Ragtime is my all-time favorite musical. I fell in love with Stephen Flaherty’s score and Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics the first time I heard them in 1996 when I received the CD as an early Chanukah gift.
In June 1997, my friends Jack and Greg drove to Toronto to see what all the buzz was about, and what we saw was a cast made in heaven that included Brian Stokes Mitchell (Coalhouse Walker), Marin Mazzie (Mother), Mark Jacoby (Father), Judy Kaye (Emma Goldman) and Audra McDonald (Sarah). I will never forget Audra s astounding rendition of “Daddy’s Son”. I remember telling her after the show, “Clear your mantle. Tony Number three is coming!”And she did win!
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We saw a show with gorgeous sets and costumes and lighting. We experienced joy and anger and disappointment and love and hope. Our own immigrant families’ stories of struggling in New York – after fleeing the Nazis in the 1930’s – unfolded in front of us. We cried and laughed and cheered, and left Toronto vowing to spread the word about this show that touched us so much.
When the show opened on Broadway at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts on January 18, 1998, I was there. I returned eight other times during its two-year NYC run. When the National tour of Ragtime stopped at the National Theatre in 1999, I took the Ushers with me. I took the group again to see The Helen Hayes Award winning in the round production at Toby’s – The Dinner Theatre of Columbia in 2003, starring Eleasha Gamble as Sarah, Channez MacQuay as Emma Goldman and husband Rob as Tateh, and returned again to see another production at Toby’s Baltimore location in 2006
And now, the Kennedy Center boasts this fantastic production of Ragtime that also has a cast made in heaven, and playing Mother and Mother’s Younger Brother are two of my favorite actors – Christiane Noll and Bobby Steggert.
I first heard Christiane Noll’s glorious voice when she played Emma in Jekyll and Hyde on Broadway in 1997, and I have been a big fan ever since. I saw her in Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues I999, and in the National Tour of Urinetown, where she played Hope Cladwell in 2004. I was so happy when Christiane was cast as Jane Smart in Signature Theatre’s production of The Witches of Eastwick, where she was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for her performance, and have had the pleasure of podcasting two interviews with her. (The links follow this article.) In his review for DCTS, Alex Kafka said, “Noll endows Mother’s personal and feminist awakening with tenderness and toughness”.
Joel: Have you ever been in a production of Ragtime before the Kennedy Center production?
Christiane: This is the first time I’ve ever done Ragtime. I’ve sung “Back to Before” in concert before, but have never done a full production.
Joel: What is so unique about this Kennedy Center production?
Christiane: This production is really all about the characters and their stories. Marcia Milgrom Dodge, our director, encouraged us to be dangerous, sensual and hit the hard subjects directly. And have the arguments with each other. She didn’t want it to be easy. She brought together an amazing group of craftsmen – actors who really love the process. We all loved discovering this piece as if it were the first time.
Joel: Tell us about Mother.
Christiane: Mother is an accidental feminist. She is a dutiful wife and mother from the turn-of- last-century. She embraces whatever challenges or opportunities come her way without much thought or preconceived ideas. She had never been given the freedom to run a business, run the household, make decisions for herself until her husband leaves for a year. She embraces the new responsibility and is good at it. She really blossoms and discovers a whole new life of passion and emotional expression and strength.
Joel: How do you relate to Mother?
Christiane: I just became one 3 months ago! Giving birth prepares you for quite a bit! ha! To be honest I really just tried to not think too much about the role at all. It seemed to me that Mother keeps falling into situations without too much judgement or thought. So I did as little planning as possible. This was different for me. I tend to over think things, and here I forced myself to not think at all.
Joel: As a new mother, is there a scene or song in the show that is more difficult for you to play?
Christiane During rehearsals I found that I was very emotional. I was a mess during Sarah’s “Your Daddy’s Son” when she sings about burying her child and her heart in the ground. Ugh! And the end of the Act I – holding the baby of a woman as you watch her get beaten to death. It took quite a while to not be completely washed away with the emotion of that moment. I was a mess!!
Joel: How does Mother change during the course of Ragtime from “Goodbye My Love” to “What Kind of Woman” to “Back to Before”?
Christiane: Well, she does open up. “Goodbye My Love” finds her at an open door of possibilities. “What Kind of Woman” is her first challenge and her first strong decision to do something that her husband would never do. And “Back to Before” finds her on the other side of the door and not wanting to go back to the way things were. Her whole life and perception of the world have changed.
