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Literature / Ragtime

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"In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York, and it seemed, for some years thereafter, that all the family's days would be warm and fair."
"Prologue: Ragtime" (from The Musical)

Ragtime is a 1975 historical fiction novel by E. L. Doctorow. It takes place in and around New York City between 1900 and 1917, and follows three fictional American families whose lives intersect with those of various major historical figures from the time, such as Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan. The three families are: an upper-class WASP family from New Rochelle, consisting of a grandfather, a father, a mother, their son, and the mother's younger brother; a talented young black pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr., his girlfriend Sarah, and their son; and a Jewish Eastern European immigrant and his young daughter. It is written with a ridiculous amount of detail, approaching Tolkienesque levels.

In 1981 it was adapted into a film version, written by Michael Weller and Bo Goldman and directed by MiloŇ° Forman. The film, which starred James Cagney, Howard E. Rollins Jr., Brad Dourif, Elizabeth McGovern, Mandy Patinkin, and Mary Steenburgen (among others), was nominated for eight Academy Awards.

It was further adapted into a musical with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty. The original cast included Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald and Marin Mazzie. It was nominated for twelve Tony awards, and won four: Best Featured Actress (McDonald), Original Score, Book, and Orchestrations. A revival of the musical opened on Broadway on November 15, 2009 after transferring from a successful regional production located in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It closed January 15, 2010.

Includes examples of:

