Filichia Features: The 14 People Called It Ragtime

Filichia Features: The 14 People Called It Ragtime

By Peter Filichia on November 04, 2016

Forty-nine performers populated the original production of Ragtime when it opened on Broadway in 1998.

Fourteen performers were seen in Peter Rothstein’s recent Ragtime at the Theatre Latté Da in Minneapolis.

So how did Rothstein do it?

Yes, by doubling, tripling and quadrupling, of course. Most everyone came on stage as immigrants, Henry Ford’s assembly-liners, Atlantic City denizens and plenty of others.

But when they weren’t singing back-up, we never lost sight of WASPS Father (Daniel S. Hines) and Mother (Britta Ollmann); Jews Tateh (Sasha Andreev) and his Little Girl (Georgia Blando); and African-Americans Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (David L. Murray, Jr.) and his beloved Sarah (Traci Allen Shannon).

Rothstein created an atmosphere that suggested a group of actors had got together to chummily put on a show. And what a show they put on! I’d heard that Theatre Latté Da did superb work, but now I learned it was true.

The cast of Ragtime at Theatre Latté Da (Photo by Dan Norman). 

The stage’s exposed brick-and-cement back wall included two far-apart doors in the middle ten feet above the stage. Two metal staircases-on-rollers were brought to each door when high-and-mighty Henry Ford descended to deal with the great unwashed or when Father got off “the boat” from his Antarctic journey. Each cast member pitched in at various times to roll the staircase to the proper spot.

What Rothstein centered on were the relationships – or lack of them -- between people. The look of contempt that Emma Goldman (Debra Berger) gave Evelyn Nesbitt (Emily Jansen) was beneath contempt and much worse than the glance of indifference that Nesbitt gave Younger Brother (Riley McNutt), her biggest fan. (Never meet your heroes.)

Having an actual car on stage would have been lovely, but the budget wouldn’t allow it. So Rothstein had Coalhouse use his grand piano as his vehicle. He sat atop it, placed his feet on the edge of the keyboard, and because the piano was also on rollers, other cast members zoomed him around the stage as he mimed steering.

The cast of Ragtime at Theatre Latté Da (Photo by Dan Norman). 

Later, the piano unfortunately served as Sarah’s coffin as her body was laid atop it. How sad: the car, which was Coalhouse’s symbol of advancing in America, was actually the catalyst that led to her being killed.

So Rothstein proved that Ragtime can endure a low-budget production, which really is a testament to bookwriter Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and, of course, novelist E.L. Doctorow, without whom this great musical would not exist.

Seriously: is there a greater character in any Broadway musical than Mother? She’s gracious and strong in not preventing her husband from taking his merry journey. She immediately feels pained for Sarah when the baby is discovered, stands up to the police who want to arrest the young woman, takes her into her home without worrying what the neighbors will think (in a time when everyone worried what the neighbors thought).

When Father rebuked her for her “foolish female sentimentality,” Mother stayed silent but resolute in showing that she was falling out of love with him. The idea of a woman even considering a divorce from her well-to-do husband was virtually unthinkable in 1906, but Mother thought of what was best for her, divorced and remarried. She could have been concerned what people would think because her new husband was a Jew, but she didn’t, did she?

The subtext is there: Mother doesn’t have a single prejudicial bone in her body, which is especially remarkable for an era when her peers had 206 of them. No wonder that Marin Mazzie, Donna Bullock and now Britta Ollmann were so wonderful in the role; there’s so much to play there.

Ollmann got the greatest type of applause while she was singing “Back to Before,” her manifesto to Father that her worldview had changed: the audience was already clapping as she was still holding her last note.

Tateh changes, too, from a penniless immigrant to an early Hollywood mogul who feels free to assume the title of baron. Here came another use for that piano as the camera crane on which “The Baron” perched to direct his film. But the best use of the piano came at show’s end, when Mother took Coalhouse Walker III, now her new son, over to the keyboard, put his fingers on it and began teaching him how to be his daddy’s son.

See why Ragtime is one of our most important musicals? You’ll serve your community well if you do it -- even on a limited budget.

Read more Filichia Features. 

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at and Tuesday at His book, The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at