Joel: “Our Children” is my favorite song in the show because it brings Tateh and Mother together. What’s it like working with Manoel Feliciano who played Tateh?
Christiane: That’s my favorite moment too. We are both weepy by the end of it. Mano is a smart actor. One of the craftsmen I was talking about. He is so emotionally available and passionate and incredibly generous. I love being adored by him every night.
Joel: What was the best advice director Marcia Milgrom Dodge gave you about playing Mother?
Christiane: Have the argument. Don’t be nice. Especially in “Back to Before”- have the argument. Go to the difficult places.
Joel: Talk about Bobby Steggert who plays your younger brother in Ragtime.
Christiane: Whew!! What a committed, laser beam intensity, performance. He’s another craftsman.
Joel: How did you develop the chemistry that is needed for the audience to believe that you are siblings?
Christiane: We have little to nothing to say to each other in the script and yet we had to develop a sibling relationship with nuance and depth and care based on looks and small glances. You just have to be willing. Love creating something out of nothing. He is just wonderful!!
Joel: I heard the composer and lyricist of Ragtime – Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty -visited rehearsals. Tell us about that.
Christiane: They were there quite a bit and extremely supportive and complimentary. It’s always a charge to work with and for the people who wrote the piece directly. I even got to sing “Back to Before” with Stephen Flaherty playing the piano at an educational outreach sponsored by ASCAP. That was a kick. They both encouraged me to go with my instincts and find my own way. They were tickled that I found new things in Mother that they hadn’t seen in the character before.
Joel: What is your favorite scene and/or song in the show?
Christiane: I am really proud of and love the moments that I share with Manoel Felciano who plays Tateh. We found a romance for Mother and Tateh that is just heart-breaking. It’s fun to hear and feel the audience pull for those characters.
Joel: What’s it like trying to maneuver up and down and around Derek McLane’s multi-level set?
Christiane: Ha! The first time I climbed the moving staircase with my parasol, lifting up my skirt, holding Father’s big coat, scarf and hat… wow! We were given a chance to wander all of the levels the first day we hit the theater. It’s really high up there. Not to mention the escape stairs look like something that the Lost Boys from Peter Pan would have built. Terrifying. Did I say it’s really high up there!! It’s an amazing space though! Really incredible what Derek created! Massive and yet a character unto itself in how it aids in the story-telling.
Christiane: While we were in the rehearsal studio we didn’t have all of those levels. There was only one additional crossover in the back of the room. It was crazy to try to imagine that the person who was standing next to you was really 30 feet in the air above you.
Joel: Why do you think the show registers with Americans during these difficult times?
Christiane: I think that Ragtime resonates more now than it did 11 years ago. Just like the timeframe of the show – we are now at a crossroad of a new way of thinking and doing things. Times are changing and people will either move forward, or they will get left behind, just like the characters in the show. It is exciting to do this show, at this time, in this town! What a memory!
Joel: Your songs in the show are vocally demanding, but you sing them with great ease and power and beauty. How vocally demanding is the score, and how was your vocal training helpful in performing these songs?
Christiane: Thank you and thank you. I just have to make sure that I warm up after the show so that I don’t get too bottom heavy or thick. I try to start as light and loose as I can. I’m grateful that Jim Moore, our music director, put me on the top soprano line for all of the group numbers. Singing a few high B’s helps balance out the low belting I do the rest of the night. Stephen Flaherty’s score is so singable! I’m really enjoying myself.
Joel: It must be so difficult juggling being on the road performing in this production of Ragtime, and caring for your newborn daughter. How are you coping?
Christiane: I am sooooooo lucky to have a husband, a mother and in-laws who have come down to DC at different times during the run to make sure that she is cared for, and that I can go do the show. I wouldn’t have been able to do this amazing piece without their support. The less sleep I get the better… ha!
Joel: We’ve seen you here in The Witches of Eastwick at Signature Theatre, and now in Ragtime, and on August 1st, you’ll be at Wolf Trap for Broadway Rocks.
Christiane: I’ve also sung with Placido Domingo at the Washington National Opera in the Opera House – ha! I’ve performed at the Concert Hall, Opera House and the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center, Opera to Rocks! Oy, I’m a freak! I love DC, especially at this time of year. Broadway Rocks has stuff from Jesus Christ Superstar, The Wiz, Jekyll & Hyde, Hairspray, Lion King, Little Shop of Horrors, Rent, Tommy, Wicked, Dreamgirls, Les Miz, Phantom and I think I’m singing “Total Eclipse of the Heart “with Rob Evan!! Screaming my guts out!