  • Adaptational Nice Guy: In the musical, Tateh is a widower deeply mourning the loss of his beloved wife, who died before the family emigrated to America. In the book, his wife is in fact alive and well and came to America with them. The foreman of the factory where all three work gives her extra shifts in exchange for sex, which she very reluctantly agrees to in order to keep the family from starving; when she finally tells Tateh, he is disgusted (with her, not with the foreman) and throws her out, telling their daughter that she has died and taking up the role of widower.
  • Adaptational Villainy:
    • In the book (and held true in the musical), Coalhouse genuinely means it when he says he's going to surrender once his men are safely away, and follows through. In the film, the promise is just a ploy to get his men out and his real plan is to blow the library up once the others are clear, and it's only at the last second that he can't bring himself to go through with it.
    • While neither villain nor hero in either case, Evelyn Nesbit is treated much more kindly by the book (where she helps Tateh's daughter and talks to Emma Goldman about how men have dominated her life) than in the musical, where she exists only to serve as a bad example of a shallow woman gleeful at the chaos around her.
  • Adapted Out: Emma Goldman doesn't appear in the film.
  • All Musicals Are Adaptations
  • Anti-Hero: Coalhouse becomes this after Sarah's death.
  • Anyone Can Die: Sarah, Coalhouse, Father, and Grandfather. Also Younger Brother in the novel. However, Father and Grandfather's deaths are only mentioned in the epilogue.
  • Ascended Extra: Of a sort. Emma Goldman's role in the novel is not insubstantial, but her actions are largely peripheral to the larger story (such that she was able to be completely written out of the film). In the musical, a speech from her is the catalyst for Younger Brother's transition from bored rich kid to social activist, and also serves as a narrator for plot points related to Tateh's ordeal and Younger Brother's activism.
  • Ax-Crazy: Coalhouse after Sarah's death.
  • Big "NO!":
    • Coalhouse in the immediate aftermath of Sarah's death, leading into the first notes of "'Til We Reach That Day". It works.
    • Father gets to have one as well at the end of the play, when Coalhouse steps outside the library with his hands up, only to be gunned down.
  • Big Applesauce: The majority of the plot takes place in New York and the surrounding area.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Or Quadralingual. "A Shtetl is Amerike" has three separate parts, being sung at the same time. The languages are Yiddish, Italian, and Creole.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Coalhouse and Sarah are dead, with none of the injustices that led to their fates being avenged. Father and Grandfather both die later on. Despite all the pain in the show, it will be several decades before any semblance of hope for racial harmony will arrive. However, Younger Brother continues being a revolutionary, Tateh and Mother marry and form a happy family with themselves, their children, and Coalhouse's son, and it's implied that Coalhouse and Sarah are watching their son grow up together from the afterlife.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Coalhouse's plot. There are a lot of people involved with very convoluted motives and values that are neither all good or all bad, but the firemen responsible for trashing the car are still clear villains, as they destroyed Coalhouse's property just to put him in (what they saw as) his place and because they knew they could get away with it. In the musical, Coalhouse even acknowledges the gray aspect of his own actions in "Make Them Hear You".
    And say to those who blame us for the way we chose to fight
    That sometimes there are battles that are more than black or white.
  • Bookends: The prologue/epilogue.
  • Crowd Song: The show uses a number of them for storytelling.
    • "'Til we Reach That Day" is the most famous one.
    • "Crime Of The Century" is this not only for purposes of the show, but also in-universe, where it's framed as part of a vaudeville act.
  • Dark Reprise: "Coalhouse's Soliloquy" is this for "Prologue: Ragtime", "Wheels of a Dream" (though it then gets a light reprise also), and "Your Daddy's Son" (though the original was already dark, the reprise is much darker).
  • Death by Adaptation: Tateh's wife is dead before the musical starts.
  • Demoted to Extra: A mild case. While she does still get a few moments in the spotlight, Evelyn Nesbit's role in the musical is cut down significantly compared to both the book and the film.
    • The Little Boy is a much less central character in the film than he is in either the book or the musical.
  • Description Porn: The book is ridiculously detailed.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Younger Brother, until "The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square". Then he goes kind of crazy with the newfound purpose. note 
  • Double-Meaning Title
  • Epic Rocking: "Till We Reach That Day", "New Music", "Journey On", "Make Them Hear You", and the reprise of "Wheels of a Dream" in the epilogue.
  • Final Love Duet: Subverted. "Sarah Brown Eyes" is a flashback.
  • Heroic BSoD / BSoD Song: "Coalhouse's Soliloquy".
  • Historical Domain Character
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: J.P. Morgan.
  • In the Past, Everyone Will Be Famous
  • "I Am Becoming" Song: "The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square", "What Kind of Woman", and parts of "New Music". "Coalhouse's Soliloquy" is a dark example.
  • "I Am" Song: "Back to Before" straddles the line between this and an "I Am Becoming" Song. "Sarah Brown Eyes" is something of a retroactive one, as it's a flashback to the night Coalhouse and Sarah met, but at the point in the show where it appears, Sarah is already dead.
  • "I Want" Song: "Goodbye My Love"/"Journey On" and "Wheels of a Dream". Also Coalhouse's part of "New Music".
  • Inspiration Nod: Coalhouse's name is a Shout-Out to Michael Kohlhaas.
  • "Just Joking" Justification: Willie Conklin claims that the incident of him and his team trashing Coalhouse's car was just a joke, even accusing Coalhouse himself for lacking a sense of humor.
  • Ladykiller in Love: Coalhouse with Sarah. Their initial split was because he was a womanizer (in the musical, Sarah says he "had other ladies"), but it's clear right from his first appearance that he sees Sarah as his One True Love.
  • Like Reality, Unless Noted: Everything in the book is amazingly realistic to the time period, except for the fact that The Little Boy (Edgar) is somehow psychic.
  • Meaningful Funeral: Sarah's.
  • Misplaced Retribution: Coalhouse focuses his Roaring Rampage of Revenge on Willie Conklin and the fire department, blaming them for Sarah's death, while completely disregarding the cops who actually killed her.
