speculations eventually became the novel Ragtime. And Ragtime the novel eventually became Ragtime the musical.

I think about that story a lot when I listen to the music of Ragtime – how a brick wall and a case of writer’s block led to a novel that has resonated so deeply with thousands of readers. But how can we account for the great popularity of both novel and show? Well, the truly brilliant thing about Ragtime is how it handles all these intersecting storylines. It is no small task to relate the narratives of three such different characters as Mother, Tateh, and Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (If you're having a hard time keeping the characters straight I would recommend quickly taking a look at the plot synopsis before going any further.) When you think about it, the sheer scope of the novel is somewhat incredible. If you’ve read the book or perhaps seen the musical Ragtime and especially if you were lucky enough to see one of the Broadway productions, you’ll know that this is a story of EPIC proportions. In the opening number alone, we are introduced to the Little Boy, Father, Mother, Younger Brother, Grandfather, Coalhouse, Sarah, Booker T. Washington, Tateh, the Little Girl, Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbitt, Stanford White, and Harry K. Thaw as well as three separate ensembles. (Whew!) That is a lot of characters. And there is a lot of plot that needs to be covered before the curtain falls. The incredible scope of Ragtime accounts for both its great appeal and possibly it’s greatest flaw. For you see, the reality is that many critics over the years have accused Ragtime of being all spectacle and no substance (the very grandiose nature of the prologue could perhaps be considered proof of this). In light of the criticism leveled against it, I was curious then to see if there was any depth to the musical structure of this show that I know and love so well.

First let’s take a look at how the show is constructed. Ahrens brilliantly uses the score to propel the action forward. Since the narrative is so complicated, Ahrens’ lyrics often have to be explanatory and yet she accomplishes the occasionally boring task of exposition with grace and economy. Listen to “Success” for an example of how the music can drive the action of the plot forward far more quickly than could have been accomplished in a straight play.

Another of Ragtime’s strengths is the way in which composer Flaherty incorporates the musical styles of the era into an undeniably contemporary score. For an example of this, consider the shifting sounds of the opening prologue. The mood of the music changes materially as new characters are introduced. The prim musings of the New Rochelle ensemble give way to the ragged rhythms of Coalhouse and his companions. Then, as Flaherty shifts from the more authentic “ragtime” sound of the Harlem ensemble to the music of the immigrants, he uses klezmer musical traditions to give it an Eastern European flavor. Klezmer is the music of Ashkenazi Jews (Does Ashkenazi sound familiar? It should. It’s the alter-ego Tateh assumes in Act II.) In this case, Flaherty uses the orchestrations to capture the klezmer sound of Tateh’s people—in particular, you can rely on solo violins to accompany Tateh throughout the show.

Okay, so now we have a handle on how the show is constructed. We have music being used to propel the action forward. We have a score drawn from a variety of musical traditions (ragtime, vaudeville, and klezmer to name a few) that give the show an “authentic” turn of the century feel. These various musical styles also help us to compartmentalize the various plots by associating particular storylines with particular types of music. With all that in mind, it’s time we took a look at some of the individual characters.

First, let’s talk about Mother’s musical language. Mother has a very defined voice in Ragtime. In fact, I would argue that she is one of the only characters in the show with a consistent musical vocabulary. And actually, she may be a little too consistent, but I’ll get to that in a second. First, let’s define her musical language.

To start with, basically everything that Mother sings is in 3/4 time. This includes “Goodbye, My Love,” “What Kind of Woman,” “Nothing Like the City,” “Our Children,” and “Back to Before.” That is a significant chunk of music. Moreover, she has a very specific rhythmic profile that is characterized by steady quarter note rhythms. Now obviously I’m not saying that Mother never uses eighth notes or whole notes or half notes, but the general feel of her music is very even and that’s because of these steady quarter beats. As she’s moving in these steady rhythmic patterns, the notes are mostly moving stepwise - this means that the notes are all close together as opposed to making big intervallic leaps. To get a sense for both the even rhythms and the stepwise motion that define Mother’s musical language, I would recommend listening to the opening bars of “What Kind of Woman.” (But also, you should listen to the entire piece because it’s AWESOME and Marin Mazie is wonderful as Mother). I’m a big fan of “What Kind of Woman.” For some reason, it resonates with me so much more than Mother’s big second act showstopper “Back to Before,” but then I’ve always been a fan of dramatic musical moments and this number certainly serves up the drama.

