A few months ago I wrote an article for the New York Times on Garth Drabinsky’s comeback to Broadway. The Canadian theater producer was riding high in the 1990s with prestige hits like Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime, but suffered an ignominious fall when his company imploded, he was charged with financial improprieties, and he wound up serving a year and a half in a Canadian prison for fraud. He reemerged this spring as the producer of Paradise Square, a new musical set in Civil War-era New York City. But the show was plagued with problems, both artistic and financial, amid widespread suspicion in the Broadway community that the man could not be trusted.
It ended badly. The show never really jelled, reviews were mostly negative, and (despite a surprising 10 Tony nominations) ticket sales remained anemic. What’s more, when the show closed in mid-July, the production was hit with several lawsuits over alleged unpaid bills and contract violations. Actors Equity, the actors’ union, even put Drabinsky on its “Do Not Work” list, banning its members from working with him again.
During my reporting I found no shortage of people in the Broadway community who hate Garth Drabinsky. And his show may well have been juggling the books in a desperate effort to keep afloat (though the investors who backed Paradise Square made clear that Drabinsky would have nothing to do with the show’s finances). But last weekend I was reminded of what Drabinsky once did for Broadway — his one indisputable triumph, Ragtime.
The musical — which Drabinsky brought to Broadway in 1998 after overseeing a long development process — was given a new production by Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater, the enterprising summer theater that has shown a talent for adapting big Broadway musicals to its vest-pocket stage. I wrote admiringly here about its 2019 production of Annie Get Your Gun. Ragtime was a much more ambitious venture, but, even in this downsized version, the show was as impressive as ever. (Past tense, alas, because the month-long engagement ended last weekend.)
Based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel, the musical is a kaleidoscopic mix of history and fiction, revolving around three communities at the turn of the last century: a privileged white family in New Rochelle, N.Y.; the immigrants from Eastern Europe pouring into Ellis Island; and African-Americans in Harlem discovering a new music called ragtime.
The late playwright Terrence McNally, who adapted the novel, has never gotten enough credit for what might be the greatest book ever written for a Broadway musical. It manages to juggle a multitude of storylines (plus cameo appearances from real historical figures, like Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini) and shape them into a coherent, historically resonant, emotionally compelling whole. The major characters, like the ragtime pianist-turned-terrorist Coalhouse Walker and the immigrant Tateh, who rises from street artist to “inventor” of motion pictures, are both iconic and individualized. The extended scene in which Coalhouse courts the woman he has abandoned, now sheltered with her newborn baby in the New Rochelle family’s home, is one of the most beautifully paced and scored sequences that I know of in the Broadway canon.
The Bay Street production — directed by Will Pomerantz, who was also responsible for the theater’s excellent 2018 production of Evita — suffers a little from the downsizing. The spectacular opening number — an intricate song-and-dance roundelay introducing the three communities, set to Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s scintillating ragtime-based score — is a bit shortchanged, since the immigrant contingent has been reduced simply to one father and his little daughter.
But Derrick Davis, as Coalhouse, is a commanding and charismatic presence, and the rest of the cast is uniformly fine. Few Broadway musicals have attempted as much, narratively and thematically, as Ragtime, and yet it never seems overstuffed or didactic. Thanks to Bay Street for keeping it alive. And to Garth Drabinsky, whatever his sins, for giving it birth.