Ragtime (9-Piece Orchestration)
This sweeping musical portrait of early-twentieth-century America tells the story of three families in pursuit of the American Dream.
Show Essentials
+ Ensemble

Full Synopsis

Act One

We are introduced to the social and political climate of the United States in the early twentieth century by meeting a parade of characters – famous celebrities and private citizens of the time. First, we visit New Rochelle, New York, to meet a well-to-do white family: Mother, Father and their Little Boy, Mother's Younger Brother and Grandfather. Next, we go to Harlem to meet Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a ragtime pianist, and his admirers. Immigrants arrive at Ellis Island as we meet Tateh, an artist who makes silhouettes, and his Little Girl. The lives of these three American families are entwined with Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman. Whites, African Americans, immigrants and celebrities are set on a collision course in the opening number ("Ragtime").

Father is accompanying Admiral Peary on a trip to the North Pole. At the dock, he consoles Mother that everything will be the same upon his return, but Mother is not convinced ("Goodbye My Love"). On its way out of the harbor, Father's ship passes a rag ship filled with immigrants, arriving in New York. Tateh and the Little Girl are on board. Tateh and Father wave to one another; Father admires the immigrants for their naïve bravery in coming to a new land, and Tateh questions Father's reasons for leaving the place that he has worked so hard to find. Simultaneously, Mother wonders what this year without her husband will bring ("Journey On").

Mother's Younger Brother is in love with Evelyn Nesbit. He is frustrated and lost, searching for meaning in his life and hoping to find it in her. Her show is a vaudeville act that tells the true story of her lover's murder by her famous husband ("Crime of the Century"). Younger Brother goes to all of her shows. One day, after the show, Younger Brother approaches her, but she dismisses him.

The scene shifts to Mother and the Little Boy in the garden. The Little Boy wants to see Houdini, as he has a cryptic message for him, "Warn the Duke." While he begins to read her Father's letter, mother makes a shocking discovery – there is a newborn African-American child buried in the flowerbed. The police arrive on the premises with Sarah, the mother of the child. Rather than let Sarah go to prison, Mother takes Sarah and the child into her own home ("What Kind of Woman").

With many other immigrants, Tateh and The Little Girl disembark at Ellis Island, full of hope ("America"). Tateh sets up his business on the Lower East Side, selling paper silhouettes of celebrities for a nickel each. Emma Goldman chastises him for selling one of J.P. Morgan, the epitome of capitalism. J.P. Morgan enters the scene and metaphorically crushes the immigrants, but Harry Houdini magically swoops in as an emblem of immigrant triumph. Time passes, Tateh becomes less idealistic – he is still poor, and the Little Girl is sick. When a man tries to buy the Little Girl, Tateh has reached rock bottom. He swears to make a better life for himself and his child ("Success").

In Harlem, the people celebrate the great musician, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. ("His Name Was Coalhouse Walker"). He tells his friends the story of how he loved and lost Sarah but reveals that he's just found out where she might be living and is determined to win her back ("Gettin' Ready Rag"). Henry Ford appears to tell us of his new method of mass production and his most famous product, the Model T ("Henry Ford"). A new car rolls off of the assembly line, and Coalhouse drives off in search of Sarah.

Back in New Rochelle, Mother and the Little Boy wait at the train station, on their way to New York City to take care of the family business while Father is away. Tateh and the Little Girl wait across the tracks for a train to Boston. Mother and Tateh greet one another, and Tateh is surprised to be treated with respect ("Nothing Like the City"). The Little Boy has a premonition that they will see Tateh and the Little Girl again, but Mother tells him that is absurd.

On his way to New Rochelle, Coalhouse encounters a group of hostile volunteer firemen who threaten him for being cocky by driving past them in his new car. Meanwhile, Sarah, living in Mother's attic, begs her infant's forgiveness for her desperation, trying to explain what drove her to such an unimaginable act ("Your Daddy's Son"). When Coalhouse arrives at Mother's home, Sarah will not see him.

Coalhouse returns every Sunday for weeks, wooing Sarah with his ragtime tunes and winning over Mother, Grandfather and the Little Boy ("The Courtship"). Father returns from the North Pole to find a very different household from the one he left. He cannot wrap his head around the facts that his wife is independent, his family is accepting of the African-American courtship happening in his living room and there is ragtime music coming from his piano ("New Music").

Finally, Sarah comes down to see Coalhouse, and they reunite. Coalhouse tells Sarah of his admiration for Booker T. Washington's achievements, and together, he and Sarah imagine a future for their child ("Wheels of a Dream"). Meanwhile, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Tateh has lost sight of the American dream and now works at a mill 64 hours a week. In Union Square, Emma Goldman tries to generate a strike against the oppressive mill owners. Younger Brother happens to hear her speech and is energized to the cause of workers rights – he finally has something in which to believe ("The Night That Goldman Spoke in Union Square").

