Once an accidental role, Kevin McAllister’s turn as raging pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr., in the expansive, Tony Award-winning musical Ragtime at Ford’s Theatre will be the third go-around for the baritone-voiced actor.
DCTS: Tell me about your history with the character Coalhouse.
McAllister: This is the third time playing the role. The first was my first acting gig, for Toby’s [Dinner Theatre] in 2006. I got the job by accident. I had never done a musical before. The minister of music at the church I sang at every Sunday recommended me to Toby Orenstein. She called me and told me that they were in rehearsal for the show and had someone doing the part, but he was going to be out of the country for a while during the run. So I was brought in to cover the part. I didn’t know anything about the show. It was totally new. A little later they called me back and offered me the role for the entire run. Toby literally worked with me every day because I had no acting experience whatsoever. When she was doing it again [in 2015], she called me up to reprise the role.
This time, how do you approach playing a character you know so well?
I don’t approach it ever thinking that I’ve done this before. The way you see things, feel things, move through space, from theater to theater, castmate to castmate, is all different. Their interpretations affect my interpretations.
With each production, the perspective is flipped. There are new ways to view things, depending on who the director is, and what they see in the character or think about the character. I wear a really bright blue suit in this production, for example, which is great, because as an actor that makes you feel very differently about how you enter a space and how you feel in that space.
With Coalhouse, it’s interesting looking at him over the years. On paper, he’s a man who basically falls in love, has a lot of things stripped away from him, and exacts revenge on people. But when you start to break down the social constructs that are constantly hitting him, you have options as an actor. You find that there is an anger and a deep-throated scream that needs to come out. You can also find a clear focus for a man who is on a mission to be heard. You can also see a man who believes he is standing up for so much more than just himself.
His story represents a lot of other people’s stories, but he’s the one who’s taking up the campaign. I try to find a balance of all three of those options. It’s my job as an actor to not only say this is the way to think and feel but to give people a brochure about the character they are creating and see if they want to buy into what is being offered. The only thing I hope with this character is that he is always seen as having a huge heart, that is either too big for his chest and it explodes or it’s literally beaten out of him. It’s hard. Some days it gets you more than others.
Which song gives you special satisfaction to sing?
“Wheels of a Dream” is my favorite song to perform because Nova Payton, who plays Sarah is a very good friend of mine. [It’s a duet.] Singing that song on that stage (points to the historic Ford’s Theatre stage) with Nova and with the orchestra behind us is such a rush. Everyone has that “Wheels of a Dream” moment, where they’re so full of optimism and so full of love and so full of ability that there is no negative. There is no “I can’t.” To have someone you love so much personally and professionally singing it with you? Her artistry is bar none, and she constantly forces me to raise my own bar. The lyrics themselves are spectacular.
“Yes, the wheels are turning for us, girl.
And the times are starting to roll.
Any man can get where he wants to
If he’s got some fire in his soul.
We’ll see justice, Sarah,
And plenty of men
Who will stand up
And give us our due.
Oh, Sarah, it’s more that promises.
Sarah, it must be true.” – lyrics to “Wheels of a Dream” from Ragtime
Want to go?
at Ford’s Theatre
closes May 20, 2017
Details and tickets
Which song is the most challenging?
The soliloquy opening Act 2 is a beast. There are a lot of shifts and changes, emotionally, in that number that really set up the second act. You have to hit all of them, otherwise he has no trajectory in the second act. You’ve got a man who just lost his fiancée, and he’s alone and finding things out about himself in that moment. The trick is to make sure you’re constantly discovering in the song. I don’t think he’s entering in to that scene with death on his mind. It’s hard to not come off as a serial killer in that scene.
It’s hard to go through all the layers he’s goes through and ask the audience to take that leap with you—but otherwise it’s scary and I don’t know that people need to be afraid of him. They just need to see someone who needs to be seen and heard and respected. That’s the universal part of this story. It’s that struggle for each character to try to find that point where people are looking at them or listening to them.