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January 7th, 2010

Ragtime

I thought we'd have plenty of time to see Ragtime, but it seems I was wrong.  It's closing this weekend.  So, even though we're leaving for Atlanta tomorrow, and usually have a Strict House Policy (with the usual Unless We Really, Really Want To rider) about not going out the day before we travel, we got TDF tix and went.

The audience was younger than at most Broadway shows I've seen lately, and a whole lot more heterogeneous.  I suspect friends of cast members, showing the flag at the eleventh hour, which made for a packed and extremely enthusiastic (also very decorative) audience.  They shouted the house down whenever there was a big number, and Ragtime is notable for the frequency of its big numbers.  Not that the singers didn't deserve it.  They were wonderful, especially Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse Walker and Christiane Noll as Mother.  Younger Brother and Tateh were a bit hoarse and uncertain of register--I suspect a Cast Cold.

The production was splendid.  The set was levels resting on slender ironwork columns--very turn of the last century but one--with lots of stairs and platforms.  A screen door and selected pieces of furniture transformed the space into the family's New Rochelle mansion; artfully strung laundry transformed it into the Lower East Side.  The costumes were wonderful--especially the black-and-white numbers in Atlantic City and the Harlem girl's dancing duds--true to the early 19th C. period, yet gloriously theatrical and thematic. 

The play, however, is, well, problematical.  I remember E.L. Doctorow's novel (barely--I read it a LONG time ago) as a complex, subtle meditation on (among other things) nostalgia, progress, race relations, American inventiveness, American pig-headedness, and class, told through the braided stories of three sets of characters, one African American, one Jewish immigrant, one WASP, all living in and around New York, held together by the central metaphor of the ragtime music that flourished at the turn of that century.  It's a dryish novel, its emotions examined more than displayed. And it has at its heart the tragedy of Coalhouse Walker and the larger tragedy of the black struggle in America. Not, you'd think, a prime candidate for adaptation to a musical. 

You gotta give it an A for ambition, though.  All those themes are present in the musical, much more simply stated, of course, and with much of the complexity rubbed off the characters and the situations.  The emotions rise from the subtext and take center-stage in rousing number after number until my ability to respond to rousing music kind of numbed out--although that may have been because I found the music bland--except for those based most directly on actual ragtime, which were much fresher than the over-wrought ballads and anthems of the rest.  Mileage clearly varies, though.  The man sitting next to Ellen pretty much cried through the whole show, both acts.  And I did tear up at the end--mostly because Quentin Earl Darrington is a riviting actor who turned a two-note character into an entire symphony of anger, tenderness, need, pride, nobility, pettiness, human frailty and glory.

I'm glad I saw it.  And now I'm going to hunt through my staggeringly disorganized bookshelves and find my copy of Ragtime so I can go read it again, and maybe find out what Harry Houdini's role in the narrative is supposed to be.  Because although he brought a welcome note of levity and color to the proceedings by popping up at intervals in leopard-skin skivvies and straight jacket and chains, and although Ellen and I had a great time coming up with theories, the play itself wasn't entirely clear on what he was actually doing there.

Our flight to Atlanta has been canceled--no reason given.  We're rescheduled for 7:45.  Which gives us time to go to the gym, and maybe even get a little writing in before we take off.  It's like the gift of an extra day!

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Gather Round, All Ye Aspiring Writers!

Clarion San Diego is open for submissions!

For those of you who don't know, Clarion is a boot camp Master Class of speculative fiction writing, taught by writers who have labored in the fields of professional writing and teaching and love what they're doing.  This year, I'm one of them, to be followed by George R.R. Martin, Dale Baley, Samuel R. Delaney, with Jeff and Ann Vandermeer as the anchor team for the last two weeks.

For more details, go to http://clarion.ucsd.edu/.

It's a wonderful program, if you've got the stamina and the ability to withstand the intensive workshopping and the crazy hours.  Whatever else you come out with, you'll always have a community of writers to support you, cheer you on, and share fiction and war stories with.  There are scholarships available, too.  Take a flyer.  Apply.  I'll look forward to seeing you.

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