Nothing in the nature of musical theater demands that it be superficial. Civilization’s first plays, the soul-expanding Greek tragedies, were musicals about nature, society and individual responsibility.
Despite its commercialization, the modern musical remains our nation’s great contribution to world theater. So it’s not surprising that when British director Mark Clements took over leadership of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in 2010, he found it incongruous that the Rep, a major American theater, didn’t do them.
Clements’ production of the musical Ragtime begins a six-week run on Sept. 17 in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. It’s his fourth musical since he introduced himself as artistic director by staging Cabaret. The decision to produce that show was a bold step for the Rep and not without controversy. Some feared a musical—any musical—would damage the company’s status as a serious institution; others, that it was wrong to compete with the Skylight Music Theatre, Milwaukee Theatre and Marcus Center. Some felt, too, that the decision was foolish since the Powerhouse has a thrust stage and no orchestra pit (meaning there is nowhere to put musicians) and, more seriously, the Rep’s resident acting company was not formed with musicals in mind.
Creativity solved the band issue but, as Clements says, “The score determines what you need from actors. If there’s a high A, either you can sing it or you can’t.” He’s replaced the resident acting company with a large group of associate artists including designers, directors, writers and musicians, as well as many actors from the former company. He consults them on programming and hires them regularly. Anyone who’s seen the first-rate work of the past three seasons has watched him beautifully balance loyalty with the demands of excellence.
Cabaret and Next To Normal, his second Rep musical, were huge hits. His brilliant staging of Sondheim’s Assassins last season inspired some walkouts. Clements stresses the intelligence of all three shows and their ability to resonate in different ways within the community. “I’m not trying to make people angry,” he says, “but it’s important to be brave.”
With period-inspired music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Ragtime was adapted by playwright Terrence McNally from E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, a hallucinatory dissection of the nation at the start of the 20th century that mixes historical figures with fictional archetypes and rings true. According to Clements, “Race is a subject. Whose America is it? Another subject is the American Dream and how different it is for each person.”
Three groups of characters find themselves accidentally intertwined: affluent WASP suburbanites represented by a family from New Rochelle, N.Y.; African Americans represented by a Harlem jazz musician; and Eastern European immigrants represented by a newly arrived Latvian Jew and his daughter.
With 35 actors and 10 musicians, Ragtime is the biggest show the Rep has ever staged. It’s also the latest to present multiple cultures and ethnicities. “There’s no point in saying we want to be relevant to a diverse audience if that isn’t represented in the programming and casting,” says Clements.
Ragtime opened on Broadway in 2000 to mixed reviews and ran for two years on the strength of a celebrated cast featuring Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald. A superior revival in 2009 was hailed by critics but proved commercially unsustainable.
Clements saw that revival right after he’d received his Rep appointment. A friend in the Broadway cast had invited him. Clements’ mom was visiting from England. He took her to the show. “It was a rare experience for me,” he says. “Because I’ve done so many plays, it’s hard for me to be completely taken over by a show. I’m of a generation of British men—it was instilled in us that you were weak if you cried. I still feel a sense of shame when I cry. But within ten minutes, there I was, tears rolling down my cheeks. Ragtime is a story of being an immigrant, leaving your family for a whole new life. Of course, my experience was much more privileged than the characters’. But having my mom there and being in my new life! It was a brilliant production, pared down but fluid, exactly my taste. Experiencing it, I thought, yeah, this is why I do what I do. And I thought, we have to do this at the Rep.”
Ragtime runs Sept. 17-Oct. 27 at the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex, 108 E. Wells St. Call 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukerep.com.