Broadway Bound

With The Revival Of 'Ragtime,' Two Kids From Maryland Make The Leap From Middle School To Musical Theater

November 08, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,

NEW YORK - For weeks before a new Broadway production of "Ragtime" began previews, Christopher Cox and Sarah Rosenthal kept coming up with creative excuses to sneak a peek inside the Neil Simon Theatre in Manhattan. Even though Chris and Sarah are child actors in the show, they weren't allowed inside the building while the set was being constructed. But quite often, the backstage door was left open, and Chris could catch glimpses of boxes of props and lighting equipment being hauled inside. And Sarah felt a little thrill every time she saw the marquee trumpeting the show's title in bold black letters.

"There have been so many times that I've waited outside a stage door in the cold to get someone's autograph," she says. "It's exciting to think that now, someone might want my autograph."

So Sarah has spent weeks practicing her signature. One recent version had an elaborate swirl on the "S" and daggers shooting from both the "h" and "l" ending her first and last names. If her autograph will adorn a program that might become someone's theatrical keepsake, Sarah wants it to look distinctive."To know that I'm actually part of a Broadway show is pretty cool," she says.

Dozens, possibly hundreds, of actors and actresses debut on the Great White Way each year. But no more than a handful are still in middle school.

When the musical revival opens next Sunday, the cast will showcase the talents of five local performers, including 12-year-old Chris of Columbia and 13-year-old Sarah of Pikesville.

The other three native Marylanders in the cast are Bobby Steggert, 28, who was raised in Frederick; Dan Manning, 57, of Ellicott City, who portrays Grandfather; and Carly Hughes, 27, of Columbia, who is a member of the ensemble.

"When you're in a Broadway show, you feel like you're part of a larger history," says Steggert, who plays Younger Brother, one of the show's biggest roles. "You're part of an esteemed community of some of the finest performers in the world."

But the odds were stacked against either Chris or Sarah making it this far. For both youngsters, their characters - named respectively The Little Boy and The Little Girl - are the first professional roles they've ever tackled.

"I remind my son that he's one of the few actors to perform on Broadway without ever having actually auditioned for a Broadway show," says Chris' father, David Cox.

"Ragtime" is a musical based on E.L. Doctorow's seminal novel about three American families at the turn of the 20th century: a family of upper-middle-class WASPs; an African-American family; and a father-daughter pair of Jewish immigrants.

The original production opened in 1998 and won Tony Awards for its script by Terrence McNally and score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Ten years later, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington decided to stage a revival.

Sarah might never have read for the role if it hadn't been for her big sister. It was 16-year-old Hannah Rosenthal, who has acting aspirations of her own, who stumbled across the audition notice for "Ragtime" in Back Stage Magazine.

"Hannah told me that I'd be perfect for the part and that I should go for it," Sarah says.

But on the day of the final audition - and after having made it through three or four earlier rounds - Sarah fell ill with an ear infection that made it virtually impossible for her to sing on key.

"I couldn't hear a thing," Sarah says. "I told my mother I wanted to go to the audition anyway, but I was a real mess."

And indeed, Sarah initially was cast as an understudy. But she recovered her health and her vocal prowess. After just a few rehearsals, she was elevated to the role of Tateh's daughter.

"My friends have been asking me if they can pay Hannah to find auditions for them," Sarah says.

Chris has known since the second grade that he wanted to be an actor and director, and he set about achieving his dream with typical determination. One day after school, he saw an ad on television for the John Robert Powers acting and modeling school. Before Kathy Cox knew what was going on, her son was handing her the telephone.

"Here," Chris told her. "They need to talk to an adult."

Through the acting school, Chris acquired an agent and began going out locally on auditions. In the late summer of 2008, he tried out for the production of "Ragtime."

"I felt confident and powerful when I sang for them, and something that I said made them laugh," Chris says. "They called on my grandmother's birthday and said I got the part."

The artistic team at the Kennedy Center never expected the "Ragtime" revival to have a second life in the Big Apple. But in May, the cast began hearing rumors that producers were coming down to see the show. By July, it was official - "Ragtime" was going to Broadway, and by the end of summer, Chris and Sarah had been invited to join the New York cast.

"It didn't sink in for two weeks," Sarah says. "It felt pretty amazing."

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