As I work diligently to prepare myself for opening night, I’ve found it necessary to sit down and really think about each of the roles that I play throughout the show. Each character has a different part of the Ragtime story to tell, with different motivations, histories, and backgrounds. I’ve attempted to fill in many of the blanks to create “my story,” both as an actor as well as a character.
I begin the show as an upstanding citizen of New Rochelle named Michael Ashbury, entering the promenade with my wife, Elizabeth Ashbury (Mary Kate Francis). We observe the goings on of the opening number and socialize with our friends and neighbors of the area. Elizabeth and I are newlyweds, so much of our talking during the opening number consists of (mimed) chatting about our plans for our house, children, and things of that nature. I quickly switch into the role of storyteller, as I become the persona of Harry K. Thaw and help detail his involvement with Stanford and Evelyn.
Later in the act, Michael Ashbury returns as a member of the jury in Thaw’s trial (ironic? very). As Michael, my day job is working as a police officer. I chose to assume the persona of an officer with traditional viewpoints; consequently, my treatment of Sarah in “What Kind of Woman” is condescending and callous.
Michael’s work is never done, however, as he quickly has to assume the role of Customs Officer on Ellis Island (they must have been short-handed that day) following that scene. My attitude in this scene is also one of condescension (and possible xenophobia). On a routine patrol later, I encounter Tateh fighting with a man on the street. Breaking up the fight, I remark that Tateh’s behavior is typical of his kind (“you people”), as I storm off in disgust.
Later in Act I, I (still playing the role of Michael) take a 2nd job in Henry Ford’s Model T Factory; the pay of a police officer apparently wasn’t enough to pay the bills. However, after seeing a black man drive off in one of the latest models, I quit my job at the factory out of disgust. To fill in my new spare time, I start volunteering at the Emerald Isle firehouse. As fate would have it, I encounter the same man who drove off from the factory one day when I’m working. It wouldn’t be the last time, though.
During the Union Square sequence, I (the actor) briefly assume the role of storyteller in the rally before rushing offstage to assume the persona of Michael Ashbury (everyone’s favorite jack-of-all-trades police officer) once more. I take Emma Goldman down from her pedestal, and at that moment, something weird happens; I develop a crush on Emma (yes, I am still a married man) . It’s this sudden spark of interest that makes him “go easy on her,” and choose to let her go free rather than doing a full arrest.
Meanwhile, back at the firehouse, another encounter with Coalhouse sets me and my boys off. As an actor, this scene is crucial – I channel hate and ignorance as I trash the car.
For the end of the first act, I become a storyteller once more to proclaim the need for a “day of hope.”
My journey as Michael throughout the rest of the show is just as varied as in Act I: I vacation to Atlantic City, act in a silent movie, and later restrain my boss Willie Conklin in the final scene. The one thing I like about playing “Michael” is that there’s rarely a dull moment. He seems to like to fill his time up by being involved with virtually everyone else’s stories. Michael’s role may not be the focus of Ragtime, but his is a journey that helps tell the overarching story of the show, and for that reason, I am dedicated to giving it my full focus.