Joel: What’s next for you after Ragtime?
Christiane: I have a number of symphony concerts booked throughout the summer. I’ll be with NJ Symphony, the Philly Pops, down in Alabama, the Cleveland Orchestra, back to Wolf Trap, to San Diego, and finishing up the summer in Prague.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave the Eisenhower Theatre after seeing Ragtime?
Christiane: Damp tissues! I love that people are weeping throughout this show. There are so many emotionally charged performances that seem to be taking the audience for quite a ride.
It’s always gratifying when a locally raised actor comes home to perform at The Kennedy Center, so I was thrilled when I heard that Frederick born Bobby Steggert was cast as Mother’s Younger Brother. I had seen Bobby’s adorable, funny and sweet performance as Jimmy Curry in Roundabout Theatre’s revival of 110 In The Shade in 2007. I’ll never forget his manic rendition of “Little Red Hat” that he sang with Carla Duren. It was sheer joy!
And now, Bobby is playing Mother’s Younger Brother unlike any other actor I have ever seen play this role. He’s scary and “slow boiling”. He’s a ticking time bomb, ready to explode like the explosives sold at Father’s fireworks factory. When Brother says to Coalhouse Walker, (when he is finally granted permission to see him at the Morgan Library)” I know how to blow things up!” a chill ran up and down my spine. Alex Kafka, said it well: (Bobby Steggert) “…gives his ephemeral, burgeoning, upper-crusty radicalism a sort of Christopher Walken-like understated eeriness”.
Joel: Have you ever appeared in a production of Ragtime before?
Bobby: No, but I remember buying the CD from the record store in the mall when I was in high school and hearing that opening number for the first time on my car’s stereo. I was completely stunned by its power. But at that point, I was so young that I never would have imagined getting the chance to be in it.
Joel: Why is mounting this production now so important?
Bobby: This production comes at a time in our nation’s history when we are finally ready to examine race and cultural conflict more openly. Every time the little boy who plays young Coalhouse runs out onto stage at the end of the show, I can’t help but think that he’s not only the show’s hopeful future, but a symbol of how far we’ve actually come in the Obama era. A little African American child, or Jewish child, or any child, can see this story and believe he actually has a chance to do something great. In the way that the racism in our show is so deep, the hope seems somehow deeper. I’m not sure if we were able to say the same, even ten years ago.
As for as this particular production goes, I believe that our director Marcia Milgrom Dodge did something very smart – she trusted us enough to let us be. So many directors are micro-managers. Because of the freedom she afforded us, perhaps the characters and relationships and the show’s individual moments take on a more human quality. The show’s particular narrative style and preconceptions of “how people behaved” in turn-of-the-century America could have led to a more austere interpretation, and yet I think we are telling a more nuanced story.
Joel: Tell us about your character.
Bobby: Mother’s Younger Brother has nothing to hang on to. He’s too old to be under anyone’s watchful eye, yet too young and insecure to strike out on his own in the world. So he finds himself in this excruciating purgatory, where no one really sees who he is, and where nothing inspires him. He tries to find it in anything that might signal an escape. That first comes in the form of Evelyn Nesbit, and then, quite thankfully, in the much more significant forms of Coalhouse Walker and Emma Goldman. They wake him up to the responsibility he must take in forming his own destiny. He has nothing to believe in the beginning of the story, and he wakes up to many things by its end – most importantly, to himself.
Joel: How do you relate to him?
Bobby: I think I can understand what it is to have copious amount of energy and desire and longing and need, and to have no idea where to put it. We can all relate to that frustration.
Joel: What personal experiences helped you prepare for your role?
Bobby: I remember a summer in New York when I was feeling really depressed. I wasn’t working and had very few things keeping me busy, and I found myself aimlessly wandering the streets listening to angsty music on my iPod, in the same way that Younger Brother would scour New York for something to distract him. On one of those walks, I ran into an old friend from college (coincidentally, it was Stephanie Waters, who is a well-known actress and singer in the DC area), and I asked her what she was up to. She said that she happened to be leaving New York the very next morning to drive down to New Orleans to help build houses for Hurricane Katrina victims. I instinctually said “Can I come with you?” and the next day I was in a car on the way down to New Orleans.