A violent labor strike erupts in Lawrence. Tateh intends to put The Little Girl on a train to a safer place, with other children and a chaperone. However, she is so distraught that he jumps on the train with her. He soothes her terror with a flipbook of silhouettes that he has made ("Gliding"). The train conductor notices the book of moving silhouettes and buys it for his own child. Tateh sees this as a wonderful new business idea.

Coalhouse once again encounters the volunteer firemen, and this time, they do more than threaten him. As Booker T. Washington gives a speech about rising above and holding fast, the men destroy Coalhouse's car. Coalhouse moves through the legal channels, looking for justice for this crime against him, but he is denied at every avenue ("Justice"). He postpones his marriage to Sarah until the matter is resolved. Sarah, out of desperation and naiïveté, tries to seek help from a visiting Vice Presidential candidate but is clubbed to death by police who suspect her of having a gun ("President"). Act One closes with the anger and grief of Sarah's funeral ("Till We Reach That Day").

Act Two

Coalhouse mourns the loss of Sarah ("Coalhouse's Soliloquy"). Seeking vengeance, he shoots three of the firemen who trashed his car, burns their firehouse and demands that the fire chief, Willy Conklin, be brought to justice ("Coalhouse Demands").

A group of young men joins Coalhouse as he strikes out against the system. Booker T. Washington publicly condemns Coalhouse's actions. Father goes to the police to tell them what he knows about Coalhouse. Younger Brother, who is moved by the plight of the oppressed and angry about the injustice done to Coalhouse, erupts at Father for working against Coalhouse. He storms out of the house in anger, and Mother, who is still caring for Sarah and Coalhouse's baby, is deeply upset. In reaction, Father takes the Little Boy to a baseball game, but even this has changed and is now a game, not just for upper-class whites, but for immigrants, too ("What a Game"). Meanwhile, Coalhouse's band of men sets fires around the city. Reporters besiege the family in New Rochelle. Father, thinking that it is time to get away, takes the family to Atlantic City, where Evelyn Nesbit and Houdini both happen to be starring attractions ("Let's Run Away to Atlantic City").

In Atlantic City, we discover that Tateh is now a famous film director and has recreated himself as Baron Ashkenazy. His daughter, healthy and beautifully dressed, is by his side. Once again, Tateh meets Mother and tells her the story of his success ("Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.").

Later, the Little Boy asks Houdini for his autograph and gives him the message, "Warn the Duke." Houdini is confused and intrigued, but the Little Boy runs off. The Little Girl and Little Boy play together as Tateh and Mother watch from the boardwalk ("Our Children"). Tateh reveals his humble origins to Mother, who is moved by his honesty.

In Harlem, Younger Brother searches for Coalhouse, and although the residents are distrustful of him, one of Coalhouse's men takes him to Coalhouse's hideout. Meanwhile, drawn by laughter and dancing in a club, Coalhouse thinks of the first time that he met Sarah ("Sarah Brown Eyes"). A blindfolded Younger Brother is brought to Coalhouse's den. Younger Brother wants to express his sympathy for Coalhouse's actions, but all he can manage to do is offer his knowledge of explosives ("He Wanted to Say"). Coalhouse focuses his rage by taking over J.P. Morgan's Library. He threatens to blow up the library and all of its treasures, as well as himself and all of his men – one of whom is now Younger Brother. Father tells Mother that he has volunteered to act as a negotiator, and Mother realizes that this experience has irrevocably changed their relationship ("Back to Before").

Coalhouse and his men barricade themselves inside of the library. Emma Goldman applauds this, but Booker T. Washington deplores these actions. Father tells the authorities that Booker T. Washington is the only man to whom Coalhouse will listen. Booker T. is sent into the library to speak with Coalhouse. He chides Coalhouse, both for risking the lives of the young men around him while leaving his own son to be raised by white men and for endangering the position of all African Americans, by making them seem hot-headed and violent ("Look What You've Done"). He assures Coalhouse that if he surrenders, he will have a fair trial and a forum for his opinions. Coalhouse negotiates the safe passage of his men, including Younger Brother, while Father remains behind in the library. The men protest his decision, but he explains to them that the only way to win the fight is to go out into the world and tell their story ("Make Them Hear You"). When Coalhouse is left alone with Father, he asks about his son. Father promises a safe end to the standoff, but when Coalhouse exits the building to surrender, he is shot dead by authorities.

The era of ragtime ends. The characters come forward, one by one, to tell us the end of their stories: Younger Brother joins the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, Emma Goldman is deported, Booker T. Washington establishes the Tuskegee Institute, Evelyn Nesbit fades into obscurity, Houdini has the one true mystical experience of his life when he is performing in Sarajevo and the Duke is shot, Grandfather dies, and Father is killed during wartime. Finally, Mother and Tateh marry and move to California with their children.

