America at the start of the 20th century was a crazy time that involved a fair amount of ragtime music, vaudeville and racism — lots and lots of racism. All that is portrayed in the story of Ragtime, which follows the collision of an upper class family from New Rochelle, a family of immigrants and a family of lower class African-Americans.
Side stories along the way detail the atrocities and everyday happenings the nation faced at the time, including the murder trial of Evelyn Nesbitt’s husband, the richness and oddities of JP Morgan and Henry Ford and the up-and-coming magic of Harry Houdini.
But the story truly takes off when Mother — the mother of the upper class family — finds an African American baby in her yard and takes it in. Soon, the child’s mother, Sarah, follows and stays in Mother’s home with her family until she can handle taking care of her baby. While staying with the family, Sarah’s ex-lover, Coalhouse, visits everyday in an attempt to win Sarah back and spend time with his son. Coalhouse is a well-known African-American, ragtime pianist whose car is then trashed and vandalized by the city’s firefighters. It’s enough for Coalhouse to completely erupt and damage the lives and relationships around him until his world spirals and crumbles, leaving all other nearby players to pick up the pieces.
There are too many characters and subplots in the book to detail here, but suffice to say the musical does a wonderful job of zeroing in on the most important and exciting parts of the story and bringing them to life. The novel’s beginning is bogged down by the story of Evelyn Nesbitt, which becomes irrelevant by the end. The novel also includes a lot of details about Morgan, Ford and Houdini. While interesting and helpful in setting the tone of the time, they also don’t do much to move the story along. The musical smartly cuts a lot of this and instead focuses on the Coalhouse storyline, which is the most heartbreaking and also the most socially-conscious.
Because of the visual aspect of the show — the sets, the silhouettes — the story’s symbolism also becomes much more apparent than in the book. The musical, for instance, makes a clear distinction between the immigrants, the upper class white people and the lower class black people. The silhouettes, which are only mentioned in the book as an art form, are used throughout the show and acknowledge the show’s theme: that color and race should not be the most important thing about a person.
Ragtime, the novel, was enjoyable, until I saw the show and saw how much more focused it was in its storytelling — and the incredible music didn’t hurt either.