by Brenda W. Clough
Many theaters are simply boxes — an empty space into which a show can be poured. But some theaters have so much history, they call for certain sorts of production. A good example would be the Globe Theatre in London; you would not want to see, say, Avenue Q there.
In the US the Ford’s Theater in Washington DC is the best example. This is the theater where presidential theater fan Abraham Lincoln was shot. After the tragedy the theater closed, and the federal government bought the building. When I was a girl it was being used for file storage, stacked with boxes like the warehouse in Indiana Jones. But then an arts group organized an effort to bring Ford’s back. They got the file boxes out and began to turn the space back into a working theater again. I went to the first show there — it was Godspell, and we sat on folding chairs. Today Ford’s is like stepping into a time machine. You see Victorian light fixtures (admittedly electrified, but there are fire codes), velveteen seats, a quite small stage and seating for an audience of 19th century size. The Presidential box restored to exactly as it was on the fatal night.
And this means that not just any show can be staged at Ford’s. But the Flaherty and Ahrens musical Ragtime is just about perfect. A musical about America a hundred years ago, it is cruelly relevant to 2017. Based on the bestselling 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, the material has legs, appearing as a movie in 1981 and moving to the musical stage in the 90s. The musical won awards on both sides of the Atlantic and has been a staple ever since. The alluring score is full of hooks, sticky as tar, and loiters in your backbrain for days.
The story is deeply rooted in our rocky history. Status, race, celebrity, immigration, the role of women — it’s all here, whizzed in a blender and poured out sweet and strong. I found the original novel a tough slog, but there’s nothing like the demands of theater to force a story down to its essence. All of Doctorow’s longeurs are gone and his patent trick, blending historical personages into historical fiction, works great on the stage.
The production we went to was profoundly exciting and moving, superbly cast and staged. And it felt utterly topical. We have not changed, not nearly enough. A century of war and bloodshed and effort have still not made this country into what it should be. But we’re going there, on the wheels of a dream. The rumor is that the shadow of a tall black top hat can sometimes still be glimpsed, towards the back of the Presidential box at Ford’s. I believe it. Abraham Lincoln would have liked Ragtime.