It was an experience I will never forget because I learned how easy it was to forget about the people who are in much greater and more dire need than I will ever be, and how they are all around me. It got me out of my head, and it empowered me in a way that I cannot truly express, but I knew that running into Stephanie on the street and making the impulsive move to go with her was somehow fated.
Joel: Did you base your performance on a relative or friend?
Bobby: I rarely if ever base performances on people in my life, but will sometimes realize much later, “Oh, there’s a little bit of this person or that person in this one”. Ironically, I see a little bit of MY younger brother in this Younger Brother. He is a highly intelligent and passionate person who sometimes doesn’t know how to channel it all, but when he does, he can be very powerful.
Joel: You play opposite Christiane Noll in Ragtime. How did you develop the chemistry that is needed for the audience to believe that you are brother and sister?
Bobby: What’s odd is that our characters address each other only ONCE in the entire script. He simply says “Thank you” to his sister when she has decided to take Sarah and her baby in to their home.
I guess I decided that they had one of those relationships that is based in an unspoken understanding. They both feel trapped, and yet they are unable to communicate it to each other. But they sense it in each other and allow each other the space to find their own ways. The distance they grant each other is based in respect rather than disinterest. We’ve found moments when we simply connect physically without saying a word, and the unspoken acknowledgement seems more powerful than any dialogue. We’ve also found a few more characteristic sibling moments that people may or may not notice – she pokes me with her parasol for staring at Evelyn’s behind for a bit too long. It’s definitely a big sister move!
Joel: What is the best advice director Marcia Milgrom Dodge gave you on playing Brother?
Bobby: It was very simple – she said to make huge choices and to go for the guttural. She also made us feel safe enough to do so.
Joel: I loved your performance because you made Brother more human and angry and sad and disappointed. How would you describe the emotions you try to convey in your performance?
Bobby: I wanted to give him as dramatic an arc as possible, so I chose to make him truly naive and just as complacent as the rest of his family at the show’s beginning. I wanted to make him a boy in the beginning as opposed to a discontented young man. His awakening is a surprise to even himself, as he begins to observe the injustice all around him. I also tried to base his anger in a personal disappointment, at failing to see the world around him any sooner. That way, the anger is not simply directed at those he disagrees with, but more complex and personal.
Joel: What is the most emotional scene for you to play?
Bobby: I am always most shaken up by the confrontation between Father and Younger Brother in the second act. Brother is basically a pressure cooker that finally explodes at Father’s utter ignorance. It’s also based in a passionate defense of his sister, who has stood by and accepted her husband’s abuse for far too long. It feels so scary and elating at the same time to stand up to someone who, until that point, held all the power.
Joel: What is your favorite scene and/or song in the show that you are not in and why?
Bobby: I love to watch “Our Children” from the wings. Mano and Christiane have found a really lovely understatedness about how they feel each other out. It’s also a song about what’s NOT being said, which is so captivating.
Joel: What’s it like trying to maneuver up and down and around Derek McLane’s scary looking set?
Bobby: It’s a playground for actors. And it informs so much about power structures and distances between different groups of people. It did a lot of the work for us.
Joel: Why is Ragtime still so popular 11 years after it opened in NYC?
Bobby: First of all, the score is one of the most inspiring and beautiful scores in all of contemporary musical theater – I think that’s a given. And as I said earlier, it’s a story that is brutally honest and yet wonderfully hopeful. You need one to understand the other. And during these difficult times, we as Americans are both aware of the trouble we face, and optimistic that a new direction for our nation means a hope for change.
Joel: You were fantastic as Audra McDonald’s brother in the revival of 110 in the Shadeon Broadway. Do you enjoy playing brother roles?
Bobby: I think it may just be a coincidence, but I will say that as a young actor, one is often asked to play the innocent or the ingénue. Young love is easy to play. I find it much more interesting to play more complex and less archetypical relationships. I will say, also, that playing any relationship with Audra is a gift.
Joel: What’s next for you after Ragtime?
Bobby: I’m scheduled to play Mozart in a production of Amadeus this summer at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, as well as the Off-Broadway premiere of the new musical Yank! at the York Theater.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing Ragtime?
Bobby: I want people to think about the other – the other race, the other sexuality, the other religion. The show is ultimately about the necessity for inclusion over exclusion. We cannot move forward until there is an acceptance and respect for all people.
Ragtime plays through May 17th in the Eisenhower Theatre at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. For details, click here.
Podcasts with Christiane Noll: