Ragtime might not have been my personal favorite play to perform onstage or to have fun with offstage. But it was, by far, the best performance our theater department put on that I got to be a part of. While it might be a bit odd to say, Ragtime ended up touching me on an emotional level that no other live performance has, although my part in it was miniscule.
I’ve written three previous articles about my time in my high school’s theater department, so if you want to read about my experiences with Wonderful Town, The Cherry Orchard, and Julius Caesar, then you can in the links I’ve included.
Ragtime was first performed in 1996 and would make its way to Broadway in 1998. Written by Terrence McNally and composed by Stephen Flaherty, with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the musical mainly takes place around New York city in 1906. It follows the different lives of three major social groups: the white people of New Rochelle, the African Americans of Harlem, and the immigrants of the Lower East Side. Each group has their central cast of characters that interact with each other throughout the play in interesting ways that both exposes the prominent racial injustice of the time, yet also paves the way for a more optimistic, unified future.
Learning from my previous mistakes of trying to audition for every character, I chose just a few to focus on. I practiced all of the sides to a certain extent, but focused most of my energy on the simply-named Father, the “man of the household” in New Rochelle. I had a deep and slightly bombastic voice for the character that didn’t quite fit the character, but that audition landed me a more modest role, even though it would end up being my biggest one yet: J. P. Morgan!
Ragtime also featured multiple historical figures, J. P. Morgan being among them, as a person famous for being very rich through (*checks Wikipedia*) uh, banking and stuff. He and Henry Ford, the guy who “put America on the road,” represent the top 1% that both literally and figuratively “look down” on everyone else from their elevated position.
Even though my time on stage was limited, J. P Morgan is pompous and exaggerated in his movements, speech, and song, all three of which worked in my favor. While I’ve since got better at it, subtlety was not my strong suit at the time, and thus J. P. Morgan’s bravado worked very well with my usual acting style.
But perhaps my favorite thing about J. P. Morgan was that he didn’t dance! While everyone else was working hard at all of the fairly hard choreography, I got to stand still on top of a platform, sing within my preferred range, and shout at the top of my lungs. After the dance choreography from Wonderful Town and The Cherry Orchard, it was great to not have to worry about that. Part of me wonders if I’d been chosen for the role just so they wouldn’t have to deal with my horrible dancing skills! I also got to miss a bunch of the earlier rehearsals for choreography, which freed up my schedule.
And once everyone was obligated to come to each rehearsal, I still had a lot of downtime. There was a large gap of almost an hour between two of my appearances, so I got to hang out with everyone else in the director’s room. There were three of us that had 3DS’s, (is that the plural of 3DS?!) so we would use the download play feature from Mario Kart 7 to let everyone who had one to play together, even if they didn’t own the game. And those who didn’t have a 3DS were allowed to play on those of the owners if they were onstage, so we had a rotating group of about six people who would play Mario Kart 7 at one point during the performance. This was also the incredibly exciting time just a few months before the launch of the Nintendo Switch and Breath of the Wild, so many of us would look up footage of the game and system or just talk about recent news or rumors. It was the first, but certainly not the last, time my two worlds of video games and theater would collide, and I made a bunch of great friends through it. And it certainly helped that Ragtime had the largest cast I’d been a part of, so there were always plenty of people to play and talk with.