Way back in November last year, what now seems like an entire lifetime ago, WATERDALE’s Ragtime held its first rehearsal. I say it was a lifetime ago, for every member of the cast has changed and developed as performers since then in much the same spirit of change that encapsulates Ragtime. The characters and plot of the show are complex and interwoven, involving various historical events and personalities, but its essence is vividly clear – the clashing of the realities and struggles of three groups of people in turn of the Century America set to the tune of change.
Within the musical there are three different settings, involving three different casts. The New Rochelle group, the upper class whites at first living in blissful ignorance of any hardship, are confronted by some difficult issues when a shock arrives on their front doorstep. The Immigrant group are unaware of the hardships they will face in the so-called “land of opportunity” – but soon make some changes of their own. And then there’s the Harlem crew – African Americans trying to make a place for themselves in their world, but constantly being beaten down. Each group is led by incredibly talented performers who convey their characters’ struggles with beautifully nuanced tenderness and empathy. The show is undoubtedly very special. Parallels can be drawn with many of the issues that Ragtime raises; even over 100 years later, immigrants and people of colour are faced with similar struggles and persecutions today. Ragtime notably has a large number of people of colour in the cast, allowing a large group of people to shine in a medium that so often excludes them. Proven by our three distinct casts coming together as one, when you make an effort for inclusion, magic happens on stage.
Ragtime is a very emotional show. There are plenty of dramatic highs and deeply emotive lows, but the audience will be treated to some fun, funny Broadway numbers, too – not to mention they will be treated to the sublime music of the masterful Ahrens and Flaherty partnership. During the 1998 awards season, the lavish show won multiple Tony Awards, including Best Original Score. Many songs from the score have become standards, including Your Daddy’s Son, Back to Before, and Make Them Hear You. These will blow your frilly socks off, but there are many more stunning examples in the complex score. The iconic music will not leave you after the final bows, due in no small part to the hard work of the breathtaking orchestra, and the dedicated lead performers.
Above: A publicity shot from Bundoora Homestead, featuring members of Ragtime's New Rochelle cast.
I talked to Cassandra Beckitt, the stunning soprano playing the principal role of Mother. “Mother is very much a woman of her time. She has a husband who looks after her,” she says, “but when she is forced to make some decisions by herself, finds that she really goes outside the realm of women of her time. She has a really big journey… she’s really pivotal in the show.” Assistant director DJ Pearce knows audiences will connect with Mother, as she is the character he connects to most. “She’s someone that really sits and takes everything in. She’s come from a really restricted background, and dares to do something a little bit different.” Among the large number of characters featured in Ragtime, there is sure to be a person that each member of our audience will connect to, says Pearce. “[We have been] trying to give everyone in the audience an opportunity to find something in the show that they can identify with really strongly so that they go on a journey with our characters.”
Ragtime is seldom produced in Australia, if it ever even has been produced at all, and therefore it is not a very well-known musical here. One of the reasons for that is the need for a large group of people of colour in the cast. “It has presented a tremendous amount of challenges in terms of casting the show correctly, and in terms of translating the story into something that is emotional and entertaining to a Victorian audience,” says Amy Bryans, director. Melbourne should get to know Ragtime, not despite the wide unfamiliarity with it, but because of that unfamiliarity. It’s a masterful work that deserves to be performed, and deserves to be seen, and learnt from. “I just want Ragtime to have its due,” says Ms. Bryans. “I want audiences to go, "Wow, how had I never heard of Ragtime before? It’s amazing. It’s beautiful!" That’s what I want.” No doubt she and the rest of the production team will have done just that with their sublime creation. Mr. Pearce agrees. “First and foremost, with any show, we want audiences to be entertained and enjoy themselves.”
Above: The Sitzprobe for Ragtime was the biggest WATERDALE has undertaken – over 80 people were squeezed into one room.
Rehearsals are going incredibly well, which is unsurprising with such an amazingly professional, inspired production team and core cast. With such a huge show – in terms of length, cast number (this is WATERDALE’s largest ever show, with over 50 in the cast), and content – everyone really took on the challenge with a decided work ethic and dedication. Ms. Bryans emphasises “the sheer calibre of talent [in the show]. It’s a really hard show to do well. And I think a huge part of the reason that it has been done well is that we have people like Cassandra Beckitt, Dennis Clements, Tim Horton, Marty Alix, Curtis Mason… These incredible, incredible performers. They’ve been an absolute joy to work with. The whole ensemble is a thrill to work with, too. It’s a joy to watch.” The cumulative creative vision is coming to life, with everyone becoming more and more emotionally involved each day. We are all moved to tears and laughter every rehearsal, almost as if we are seeing these stunning moments for the first time.
This show has brought out the best in everyone involved, and we are so excited to share this beautiful, special, and important show with the audience. “It has been very challenging, but every time a moment happens on stage, whether it be a really quiet, genuine moment, or if it’s just a big achievement logistically, it makes it so worth it. It’s one of my most favourite things that I’ve done,” says Ms. Bryans. Mr. Pearce cites one of the core messages of Ragtime as “the willingness and the ability to change”. I hope audiences will experience an inner change of their own, but, at the very least, they will enjoy a thoroughly entertaining, and thought-provoking, night out – and will enjoy the pretty period costumes, too.
The way is long, and the journey is hard, but the sound of those fleeting ragtime chords – "skipping a beat, singing a dream" – will bring about change within every member of the audience, as it has within us. It is a privilege to be involved in WATERDALE’s Ragtime, and I think it would be a privilege to see it, and be moved by it.