Of the numerous characters I play, Henry Ford is by far the most fun and the most challenging. Obviously, there exists a historical framework for the character, and my job is to fill it in. Given the plethora of information out there about Ford, as well as the way he is portrayed in the novel, getting the background was the easy part. Getting that to mesh with his role in the musical, however, proved far less simple.
Of all the historical characters we encounter in the story of Ragtime, Ford is the only one that appears solely in Act I. When you think of it, Ford is mostly around to (along with JP Morgan) represent the, for lack of a better phrase, cream of the crop. Contrasted with the poor immigrants, Ford is a symbol of the American aristocracy, and his mere presence causes the citizens of New Rochelle to beam with pride during the opening number. The next time we see Henry Ford, he is holding court in his factory, extoling the virtues of the assembly line before selling Coalhouse the Model T. In a musical that at times can barrage us with serious subject matter, “Gettin’ Ready Rag” and “Henry Ford” make up by far the most lighthearted part of the story.
With my other characters, the motivation is clear. While there are clearly layers to the trained militia gunman, racist fireman, and frightened immigrant, Henry Ford’s life-as far as Ragtime is concerned-is pretty darn good. That Ford is only around to sing a history lesson disguised as a catchy tune may not seem complicated, but to me that’s exactly the point.
I drew a lot of inspiration from a conversation I had with Dr. Kelley, encouraging me to watch videos of Louis Armstrong performing. At first I didn’t get it-what could an engineer who specialized in boiling even the most complex processes down to a simple routine have in common with one of the greatest artistic minds to ever grace a stage? But as I watched, I soon realized exactly what Dr. Kelley was talking about. Armstrong, much like the Henry Ford of Ragtime, was a bandleader. In charge of the whole operation, Ford knew just how important he was and how to motivate those around him to play their parts to perfection. The gospel sound of “Henry Ford” is no coincidence-Ford is the preacher, and his workers the congregation. For me, the hardest part of playing Ford has been drumming up the confidence and bravado to sing the most self-effacing song in the whole show, but it has been a rewarding challenge.
At first, I was disappointed that Ford and Morgan don’t get their moment of closure during the show’s epilogue. But the more I reflect, the more it seems that men of their stature, prominence, and success didn’t necessarily need it.