Ragtime (Version 1)
This sweeping musical portrait of early-twentieth-century America tells the story of three families in the pursuit of the American Dream.
Show Essentials
+ Ensemble

Full Synopsis

Act One

We are introduced to the social and political climate of the United States in the early twentietth century by meeting a parade of characters – famous celebrities and private citizens of the time. First, we visit New Rochelle, New York, to meet a well-to-do white family: Mother, Father, their Little Boy, Mother's Younger Brother and Grandfather. Next, we go to Harlem to meet Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a ragtime pianist, and his admirers. Immigrants arrive at Ellis Island, where we meet Tateh, an artist who makes silhouettes, and his Little Girl. The lives of these three American families are entwined with Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman. Whites, African Americans, immigrants and celebrities are set on a collision course from the opening number ("Ragtime").

Father is accompanying Admiral Peary on a trip to the North Pole. At the dock, he consoles Mother that everything will be the same upon his return, but Mother is not convinced ("Goodbye My Love"). On its way out of the harbor, Father's ship passes a rag ship filled with immigrants, arriving in New York. Tateh and the Little Girl are on board. Tateh and Father wave to one another; Father admires the immigrants for their naive bravery in coming to a new land, and Tateh questions Father's reasons for leaving the place that he has worked so hard to find. Simultaneously, Mother wonders what this year without her husband will bring ("Journey On").

Mother's Younger Brother is in love with Evelyn Nesbit. He is frustrated and lost, searching for meaning in his life and hoping to find it in her. Her show is a vaudeville act that tells the true story of her lover's murder by her famous husband ("Crime of the Century"). Younger Brother goes to all of her shows. One day, after the show, Younger Brother approaches her, but she dismisses him.

The scene shifts to Mother and the Little Boy in the garden. The Little Boy wants to see Houdini, as he has a cryptic message for him: "Warn the duke." While he begins to read her Father's letter, mother makes a shocking discovery – there is a newborn African-American child buried in the flowerbed. The police arrive on the premises with Sarah, the mother of the child. Rather than let Sarah go to prison, Mother takes Sarah and the child into her own home ("What Kind of Woman").

With many other immigrants, Tateh and The Little Girl disembark at Ellis Island, full of hope ("America"). Tateh sets up his business on the Lower East Side, selling paper silhouettes of celebrities for a nickel each. Emma Goldman chastises him for selling one of J.P. Morgan, the epitome of capitalism. J.P. Morgan enters the scene and metaphorically crushes the immigrants, but Harry Houdini magically swoops in as an emblem of immigrant triumph. Time passes, Tateh becomes less idealistic – he is still poor and the Little Girl is sick. When a man tries to buy the Little Girl, Tateh has reached rock bottom. He swears to make a better life for himself and his child ("Success").

Far Uptown, the people of Harlem celebrate the great musician, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. ("His Name Was Coalhouse Walker"). He tells his friends the story of how he loved and lost Sarah, but reveals that he's just found out where she might be living and is determined to win her back ("Getting' Ready Rag"). Henry Ford appears to tell us of his new method of mass production and his most famous product – the Model T ("Henry Ford"). A new car rolls off of the assembly line, and Coalhouse drives off in search of Sarah.

Back in New Rochelle, Mother and the Little Boy wait at the train station, on their way to New York City to take care of the family business while Father is away. Tateh and the Little Girl wait across the tracks for a train to Boston. Mother and Tateh greet one another, and Tateh is surprised to be treated with respect ("Nothing Like the City"). The Little Boy has a premonition that they will see Tateh and the Little Girl again, but Mother tells him that is absurd.

On his way to New Rochelle, Coalhouse encounters a group of hostile volunteer firemen who threaten him for being cocky by driving past them in his new car. Meanwhile, Sarah, living in Mother's attic, begs her infant's forgiveness for her desperation – trying to explain what drove her to such an unimaginable act ("Your Daddy's Son"). When Coalhouse arrives at Mother's home, Sarah will not see him.

Coalhouse returns every Sunday for weeks, wooing Sarah with his ragtime tunes and winning over Mother, Grandfather and the Little Boy ("The Courtship"). Father returns from the North Pole to find a very different household from the one he left. He cannot wrap his head around the facts that his wife is independent, his family is accepting of the African-American courtship happening in his living room and there is ragtime music coming from his piano ("New Music").

