And the Tony for best musical should go to ... 'Ragtime' Seamless adaptation of Doctorow's novel about American families a century ago is clearly the best of the year.

June 07, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The last line of an article on the Tony Awards was inadvertently omitted in yesterday's Arts & Society section. The final paragraph should have read:

Twenty years from now, when your neighborhood dinner theater, community theater or high school stages "Ragtime," it will still be a great musical. But when -- or if -- they stage "The Lion King," it will still be a cartoon.

The Sun regrets the errors.

NEW YORK - "The Lion King" vs. "Ragtime." Tonight's Tony Award competition for best musical boils down to a spirited race between two shows that, on the surface, have several things in common.


Both are highly entertaining, hit megamusicals. Both are adaptations of popular sources. Both deal with the theme of family (also a common theme among most of the best-play nominees). And, both were produced by large corporate entities - "The Lion King" by Disney and "Ragtime" by Canada's Livent. They even occupy newly refurbished Broadway theaters directly across 42nd Street from each other.

But for this critic, it is easy to answer the question of which musical deserves to win. "Ragtime" is by far the more worthy. (The two other nominees, "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and "Side Show," aren't at the same level.)

A musical is the most complex and collaborative form of theater and, to truly be successful, all of its components should meld seamlessly - each contributing to the overall effect of the show. That is exactly what happens in "Ragtime."

Based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel about three American families - WASP, black and Jewish immigrant - at the turn of the century, "Ragtime" tells an epic story in which the fictitious family members interact with historical figures, such as anarchist leader Emma Goldman, showgirl Evelyn Nesbit and escape artist Harry Houdini.

An overabundance of plot is generally a detriment in a musical, since the story has to leave room for song and dance. And, there is precedent for abridging Doctorow's novel - the 1981 movie version of "Ragtime" focused primarily on just one family (the black family of ragtime piano player, Coalhouse Walker Jr.) and eliminated several historical characters.

But the musical's book writer, Terrence McNally - a three-time Tony winner who deserves a fourth for his work here - managed to put most of Doctorow's story on stage. And the score, by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, actually expands on Doctorow's work by expressing the characters' innermost feelings, which are mostly repressed in the largely dispassionate novel.

The score of "Ragtime" has been criticized for being too weighed down with anthems. But anthems are entirely appropriate for a show about the evolution of the American character at the start of the 20th century.

And there is a lot more to this beautifully layered score than just anthems. There are numbers that are nearly operatic, such as "He Wanted to Say," others that are as tender as lullabies, such as "Gliding," and, throughout, there is a sophisticated interplay of musical motifs connecting the show's characters, plots and themes.

(That said, it should be acknowledged that "Ragtime" may face serious competition from Paul Simon's "The Capeman," since best score is the one category this multimillion-dollar flop could actually win.)

In any other season, Santo Loquasto's lush period costumes and Eugene Lee's evocative "Ragtime" sets - with girders and a bridge that represent everything from an Atlantic City pier to the daunting power of big industry to crush the worker - might walk away with Tonys. But physical production is where "The Lion King" really sings.

For "The Lion King," Disney surprised most of the theater community by dispensing with the live-action-cartoon approach of its first Broadway musical, "Beauty and the Beast." Instead, the studio hired Julie Taymor, an avant-garde director/designer with a bold, idiosyncratic artistic vision.

Taymor's style is based on Asian and African puppetry and mask techniques, as long-time Center Stage patrons may remember from her 1982 production of Christopher Hampton's "Savages." Her stamp on "The Lion King" is evident immediately, in the breathtaking opening number, "Circle of Life," when a parade of African animals fills the stage and aisles.

There are elegant giraffes, whose back legs are the legs of the puppeteer, whose front legs are tall canes held in the puppeteer's hands and whose heads are stiff, hood-like constructions that rise high above the puppeteer's head. There's an elephant that's actually a huge, fabric-covered armature, worn by four puppeteers, one in each leg. And there are leaping antelope, who move on a kind of rickshaw device propelled by an actor.

Taymor's Africa is a place of jaw-dropping wonder. Disney doesn't disclose its budgets, but this show is said to have cost at least $15 million, and you can see every penny of that in the splendor on stage. Taymor should definitely take top honors for direction and costumes (the musical's set is by Richard Hudson).

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