Musical Moments: RagtimeAfter doing a City Snapshot post of the Hilton Theatre the other day, I was reminded that the Hilton Theatre actually began life as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts in 1997. Ragtime was the very first show to open there. The Hilton was built out of two old Broadway theatres, the Apollo and the Lyric which were both turned into movie houses in the '30s and then fell into years of disrepair. They were among the theatres reclaimed and saved by the New Times Square project in the '90s. Bits and pieces of both theatres (the dome from the Lyric, the proscenium from the Apollo) were saved to create an old world style Broadway theatre for the opening of Ragtime in January of 1998. The theatre is truly glorious inside but there is one aspect of the period theatre the designers did not get right: the size. At over 1800 seats, every show that has played the Ford, now the Hilton, has suffered trying fill the large house. It is a full 200 seats larger than the St. James, the largest of the vintage theatres left on Broadway. This may not seem like a lot, but it can make a difference as to whether a show runs two years or four years. But back to Ragtime...
In the new Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Livent, the show's producers, mounted a truly magnificent production of Ragtime, an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel of the same name. The set was a behemoth and Ford product placement figured prominently in the show and even included a number featuring Henry Ford himself along with his assembly line for the Model T. Yet somehow none of this seemed gratuitous!
Ragtime was a refreshing glass of water in the desert that was musical theatre in the 1990s (lest we forget musical versions of Big, Footloose, Saturday Night Fever...I could go on.) Ragtime was one of the most masterfully crafted shows to appear on Broadway in years. Outside of being a very good adaptation, the score quite brilliantly used all the musical influence of the era and of the characters featured in the story: there was gospel, the minor keys of Jewish and Eastern European immigrants, and of course Ragtime.
In the opening number featured below all three of these groups are represented and set the stage for a truly epic musical that dealt with complex relationships, families, race, class and framed it all in beautiful historical context. With a cast of around 30, the huge state-of-the-art set and the extra large house to fill, the carrying costs for the show were astronomical. Despite great reviews, the show only ran two years. But don't let that keep you from enjoying this fabulous opening number. Hit play. (Oh, and don't let that precocious child at the beginning of the number turn you off--he's only there for a minute.)