RAGTIME ON RECORDS By Peter Filichia
All right, let’s admit the mistake, apologize for it, and move on.
The new vinyl release of RAGTIME says on its spine “Original Soundtrack.”
Some will say, “Well, what’s wrong with that?”
It’s a common misconception that ANY recording of a musical is a soundtrack.
Soundtrack albums come from movies, because films have a TRACK of SOUND.
A recording of a stage musical is a “cast album.” That’s the appropriate term to use for any release of the Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty masterpiece.
Actually, there WAS a soundtrack of RAGTIME, when it was a non-musical film in 1981. Randy Newman actually received two Oscar nominations: one for song, one for score.
But he and they have nothing to do with the musical that got Tonys for McNally, Ahrens and Flaherty at the close of the 1997-1998 season.
Ah, would that there was a soundtrack to their RAGTIME, for that would mean there’d been a film version. We can only hope till we reach that day.
(Jay Clark, one of the smartest casting gurus I know, suggests Amy Adams as Mother, Jake Gyllenhaal as Father, Skylar Astin as Brother, Sterling K. Brown as Coalhouse, Denee Benton as Sarah, Zach Braff as Tateh and Tyne Daly as Emma Goldman. Pretty smart, yes?)
As for this new album, the soundtrack mistake is all the more noticeable because this vinyl release is a three-record set with a spine that’s more than a half-inch wide. Good news, though: if you turn the package around, you’ll see the three separate records individually coddled in its own jacket. Here each spine states “Original Broadway Cast Recording.”
So THAT’S the way we’ll position the package in our collections.
RAGTIME is the latest addition to the growing roster of new vinyl. The sound is warmer, isn’t it? But, as the cliché goes, that’s not all.
When 12-inch long-playing records were supplanted by other formats, many mourned the loss of large expanses of pictures. That’s rectified here by a 24-page booklet replete with dozens of photographs of the now-legendary 1998 production: Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald are well-represented; so is Marin Mazzie, a bittersweet reminder of how we lost her much too soon.
Although one essay is replicated from the original CD release, there are some new goodies. Douglas Lyons, who played the wronged Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in a 2017 5th Avenue Theatre production in Seattle, compared the experience with Mitchell in a generous three-page spread.
After you finish the booklet’s first essay by Ahrens and Flaherty, you’d be well within your rights to assume that that’s all they had to say. Not at all. The booklet concludes with their song-by-song analysis of all 38 selections. (This piece will also more than occasionally answer that famous question: “What comes first, the music or the lyrics?”)
Even when Generation X’er Flaherty was just starting out in the 1980s, he was composing traditional-sounding theater music. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, when he was dealing with a period piece, he felt no need to write anachronistic rock for it. Other theater writers believe that we’re now in an era where a segment of the population wants to hear rock, so rock must dictate the sound of their musical. Not Flaherty. He had to write for three different classes of people with three distinct sounds in a long-ago era.
So he gave us, among many others, the klezmer infused “A Shtetl Iz Amereke” for the Jewish immigrants, the stomping “Getting Ready Rag” for the Blacks and the stalwart “Journey On” for the WASPS. Flaherty got it all right – beautifully right, stirringly right, from each waltz to each piece of (of course) ragtime.
Goddard Lieberson, the guru of cast album producers, always hoped that the second side of a record would start with one of the show’s strongest songs. Here the first song of the second record homages that goal: “Wheels of a Dream.” Coalhouse has a steady job, a handsome new automobile, a reconciliation with Sarah whom he had mistakenly abandoned and a new son, too. He sees nothing but progress and prosperity, and she believes in him enough to agree. We revel in their happiness and want for them what the lovers want for themselves.
But as is the case in so many musicals, not long after everything seems idyllic, problems arise.
RAGTIME still provided Ahrens room to be optimistic, too. She created beautiful subtext in “Our Children,” as Mother and the Baron (ne Tateh) sing about their kids bonding, when they’re really bonding themselves. Also deft is “He Wanted to Say,” a presentational song where Emma Goldman tells us what’s on Brother’s mind. It’s a concept that would have impressed Bertolt Brecht (who didn’t impress easily).
Ahrens also had to musicalize Mother, one of the greatest characters ever seen in a musical. (Credit to RAGTIME novelist E.L. Doctorow, too, of course.) No wonder that Marin Mazzie was so wonderful in the role; there was so much for her to play there.
Mother was gracious and strong in not trying to prevent her husband from taking his merry journey. The average 1906 woman of her station who discovers “a Negro child” in her backyard would snarl, “Oh, get this thing away from me!” Instead, she immediately feels pain for both the baby and Sarah. She stands up to the police who want to arrest Sarah and instead takes her into her home without worrying what the neighbors will think (in a time when everyone worried what the neighbors thought).
We see that Mother doesn’t have a single prejudicial bone in her body, which is especially remarkable in an era when her peers had 206 of them. She always does the right and noble thing, no matter how many obstacles are in her way.
One of them is her husband, who upon his return rebukes her for “foolish female sentimentality.” Mother stays silent but resolute while also showing that she’s falling out of love with him.
This brings us to Ahrens’ finest moment: “(We can never go) Back to Before,” where Mother finally expresses what she’s been feeling for a long time.
The musical version of RAGTIME was so highly anticipated that in 1996, a concept album (with much of the cast that would wind up on Broadway) was released. The one disc is still available (think of it as RAGTIME LITE), as is the two CD-set. This vinyl edition is now another way to reiterate that more than a quarter-century later, RAGTIME journeys on.
By the way, Ethan Mordden in his magnificent BEAUTIFUL MORNIN’: THE BROADWAY MUSICAL IN THE 1940s – the one that Rod in AVENUE Q calls his favorite book – says that “album” is actually an incorrect term to use.
“Albums are books of collections, as for stamps or photographs,” he wrote, telling of the era when a bunch of 78-rpm records (usually with one song per side) were gathered in a package. However, given that this new issue of RAGTIME has three records, we can genuinely call it an album.
But not a soundtrack.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes and Disagreements can now be pre-ordered at Amazon.