Finally, Sarah comes down to see Coalhouse and they reunite. Coalhouse tells Sarah of his admiration for Booker T. Washington's achievements and, together, he and Sarah imagine a future for their child ("Wheels of a Dream"). Meanwhile, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Tateh has lost sight of the American dream and now works at a mill 64 hours a week. In Union Square, Emma Goldman tries to generate a strike against the oppressive mill owners. Younger Brother happens to hear her speech and is energized to the cause of workers rights – he finally has something in which to believe ("The Night That Goldman Spoke in Union Square").

A violent labor strike erupts in Lawrence. Tateh intends to put The Little Girl on a train to a safer place, with other children and a chaperone. However, she is so distraught that he jumps on the train with her. He soothes her terror with a flipbook of silhouettes that he has made ("Gliding"). The train conductor notices the book of moving silhouettes and buys it for his own child. Tateh sees this as a wonderful new business idea.

Coalhouse once again encounters the volunteer firemen, and, this time, they do more than threaten him. As Booker T. Washington gives a speech about rising above and holding fast, the men destroy Coalhouse's car. Coalhouse moves through the legal channels in search of justice for this crime against him, but he is denied at every avenue ("Justice"). He postpones his marriage to Sarah until the matter is resolved. Sarah, out of desperation and naiveté, tries to seek help from a visiting Vice Presidential candidate but is clubbed to death by police, who suspect her of having a gun ("President"). Act One closes with the anger and grief of Sarah's funeral ("Till We Reach That Day").

Act Two

Coalhouse mourns the loss of Sarah ("Coalhouse's Soliloquy"). Seeking vengeance, he shoots three of the firemen who trashed his car, burns their firehouse and demands that the fire chief, Willy Conklin, be brought to justice ("Coalhouse Demands").

A group of young men joins Coalhouse as he strikes out against the system. Booker T. Washington publicly condemns Coalhouse's actions. Father goes to the police to tell them what he knows about Coalhouse. Younger Brother, who is moved by the plight of the oppressed and angry about the injustice done to Coalhouse, erupts at Father for working against Coalhouse. He storms out of the house in anger, and Mother, who is still caring for Sarah and Coalhouse's baby, is deeply upset. In reaction, Father takes the Little Boy to a baseball game. But even this has changed and is now a game, not just for upper class whites, but for immigrants, too ("What a Game"). Meanwhile, Coalhouse's band of men sets fires around the city. Reporters besiege the family in New Rochelle. Father, thinking that it is time to get away, takes the family to Atlantic City, where Evelyn Nesbit and Houdini both happen to be starring attractions ("Let's Run Away to Atlantic City").

In Atlantic City, we discover that Tateh is now a famous film director and has recreated himself as Baron Ashkenazy. His daughter, healthy and beautifully dressed, is by his side. Once again, Tateh meets Mother and tells her the story of his success ("Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.").

Later, the Little Boy asks Houdini for his autograph and gives him the message: "Warn the duke." Houdini is confused and intrigued, but the Little Boy runs off. The Little Girl and Little Boy play together as Tateh and Mother watch from the boardwalk ("Our Children"). Tateh reveals his humble origins to Mother, who is moved by his honesty.

In Harlem, Younger Brother searches for Coalhouse and, although the residents are distrustful of him, one of Coalhouse's men takes him to Coalhouse's hideout. Meanwhile, drawn by laughter and dancing in a club, Coalhouse thinks of the first time that he met Sarah ("Sarah Brown Eyes"). A blindfolded Younger Brother is brought to Coalhouse's den. Younger Brother wants to express his sympathy for Coalhouse's actions but all he can manage to do is offer his knowledge of explosives ("He Wanted to Say"). Coalhouse focuses his rage by taking over J.P. Morgan's Library. He threatens to blow up the library and all of its treasures, as well as himself and all of his men, one of whom is now Younger Brother. Father tells Mother that he has volunteered to act as a negotiator, and Mother realizes that this experience has irrevocably changed their relationship ("Back to Before").

Coalhouse and his men barricade themselves inside the library. Emma Goldman applauds this, but Booker T. Washington deplores these actions. Father tells the authorities that Booker T. Washington is the only man to whom Coalhouse will listen. Booker T. is sent into the library to speak with Coalhouse. He chides Coalhouse, both for risking the lives of the young men around him, while leaving his own son to be raised by white men, and for endangering the position of all African Americans by making them seem hot-headed and violent ("Look What You've Done"). He assures Coalhouse that, if he surrenders, he will have a fair trial and a forum for his opinions. Coalhouse negotiates the safe passage of his men, including Younger Brother, while Father remains behind in the library. The men protest his decision, but he explains to them that the only way to win the fight is to go out into the world and tell their story ("Make Them Hear You"). When Coalhouse is left alone with Father, he asks about his son. Father promises a safe end to the standoff, but, when Coalhouse exits the building to surrender, he is shot dead by authorities.