As the curtain falls, Little Coalhouse runs into Mother's arms, and men and women of all nationalities – and race – join Mother on the stage ("Epilogue").

← Back to Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration
Cast Size: Medium (11 to 20 performers)
Cast Type: Ensemble Cast

Character Breakdown


A proud and talented pianist. A Black man who believes that he can take part in the new America and will be treated fairly.

Gender: male
Age: 25 to 35
Vocal range top: A4
Vocal range bottom: G2

Washwoman. Sarah is a young Black woman, beautiful and filled with a strong will to live, fueled by an innocent spirit. Falls deeply in love with Coalhouse after much resistance. 

Gender: female
Age: 18 to 25
Vocal range top: F5
Vocal range bottom: G3

The consummate wife and mother. A kind woman with incredible moral fiber. Refined, intelligent, graceful and open minded.

Gender: female
Age: 25 to 35
Vocal range top: E5
Vocal range bottom: G3

Mother's professionally successful husband. Fancies himself an amateur explorer, he is commanding and attractive. Enjoys being the family breadwinner, a traditionalist.

Gender: male
Age: 30 to 45
Vocal range top: F5
Vocal range bottom: A3
Younger Brother

Mother's younger brother. He is an erratic and passionate soul, a firework waiting to be lit. Influenced greatly by Goldman's teachings.

Gender: male
Age: 20 to 30
Vocal range top: F5
Vocal range bottom: B3
Little Boy

Mother and Father's son. He is open-hearted and curious with inexplicable clairvoyance. Never passes judgement on others.

Gender: male
Age: 8 to 12
Vocal range top: D5
Vocal range bottom: E4

Mother's patrician father. He is a retired professor, and easily irritated by nearly everything.

Gender: male
Age: 50 to 65

A Latvian immigrant. He wears the trials and tribulations of his past on his sleeve, but remains optimistic that he will be successful. Full of genuine drive and heart. He lives for his little daughter.  

Gender: male
Age: 30 to 40
Vocal range top: F5
Vocal range bottom: A3
Little Girl

Tateh's daughter. A vulnerable child in a brand-new home, she has lost her mother and is guarded and shy. She clings to her father.

Gender: female
Age: 7 to 10
Vocal range top: D5
Vocal range bottom: C4
Booker T. Washington

Brilliant Black social activist. He is an eloquent and articulate gentleman with no patience for Black Americans leading less than exemplary lives.

Gender: male
Age: 45 to 55
Vocal range top: Eb4
Vocal range bottom: D3
Emma Goldman

Social activist. Originally from Russia, she is a leader, a fearless advocate for the oppressed.

Gender: female
Age: 30 to 40
Vocal range top: D5
Vocal range bottom: B3
Evelyn Nesbit

the beautiful vaudeville performer, famous for the murder of her high profile lover by her rich husband

Gender: female
Age: 18 to 25
Vocal range top: D5
Vocal range bottom: B3
Henry Ford

an American industrialist and founder of the Ford Motor Company

Gender: male
Age: 35 to 45
Vocal range top: F5
Vocal range bottom: D4
Harry Houdini

The famous magician, originally from Hungary. With notable physical ability, he stands as a symbol of the 'American Dream.'

Gender: male
Age: 25 to 35
Vocal range top: G5
Vocal range bottom: C4
J.P. Morgan

The rich, famous financier.

Gender: male
Age: 60 to 65
Sarah's Friend

A friend of Sarah's who attends her funeral

Gender: female
Age: 18 to 25
Vocal range top: D5
Vocal range bottom: D3
Willie Conklin

A racist volunteer fireman who destroys Coalhouse's car

Gender: male
Age: 25 to 40
Vocal range top: F5
Vocal range bottom: D4

Baseball Fans; Coalhouse Supporters; Firemen; Immigrants To America; New Rochelle Citizens; Reporters; Vacationers.

Played by Black actors: Coalhouse's Lawyer, Harlem Citizens, Henson

Full Song List
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Ragtime
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Goodbye, My Love
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Journey On
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: The Crime of the Century
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: What Kind of Woman
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: A Shtetl Iz Amereke
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Success
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: His Name Was Coalhouse Walker
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Getting Ready Rag
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Henry Ford
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Nothing Like the City
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Your Daddy's Son
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: The Courtship
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: New Music
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Wheels of a Dream
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: The Night that Goldman Spoke at Union Square
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Gliding
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Justice
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: President
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Till We Reach That Day
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Entr'acte
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Coalhouse's Soliloquy
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Coalhouse Demands
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: What a Game
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Atlantic City
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Our Children
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Sarah Brown Eyes
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: He Wanted to Say
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Back to Before
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Look What You've Done
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Make Them Hear You
Ragtime 9 Piece Orchestration: Epilogue


Based on the novel, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow


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Based on the novel "RAGTIME"
By E. L. Doctorow
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Original orchestrations by William David Brohn
Additional orchestrations by Kim Scharnberg
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