The problems in ‘Ragtime’ echo the problems of today

A scene from the musical ‘Ragtime,’ which comes to the Palace Theater in Waterbury this weekend.

A scene from the musical ‘Ragtime,’ which comes to the Palace Theater in Waterbury this weekend.

By MIKE CHAIKEN
EDITIONS EDITOR

The stories in the stage musical “Ragtime” take place in 19th century America.
But Matthew Curiano, who plays one of the lead roles in the stage show based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel, said the stories of the main characters still echo in the America of the 21st century.
Press materials explain the musical, which is coming to The Palace Theater in Waterbury on Friday and Saturday offers “the stories of an upper-class wife, a determined Jewish immigrant, and a daring young Harlem musician… – set in turn-of-the-century New York – all three united by their desire and belief in a brighter tomorrow.”
In a phone call from Florida, Curiano explained all three groups that are at the center of the show all take to heart the American Dream of  “I’m going to work hard. I’m going to take risks. I’m going to try with every fiber of my being to get the best life possible for my children so my child can continue on to have a life of success full of prosperity.”
“That’s so much of all of our stories,” said Curiano, who plays the role of Tateh, an immigrant who comes to America from Latvia and finds hardship as he tries to pursue a better life for himself and his daughter.
Since he took on the role of Tateh, Curiano said, “It’s been fascinating to talk to my grandfathers and all of my relatives to see where we came from, what our stories are, and to find so many similarities (with Tateh).”
The character also resonates with the audience, said Curiano.
“It’s amazing. People come to me after the show and say, ‘My grandmother came over on the boat just like you did. She came in and was living on the Lower East Side (like Tateh did).’”
While the character of Tateh is dealing with his new life in a new world, the character of Coalhouse, a Black American ragtime musician, is dealing with the dark underbelly of racism in 19th century America.
“I think what’s fascinating about (Coalhouse’s story) is it’s incredibly poignant to the political and social atmosphere of today,” said Curiano.
“What’s beautiful about Coalhouse’s character is he’s a man who just wants to be respected and appreciated like everyone else,” said Curiano. “It’s so tragic what happens (to him the story) because his demands at the beginning are (so simple. The situation) just escalates and it deteriorates because no one will help him.”
“I think that’s what (the central) characters struggle with. They are struggling to find their voice. They struggle to be heard in this time when not many people are listening,” said Curiano.
“What you find at the end of the show is the only way all three of these different groups really achieve that American dream is if they break down these barriers and they work together,” said Curiano. “That makes the message so powerful by the end of the show.”
E.L. Doctorow’s original novel is a sprawling tale that spans hundreds and hundreds of pages. But the creative team behind the novel— playwright Terrence McNally, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, and composer Stephen Flaherty—have managed to convey the story to audiences in less than three hours.
“It’s brilliant what they did because it’s quite an undertaking especially because there are so many different characters and so many different story lines, especially in the book …,” said Curiano. “They did a brilliant job of crafting the story to make these different stories intertwine.”
“I also like the use of these historical characters that everybody knows, such as Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbitt, and Emma Goldman, who kind of serve as a historical guide and a kind of timeline (for the story),” said Curiano.
As for the music, Curiano said the creators of “Ragtime” “were able to brilliantly loop the different characters into different duets to show what’s going on in the story,”
“I think they did a fantastic job.”
When the curtain settles at the end of the night, Curiano said, “I hope that (the audience) will reach out to a relative, and find out their story, find out where they came from, find out how they came to America.”
Additionally, Curiano said, “I think this is a show people can carry with them for a little while. This is something you don’t let go. This is a show I hope will make an audience think really hard about what’s happening in America today.”
“When (Chris Sams who plays) Coalhouse comes out at the end to take his bow, the entire audience… offers up this beautiful uproar of applause and cheers,” said Curiano.
“For me, that’s my favorite part of the show because not only are they cheering for (Coalhouse), they’re cheering for his story,” said Curiano. “This makes me realize that (the members of the audience) get it. We got through to them.”
“That’s the whole purpose of the show. That’s the hope,” said Curiano, “(that it) will bring us to a better tomorrow.”
“Ragtime the Musical” comes to The Palace Theater, 100 East Main St., Waterbury on Friday, Jan. 22 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, Jan. 23 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets start at $50.
For more information, go to ThePalaceTheater.org or call (203) 346-2000.