Exploring Ragtime and the American Experience: Q&A with director Peter Flynn
The Ford’s Theatre production of Ragtime, an epic Tony-winning musical based on E. L. Doctorow’s celebrated novel about three families striving for the American dream. We spoke with director Peter Flynn (1776, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) last fall about his thoughts on the play’s expansive musical score, striking relevancy and confrontation of both unbridled optimism and the stark reality of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
When did you first encounter Ragtime?
Flynn:I read E. L. Doctorow’s novel in high school and reread it almost immediately. His ability to mix historical fact with fiction astounded me.
What makes the story of Ragtime quintessentially American?
Flynn: Throughout the story, we watch three seemingly very different people strive for what they want from one similar belief: this is America, I am an American, I will persevere. Early on in the play, Tateh sings: “Here in America, anything you want you can be.” Whether that becomes true or not, he is giving voice to the spirit of endeavoring to pursue one’s goals.
What does the music in the show sound like?
Flynn: Ragtime is a beautiful cacophony of sound, voices and music: the boisterous cry of the strikers, the passionate mourning of Sarah’s friends, the quick wit and chatter of reporters and paparazzi and especially the quiet strength of the women’s voices throughout the play. It has a natural ebb and flow from the spoken word to song.
Ragtime opened on Broadway in 1998, but it is based on a 1975 novel that is set at the turn of the 20th century. Why do you think that modern audiences continue to connect with the play?
Flynn: I think audiences are perennially drawn to Ragtime for two reasons. Every major storyline in Ragtime, for better or for worse, continues to be a major event in our country’s history. Equal rights for women and people of color, immigration and our fascination with celebrity—all of these are headlines in our current newspapers. Mother is grappling with self-expression as a woman in society and the right to lead just like a man. Coalhouse perseveres tirelessly to express himself in the face of racism and police brutality. Tateh pursues a better life for his child amidst the turmoil of immigration in the last century. Also, Ragtime gives a very personal experience to major American events, and I think that makes our history more relatable.
How does seeing a musical at Ford’s Theatre add to the experience?
Flynn: One can’t see a performance at Ford’s without being conscious of the great American legacy it represents. As the scene of one of America’s greatest tragedies, the theatre was reclaimed to celebrate President Lincoln’s love of the arts. Ragtime is all about strength from adversity, triumph from tragedy, and trying to find healing through words and music.
Ford’s Director Paul R. Tetreault and his team work so thoroughly to create the American experience on stage and that effort is successful in part because the stage itself is integral to the American experience. It’s one of the most generous communities among our nation’s regional theatres.
Lauren Beyea is the Associate Director of Communications and Marketing at Ford’s Theatre, where she oversees media relations. She is editor of the Ford’s Theatre Blog. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenBeyea.
A version of this interview appears in the Ford’s Theatre Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? playbill.