  • Mood Whiplash: The play's full of this.
    • "Success" going right into "His Name Was Coalhouse Walker".
    • "Wheels of a Dream" to Tateh working his fingers to bloody stumps at the loom.
    • "What a Game" is a lighthearted sequence sandwiched between two much more grim scenes, and as such it's Mood Whiplash at both the transition in and the transition out. Justified up to a point since giving the audience a break from the heaviness of the second act is probably to the benefit of the show, but the transition is still extremely abrupt on both ends.
  • Motive Decay: Coalhouse goes from seeking reparations for his car to terrorizing the city of New York as revenge for Sarah's death. Lampshaded in the narration, where Booker T. Washington explains that Coalhouse choosing a target so wholly unconnected with his stated grievances was regarded as proof of his insanity.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Evelyn Nesbit is this in-universe.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Sarah's song "Your Daddy's Son".
  • Named by the Adaptation: The character known only as the Little Boy in the novel is named Edgar in the musical because the script-writers found it too difficult to write the story without him having a name (they named him after E.L. Doctorow)
  • Narrator: At different times in The Musical everyone behaves as if they were a third-person narrator.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Averted; the book features numerous public figures from the 1920s and is not shy about putting them in compromising positions.
  • No Name Given: More common than not. Father, Mother, (Mother's) Younger Brother, Grandfather, Tateh (which is just the Yiddish word for "father"), and the Little Girl. In fact, other than the historical figures, the only two characters with actual names are Coalhouse and Sarah; Tateh takes on the stage name "Baron Ashkenazy" for his film career, but it's never stated one way or the other whether that's his real last name. note  It almost might as well be a Nameless Narrative. The Little Boy is also this for the book and the film, but is Named by the Adaptation for The Musical, given the name "Edgar" after E.L. Doctorow. Word of God says this was because it was too difficult to address him without a name.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: After Mother explains to Edgar that Tateh having a rope on his daughter is due to his fear of losing her, she notes that all parents fear losing their children — most just don't show it in such a visible way.
  • Offing the Offspring: Sarah attempts to kill her baby by burying it after Coalhouse abandoned her.
  • Overly Narrow Superlative: "And although the newspapers called the shooting the Crime of the Century, Goldman knew it was only 1906... and there were ninety-four years to go!"
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The musical gives the Little Boy a name (Edgar) for the sole reason that the playwrights found it too difficult to write around the lack of one.
  • Product Placement: The original Broadway production of the musical premiered in what was then known as the Ford Centre For the Performing Arts, so naturally there is an extended musical number extolling the wonders of Henry Ford's assembly line and the Model T. This would also explain why Henry Ford's more unsavory characteristics—in particular his feelings about Jews—are glossed over.
  • Rich Kid Turned Social Activist: After a life of Rich Boredom, the "Brother" of the play's archetypal wealthy white family finds a purpose for his life when he happens to stumble into a socialist rally led by activist Emma Goldman, a Historical Domain Character. Her speech awakens him to the reality of race and class struggles in early 20th Century New York, and he abandons his family and life of comfort to join the revolt led by black protagonist Coalhouse Walker.
  • Say My Name: Done by Father to Edgar in the musical during "What a Game", when the latter won't stop repeating the vulgar (for the time) language of the other baseball fans.
    Ensemble: Whaaat a....
    Edgar: Up your alley!
    Father: EDGAR!!!
  • Scary Black Man: Quite literally, as the Coalhouses are black terrorists.
  • Shoot Him, He Has a Wallet!: Sarah dies this way.
  • Sidekick Song: "What a Game", "Crime of the Century". "Atlantic City" is a semi-subversion.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Younger Brother for Evelyn Nesbit.
  • Stalking is Love: Evelyn and Younger Brother become a couple after she discovers he's been stalking her. In the musical, though, she rewards him with a kiss and then brushes him off as too poor for her.
  • Stepford Smiler: Mother suggests a couple of times (most notably in "Back To Before") that she's spent her married life as this, but we don't see much of her until after Father leaves, which is the catalyst for her to begin developing her own identity again, growing more and more independent and farther and farther away from Father as the story goes on. By the time Father comes back, she's come too far to be willing go back to the way things were.
    Mother: There was a time my feet were so solidly planted
    You'd sail away, while I turned my back to the sea
    I was content, a princess asleep and enchanted
    If I had dreams, then I let you dream them for me
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: From Younger Brother to Father: "You are a complacent man with no thought of history! You have traveled everywhere and learned nothing! I despise you."
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The epilogue of The Musical.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: There are three separate plotlines following the three families. They cross over and eventually become one towards the end.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Since Fire Chief Will Conklin is the closest thing to a villain in the show, he breaks down first in "Coalhouse Demands" and even more in "Look What You've Done".
  • Waif Prophet: Male variation, with the little boy who sees World War I coming, and keeps trying to tell people Harry Houndini that he needs to save Franz Ferdinand.
    "Warn the duke!"
  • Wham Episode: Sarah's death is the first of many in the last 15 chapters of the book.
  • Wham Line: During "He Wanted To Say" in the musical:
    Emma Goldman: But all he said was...
    Mother's Younger Brother: I know how to blow things up!
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Booker T. Washington to Coalhouse in "Look What You've Done".
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Younger Brother during the first half of book.
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: Makes sense, considering Tateh's Jewish.