The era of ragtime ends. The characters come forward, one by one, to tell us the end of their stories: Younger Brother joins the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, Emma Goldman is deported, Booker T. Washington establishes the Tuskegee Institute, Evelyn Nesbit fades into obscurity, Houdini has the one true mystical experience of his life when he is performing in Sarajevo and the duke is shot, Grandfather dies and Father is killed during wartime. Finally, Mother and Tateh marry and move to California with their children.

As the curtain falls, Little Coalhouse runs into Mother's arms, and men and women of all nationalities – and races – join Mother on the stage ("Epilogue").

← Back to Ragtime (Version 1)
Cast Size: Medium (11 to 20 performers)
Cast Type: Ensemble Cast
Dance Requirements: None

Character Breakdown

Coalhouse Walker Jr.

A proud and talented pianist. A Black man who believes that he can take part in the new America and will be treated fairly.

Gender: male
Age: 25 to 35
Vocal range top: A4
Vocal range bottom: G2

Washwoman. Sarah is a young Black woman, beautiful and filled with a strong will to live, fueled by an innocent spirit. Falls deeply in love with Coalhouse after much resistance.

Gender: female
Age: 20 to 25
Vocal range top: F#5
Vocal range bottom: G#3

The consummate wife and mother. A kind woman with incredible moral fiber. Refined, intelligent, graceful and open minded.

Gender: female
Age: 30 to 40
Vocal range top: F#5
Vocal range bottom: G3

Mother's professionally successful husband. Fancies himself an amateur explorer, he is commanding and attractive. Enjoys being the family breadwinner, a traditionalist.

Gender: male
Age: 30 to 45
Vocal range top: F4
Vocal range bottom: A2
Younger Brother

Mother's younger brother. He is an erratic and passionate soul, a firework waiting to be lit. Influenced greatly by Goldman's teachings.

Gender: male
Age: 20 to 25
Vocal range top: F#4
Vocal range bottom: B2
Little Boy
Mother and Father's son. He is open-hearted and curious with inexplicable clairvoyance. Never passes judgement on others.
Gender: male
Age: 8 to 12
Vocal range top: D5
Vocal range bottom: E4

Mother's patrician father. He is a retired professor, and easily irritated by nearly everything.

Gender: male
Age: 60 to 70

A Latvian immigrant. He wears the trials and tribulations of his past on his sleeve, but remains optimistic that he will be successful. Full of genuine drive and heart. He lives for his little daughter.

Gender: male
Age: 35 to 45
Vocal range top: F#4
Vocal range bottom: Bb2
Little Girl

Tateh's daughter. A vulnerable child in a brand-new home, she has lost her mother and is guarded and shy. She clings to her father.

Gender: female
Age: 7 to 10
Vocal range top: Bb4
Vocal range bottom: C4
Booker T. Washington

Brilliant Black social activist. He is an eloquent and articulate gentleman with no patience for Black Americans leading less than exemplary lives.

Gender: male
Age: 45 to 55
Vocal range top: Eb4
Vocal range bottom: D3
Emma Goldman

Social activist. Originally from Russia, she is a leader, a fearless advocate for the oppressed.

Gender: female
Age: 35 to 45
Vocal range top: D5
Vocal range bottom: B3
Evelyn Nesbit
Beautiful vaudeville performer. Thrust into the limelight after the high profile murder of her lover, the entire world is her stage.
Gender: female
Age: 18 to 21
Vocal range top: D5
Vocal range bottom: B3
Harry Houdini

The famous magician, originally from Hungary. With notable physical ability, he stands as a symbol of the 'American Dream.'

Gender: male
Age: 25 to 35
Vocal range top: G4
Vocal range bottom: E3

Baseball Fans; Coalhouse Supporters; Firemen; Immigrants To America; New Rochelle Citizens; Reporters; Vacationers.

