Ragtime the $8 million Broadway musical revival is closing after a disappointing run, despite generally upbeat reviews when it opened only two months ago, and its fate already is renewing old debates along the Great White Way.
The show, which is succumbing Jan. 3 after only 57 performances, supposedly fell victim to poor ticket sales because it couldn’t compete against other shows without a name – read Hollywood — star in the production.
But don’t weep for revivals. They showcase Broadway at its most timid. Instead of staging fresh shows by new authors, producers fall back on reliable throwbacks. But even then, success is not always guaranteed.
When the show debuted on Broadway in 1998, after a successful run in Canada, it was more lavishly produced and promoted, with an $11 million budget. Generous producers helped it overcome mixed reviews and the show, which even included a real Model T Ford, ran for 800 performances.
Adjusted for inflation, its 1998 cost would equal about $14.5 million in today’s dollars. That means at $8 million, the current John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts production tried to get by on the cheap – and paid the price.
It was also the first Broadway revival of the musical and the first Broadway revival of any 1990s musical. So, it’s possible the show was still too fresh to return to the stage, even if the E. L. Doctorow novel on which it is based is almost 35 years old.
Ragtime tells the story of three groups in America, represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician; Mother, the matriarch of a WASP family in New Rochelle, NY and Tateh, a Latvian Jewish immigrant.
Historical figures such as Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Stanford White, Harry Kendall Thaw, Admiral Peary, Matthew Henson, and Emma Goldman are also woven into the story.
Right, how many of them are relevant to today’s theatergoers, or are even known to them?
The current production was directed and choreographed ably enough by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, and had a very capable cast that included Christiane Noll (Mother), Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse), Bobby Steggert (Mother’s Younger Brother), Robert Petkoff (Tateh), Stephanie Umoh (Sarah), and Ron Bohmer (Father).
But, again, no name marquee stars, leaving Ragtime to contend with other shows that include such Hollywood luminaries as Jude Law, Sienna Miller Catherine Zeta-Jones, Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig among their casts.
Hollywood stars definitely help bring in tourists. But blame poor marketing for Ragtime’s demise.
If the producers had opened their pocketbooks a little more to get the word out and spiff-up the production, the end result may have been different – Hollywood star or no star.