The promise of a brighter tomorrow propels the turn-of-the-century characters in the sweeping saga “Ragtime,” and its look at America couldn’t be more relevant today.
“The timing is incredible,” said Matthew Curiano, who plays the Eastern European immigrant Tateh. “The audience feels that we’re holding a mirror to America at the turn of the 20th century, and here we are in a new century, and we have the same exact issues we’ve always had. Look at how far we’ve come, but that we need to go farther. It’s such a powerful message.”
A new touring production will be in St. Louis Monday and Tuesday, its first appearance here since the critically acclaimed musical’s national tour in 1999.
A panoramic tale of three families in Victorian-era New York City is told through an upper-class wife in New Rochelle, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, and a young Harlem musician, who are all are united by their desire to make a new life for themselves.
Nominated for 13 Tony Awards in 1998, “Ragtime” won for Best Book (Terrence McNally) and Best Musical Score (Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens) celebrates life – what it could and should be. Based on E.L. Doctorow’s best-selling 1975 novel, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Broadway revival in 2009 received rave reviews as well.
“It is a gift to tell this story,” Curiano said during a phone interview from Ohio. “They are voices of a generation. It is not just a history lesson – it comes off the pages, we bring it to life.”
Audiences should expect to be moved and challenged, he said.
“It’s socially and politically charged, and all these things come to a head. I think it’s more poignant than it was in 1998. It’s a very special show,” he said. “It leaves you thinking, ‘Where did I come from? What’s my story?’ You find out about the melting pot of America. It’s a whole array of feelings — you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll think.”
Historical figures of the day – union activist and political anarchist Emma Goldman, inventor Henry Ford, showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, magician Harry Houdini and explorer Admiral Peary – are woven into the lives of the fictional characters.
“Ragtime” is set when Teddy Roosevelt was president, men wore straw skimmers and women strolled with parasols. A new world – different ways of thinking, technological changes, and a demand for social justice – was emerging. A privileged few were wealthy but many Americans lived in terrible poverty.
“It’s the story of the American Dream, how we are connected and how we came to be Americans, what brings all these people together,” Curiano said.
The score is smart and tuneful, featuring “Your Daddy’s Son,” “Wheels of a Dream,” and “Back to Before.” Curiano is impressed with the composing team’s breadth of styles.
“Their canon is so diverse! They’re the same team that gave us “Seussical” and “Rocky”! It really speaks to their artistry, a real testament to their power,” he said.
“There are so many beautiful songs in this show. Showing a whole range of emotions. The characters struggle so much, go through joys and sorrows.”
His character, Tateh, arrives via a “rag ship” at Ellis Island, with his daughter in tow. He flees persecution in Latvia, believing in America’s ideals.
“They’re all so separated. When the show opens, there are very divided lines. But as they struggle to find their way, their lives become intertwined and they help each other.”
The tour began in October and will run through mid-October, Curiano said. Marcia Milgrom Dodge, a Tony nominee who has directed at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and The Muny, directed this production.
The tour features a large cast.
“It’s a small army. I love these people! The show is taxing and exhausting, but we tell people’s stories. They (actors) are so gracious and helpful. Sometimes, you wonder ‘where am I?’ when you’re touring on the road, but we decided we’re going to make the most of it,” he said.
Curiano was raised in Schenectady in upstate New York. His dad was a dentist and his mom a nurse. So they weren’t exactly thrilled about the unstable life of an actor. But once he auditioned and was accepted into Pace University at NYU, plans for an MBA were abandoned.
“I haven’t looked back,” he said.
Curiano recently toured with “Camelot,” portraying one of the Knights of the Round Table but also understudied Merlin. He much prefers his “Ragtime” costumes to armor.
“We’re excited to be in St. Louis. We hear people’s stories about their ancestors wherever we go.”