Played by Black actors: Coalhouse's Lawyer, Harlem Citizens, Henson

Full Song List
Ragtime (Version 1): Ragtime
Ragtime (Version 1): Goodbye, My Love
Ragtime (Version 1): Journey On
Ragtime (Version 1): Crime Of The Century
Ragtime (Version 1): What Kind Of Woman?
Ragtime (Version 1): A Shteltl Iz Amereke
Ragtime (Version 1): Success
Ragtime (Version 1): His Name Was Coalhouse Walker
Ragtime (Version 1): Getting' Ready Rag
Ragtime (Version 1): Henry Ford
Ragtime (Version 1): Nothing Like The City
Ragtime (Version 1): Your Daddy's Son
Ragtime (Version 1): The Courtship
Ragtime (Version 1): New Music
Ragtime (Version 1): Wheels Of A Dream
Ragtime (Version 1): The Night That Goldman Spoke
Ragtime (Version 1): Gliding
Ragtime (Version 1): Justice
Ragtime (Version 1): President
Ragtime (Version 1): Till We Reach That Day
Ragtime (Version 1): Coalhouse's Soliloquy
Ragtime (Version 1): Coalhouse Demands
Ragtime (Version 1): What A Game!
Ragtime (Version 1): Atlantic City
Ragtime (Version 1): Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.
Ragtime (Version 1): Our Children
Ragtime (Version 1): Sarah Brown Eyes
Ragtime (Version 1): He Wanted To Say
Ragtime (Version 1): Back To Before
Ragtime (Version 1): Look What You've Done
Ragtime (Version 1): Make Them Hear You
Ragtime (Version 1): Epilogue

Show History


Ragtime is based on E.L. Doctorow's epic novel of the same name. In 1994, Canadian theatrical producer Garth Drabinsky secured permission to musicalize Doctorow's story. Published in 1975, Ragtime, the novel, is historical fiction inspired by actual events in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. Real historical figures such as Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Houdini all feature prominently in both the novel and the musical.


Ragtime first opened in Toronto in December of 1996. The show featured a score by songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, a book by veteran playwright Terrence McNally, direction by Frank Galati and choreography by Graciela Daniele. The first American production premiered in Los Angeles in June of 1997, where work continued. The show finally arrived on Broadway on January 18, 1998, christening the brand-new Ford Center for the Performing Arts. The legendary original cast included Brian Stokes Mitchell as Coalhouse Walker, Jr.; Audra McDonald as Sarah; Marin Mazzie as Mother; Peter Friedman as Tateh and Judy Kaye as Emma Goldman.

Subsequent to its Broadway run, Ragtime received two national tours. In 2003, the London production, which presented the show on a more intimate scale, opened to great acclaim, earning eight Olivier nominations.

In 2009, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts staged a technically pared-down version of the show, and that production moved to Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre. Previews began October 23, 2009, and the show officially opened on November 15, 2009. The revival cast featured Stephanie Umoh (Sarah), Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse Walker, Jr.), Christiane Noll (Mother), Robert Petkoff (Tateh), Bobby Steggert (Younger Brother), Donna Migliaccio (EmmaGoldman) and Ron Bohmer (Father). The production was directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. This was the first Broadway revival of Ragtime and the first Broadway revival of any 1990s musical. Although the production opened to critical acclaim, the show closed on January 10, 2010, after 28 previews and 65 performances.

Cultural Influence

  • Ragtime is frequently produced around the country in many acclaimed productions, including one particularly innovative production, which employed eight actors and puppets!
  • The title Ragtime comes from the musical style of the same name, which was a uniquely American, syncopated musical phenomenon that swept the country in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries.


  • When Garth Drabinsky secured the rights to E.L. Doctorow's novel, he took an unorthodox approach to find the songwriting team. He auditioned various composers and lyricists, asking them to create a four-song demo tape. After listening to the nine or ten submissions, Doctorow, Drabinsky and bookwriter Terrence McNally, were in complete agreement that lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty were the perfect team to write the score. (Amazingly, three of the four songs on Ahrens and Flaherty's original demo tape remained in the show: "Ragtime," "Gliding" and "'Til We Reach That Day.")
  • Ragtime initially garnered thirteen Tony Award nominations, the most of any show that season, and won four – Best Score, Best Book, Best Orchestrations and Best Supporting Actress (Audra McDonald). It also received thirteen Drama Desk nominations that same year, as well as six Olivier Nominations in 2004.
  • Lea Michele, of TV's "Glee: and Broadway's Spring Awakening, played the Little Girl in the original Broadway production of Ragtime.
  • After a successful workshop of Ragtime in Toronto, prior to the 1996 opening, a concept recording of the show was released.

