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'Ragtime' Will Make the Leap To Broadway

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 2, 2009

"Ragtime" is bringing its syncopated song stylings back to Broadway.

The Kennedy Center's highly praised and highly popular revival of the 1998 musical, with score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and libretto by Terrence McNally, will officially reopen Nov. 15 at the Neil Simon Theatre on West 52nd Street, the show's producers announced today.

The transfer is the first of its kind in the tenure of Michael M. Kaiser, who has been the institution's president since 2001. And though past productions have had premieres at the center before New York debuts, "Ragtime's" afterlife is unique: Moving it to Broadway was not part of the original plan.

"This is the first time a show has transferred from the Kennedy Center that wasn't designed to transfer to Broadway," Kaiser says.

The move also builds on an unusually productive year for plays and musicals starting life in the nation's capital. Two works that had major stops at Arena Stage -- a world-premiere play, "33 Variations," and the musical "Next to Normal" -- both made it to Broadway this season, garnering four Tony Awards combined. The current hit revival of "West Side Story," too, had its out-of-town tryout at the National Theatre last winter.

And now, "Ragtime." Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge's production, with a 28-member orchestra and a conceptual multi-tiered set by Derek McLane (who won the Tony for his set for "33 Variations"), will be staged pretty much as it was in the Eisenhower Theater, the producers say.

The massive set has to be modified a bit for the Neil Simon, and of course, the costs are much higher, though not outlandish by current Broadway standards. While the Kennedy Center produced the show for $4.4 million, the price tag for the Broadway incarnation is $8 million, said Kevin McCollum, who is producing with Emanuel Azenberg and Roy Furman. (By contrast, "West Side Story," of which McCollum is also a producer, cost $14 million.)

As with so many mammoth shows -- this one has a cast approaching 40 -- the revival is not without its special challenges. The first time around, "Ragtime" had a more than respectable two-year, 834-performance run. But it was beset by money troubles -- its original producer, Garth Drabinsky, was recently convicted in Canada of financial improprieties -- and was also overshadowed by another big musical that opened a couple of months earlier, Disney's "The Lion King." "Ragtime," which lost the Tony for best musical to "Lion King," closed in January 2000, in the red.

The belief that "Ragtime," based on E.L. Doctorow's prize-winning novel, deserved another crack at Broadway has been harbored by adherents ever since. McCollum, an original producer of "Rent," is one of them. "I really think the musical could have been slightly ahead of its time," he says, pointing to its effort to define the birth of an American age, as expressed in such rousing numbers as the first-act number "New Music."

"It's very relevant to today, as we try to find the new music of our time," McCollum adds.

Whether the melodically multi-hued "Ragtime" can break through in a more compelling manner remains to be seen. It will arrive, apparently, with a goodly portion of its Kennedy Center cast, and such well-received actors as Christiane Noll, Bobby Steggert and Quentin Earl Darrington. (A small number of roles, major and minor, are being recast.) In any event, no name associated with the production is as high-profile as were some stars of the original, such as Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald.

McCollum, who with the other producers traveled to Washington to see Dodge's production, asserts that the economics of the Neil Simon Theatre -- home to "Hairspray" for nearly seven years -- are favorable. The weekly gross potential of that theater for ticket sales, he says, is $1.1 million, and if "Ragtime" can sell 60 percent of its tickets, the show eventually will break even.

"Ragtime" ran in the Eisenhower in April and May for 34 performances, which included a one-week extension. About 92 percent of all seats were sold at the Kennedy Center, Kaiser says.

The musical is scheduled to begin preview performances at the Neil Simon on Oct. 23.

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