“What Kind of Woman” is a great example of how music can be used to elevate a scene. You have these sort of frantic arpeggios in the accompaniment and then suddenly—right at the moment when Mother makes this crucial decision—they stop. It elevates the drama of the moment, and this is definitely a moment you’ll want to pay attention to. Mother’s decision to take Sarah and her child into her home sets in motion an entire series of events that will forever change the lives of Mother’s family in particular and the greater community in general.

What I love about Mother’s musical language is how it so aptly captures who she is. The even rhythms, the consistency in meter, and the steady stepwise motion all indicate great maturity and stability. So far, so good. Flaherty and Ahrens have created a musical profile that perfectly matches the character. But what happens next? Considering how deeply Mother is altered by the events of the show, one might reasonably expect her music to undergo a major transformation as well. But Mother’s second act I’m-declaring-my-independence anthem begins and what do we hear? Why, it’s 3/4 time! And steady rhythms! And stepwise motion! If the music is any indication, Mother hasn’t changed at all.

However, at the very last moment Mother does make a huge change to her musical language and it’s one that has significant thematic implications. In the last measures of “Back to Before,” Mother belts. Thus far, all of her music can (and should) be sung in a more legit vocal style. Belting out the end of her anthem is Mother’s way of saying that she will no longer be a slave to societal expectations. She is self-sufficient. She is confident. She will move forward into this new age. In reference to Mother’s incredible shift in perspective, composer Stephen Flaherty argues that this is actually what the whole show is about. In a 2009 interview, he explains that Ragtime is “the voyage of a woman starting as a soprano and learning to be a belter.” 1

So what do we do with all of this information? Well, musical analysis is often a matter of interpretation and not everyone will agree on how this knowledge should be applied. For instance, the lack of variation in general throughout Mother’s music can be interpreted a few different ways. Those self-same critics who accused Ragtime of being all show and no substance might argue that it is a sign of lazy writing since the composers have seemingly given us a score that only scratches the surface of musical development. Following this line of reasoning, one might assume that if Mother’s language doesn’t evolve all that much, it may simply indicate a lack of depth in the writers and not a lack of development in the character.

However, others might argue (myself among them) that Mother’s music doesn’t need to evolve because her character does not truly change in essentials. She has always been strong, steady, and mature. She just needs to take her life back into her own hands. The actor who interprets the score in this way can then build their portrayal of the character out of this information. Other ideas are less open to interpretation. Since the composer himself has indicated that Mother’s shift to belt is the defining moment of the show, we can safely assume that all of Mother’s previous material has to be sung legit.

Coalhouse is not as easily understood. The music of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. can be divided into two distinct categories. Half of his music is heavily influenced by ragtime: solo piano accompaniment, syncopated rhythms in the melody, and even rhythms in the bass for contrast. “New Music,” “His Names Was Coalhouse Walker,” “Gettin’ Ready Rag,” and “Sarah Brown Eyes” all fall into this category. However the other half of Coalhouse’s music is undeniably contemporary. “Wheels of a Dream,” for example, could easily be extracted and plopped right into a musical that takes place today. Nothing about it truly reflects the era of the show. “Make Them Hear You” is similarly contemporary.

Actually, “Wheels of a Dream” and “Make Them Hear You” have a lot in common. Consider the phrase “wheels of a dream” and compare it with “make them hear you.” Sound familiar? Both are descending phrases with four notes and four words, covering the distance of a major third. This is enough in the world of musical analysis to justify a comparison. Additionally, both pieces have these shimmery 16th note arpeggios in the accompaniment, and both use modulations at key points in the text to amplify the drama. So these two songs are clearly linked, but why? What functional purpose could this serve? Let’s put a pin in that and look at the rest of his music.