Critical Reaction

"There is much to admire in Ragtime, from its images of hand-tinted daguerreotypes brought to exquisite life to the electric presence of its leading man, Brian Stokes Mitchell, as the black revolutionary Coalhouse Walker."
– New York Times

"This is an impressive work, faithfully, even masterfully, adapted to the stage by Terrence McNally, and carried aloft on the strong wings of Lynn Ahrens's lyrics and Stephen Flaherty's score."
– Toronto Sun

"It is a gorgeous spectacle that nevertheless manages a look of simplicity. It packs enough entertainment value and hews closely enough to E.L. Doctorow's novel to be the sort of show that one hopes will reach audiences from the same diverse social strata as its characters."
– CurtainUp

Drama Desk Award

1998 - Outstanding Choreography, Nominee (Graciela Daniele)
1998 - Outstanding Actor in a Musical, Nominee (Peter Friedman)
1998 - Outstanding Orchestrations, Winner (William David Brohn)
1998 - Outstanding Musical, Winner (Ragtime)
1998 - Outstanding Actress in a Musical, Nominee (Marin Mazzie)
1998 - Outstanding Set Design of a Musical, Nominee (Eugene Lee)
1998 - Outstanding Music, Winner (Stephen Flaherty)
1998 - Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical, Nominee (Steven Sutcliffe)
1998 - Outstanding Costume Design, Nominee (Santo Loquasto)
1998 - Outstanding Lyrics, Winner (Lynn Ahrens)
1998 - Outstanding Lyrics, Winner (Lynn Ahrens)
1998 - Outstanding Lighting Design, Nominee (Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer)
1998 - Outstanding Book of a Musical, Winner (Terrence McNally)
1998 - Outstanding Music, Winner (Stephen Flaherty)
1998 - Outstanding Actor in a Musical, Nominee (Brian Stokes Mitchell)
1998 - Outstanding Musical, Winner ()
1998 - Outstanding Actor in a Musical, Nominee (Peter Friedman)
1998 - Outstanding Orchestrations, Winner (William David Brohn)
1998 - Outstanding Actress in a Musical, Nominee (Marin Mazzie)
1998 - Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical, Nominee (Steven Sutcliffe)
1998 - Best Book Of A Musical, Winner (Terrence McNally)
1998 - Outstanding Direction of a Musical, Nominee (Frank Galati)
1998 - Outstanding Actor in a Musical, Nominee (Brian Stokes Mitchell)

Tony® Award

1998 - Actress In A Featured Role (Musical), Winner (Audra McDonald)
1998 - Best Original Score, Winner (Music by Stephen Flaherty; Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens)
1998 - Best Orchestrations, Winner (William David Brohn)
1998 - Book Of A Musical, Winner (Terrence McNally)
1998 - Best Book Of A Musical, Winner (Terrence McNally)
1998 - Choreographer, Nominee (Graciela Daniele)
1998 - Best Featured Actress in a Musical, Winner (Audra McDonald)
1998 - Costume Designer, Nominee (Santo Loquasto)
1998 - Best Actor in a Musical, Nominee (Brian Stokes Mitchell)
1998 - Director (Musical), Nominee (Frank Galati)
1998 - Best Actor in a Musical, Nominee (Peter Friedman)
1998 - Lighting Designer, Nominee (Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer)
1998 - Best Actress in a Musical, Nominee (Marin Mazzie)
1998 - Musical, Nominee (LIVENT (U.S.) Inc.(producer))
1998 - Best Scenic Design, Nominee (Eugene Lee)
1998 - Orchestration, Winner (William David Brohn)
1998 - Best Costume Design, Nominee (Santo Loquasto)
1998 - Actor (Musical), Nominee (Brian Stokes Mitchell)
1998 - Original Musical Score, Winner (Stephen Flaherty(music), Lynn Ahrens(lyrics))
1998 - Best Lighting Design, Nominee (Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer)
1998 - Actor (Musical), Nominee (Peter Friedman)
1998 - Scenic Design, Nominee (Eugene Lee)
1998 - Best Choreography, Nominee (Graciela Daniele)
1998 - Actress (Musical), Nominee (Marin Mazzie)
1998 - Best Musical, Nominee (Ragtime)
1998 - Best Direction Of A Musical, Nominee (Frank Galati)

Outer Critics Circle Award

1998 - Best Broadway Musical, Winner (Ragtime)
1998 - Best Featured Actor in a Musical, Winner (Peter Friedman)

Theatre World Award

1998 - Outstanding New Performer, Winner (Steven Sutcliffe)



Based on the novel, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow


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Book by
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Based on the novel "RAGTIME"
By E. L. Doctorow

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