“Coalhouse’s Soliloquy” also falls in the contemporary category. Although the piece later borrows passages from “Wheels of a Dream” and the opening prologue, the first half of this soliloquy is actually drawn directly from Sarah’s Act I solo number “Daddy’s Son.” I really love the connection between these two pieces, particularly because of the phrases that Coalhouse borrows. “Couldn’t hear no music. Couldn’t see no light,” sang Sarah in Act I. But now Coalhouse twists the lyrics, singing, “Say goodbye to music. Say goodbye to light.” The parallel is particularly interesting when you consider that each of them has reached their absolute lowest point when they turn to this melody and these words. It illustrates how very similar these two characters are. Coalhouse didn’t hear Sarah sing “Daddy’s Son” so he can’t be quoting her directly. And yet in his darkest moment, his soul has found an outlet in the very same music that Sarah had used in her darkest hour. The double appearance of “Daddy’s Son” highlights the tragedy of the moment. Sarah and Coalhouse were so clearly meant for each other—their shared musical language illustrates this—but now Sarah is dead and Coalhouse has launched himself on a path of destruction.

So now we understand that “Wheels of a Dream,” “Coalhouse’s Soliloquy,” and “Make Them Hear You” are all far more contemporary than Coalhouse’s other musical material. But what can this tell us about the character and how might the actor use this information to enrich his performance? Well, as always, interpretation is a tricky thing and there are a number of ways that we can explain Coalhouse’s musical choices.

What if we consider Coalhouse’s music from a structural perspective? The pieces in his repertoire that are influenced by ragtime (this includes “His Name was Coalhouse Walker,” “Gettin’ Ready Rag,” and “New Music”) all have one important thing in common. Each exists within the structure of the show as diegetic music. Diegetic music is a type of music where the source is literally present onstage. For example, in the case of “His Name was Coalhouse Walker” or “New Music,” Coalhouse is playing the piano. Thus the music literally exists within the reality of the show and the characters are aware that it is being played. In that case, how could these pieces be anything other than ragtime? It would be illogical for Coalhouse to play a contemporary ballad on the piano in 1906. The diegetic nature of these pieces helps us to better understand why Coalhouse might have two very distinct musical languages.

The second explanation for Coalhouse’s inconsistent musical language can be taken in conjunction with our diegetic theory or understood separately. It involves taking a closer look at Coalhouse’s more contemporary pieces. Remember when I asked you to put a pin in our comparison of “Wheels of a Dream” and “Make Them Hear You?” Well, now is the time to revisit that idea. Clearly, these two pieces have a lot in common. The question is why. I personally believe that Coalhouse’s three “contemporary” pieces are connected in that each is a more intimate look at Coalhouse’s deepest thoughts: his hope for the future, his grief at losing Sarah, and his determination to address the injustices of our world. All three are deeply personal. So perhaps this is the key to our musical dilemma. Perhaps Coalhouse has two different ways of expressing himself because there are two very different types of ideas he needs to express.

In light of all this, I think Ragtime can teach us a very important lesson. It’s easy to dismiss a score as superficial, but it’s so much more rewarding to search for the little moments of depth. Just because Ragtime’s score may not be as mature as other shows in terms of motivic development does not mean that the music has no value to you as an actor. In fact, I would argue that it is the actor’s job to go in search of the moments of depth in the musical score (and yes, it is occasionally in spite of the intentions or skill of the composer). Regardless of what you find, the very process of exploring the score can give you a more nuanced understanding of your character and the structure of the piece. Never underestimate the power of musical interpretation and the insight it can provide.


1. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, "Behind the Scenes: Ahrens & Flaherty on the Creation of Ragtime," video, 17:35, November 4, 2009,

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