Last night’s discussion coincided with some writing I’ve been doing on my Distinction paper about Ragtime’s roots in 1532 Germany.  For my first official post, I want to share with everyone that context, because doing this research left me astounded. I’ve worked on three different productions of Ragtime and never did I know it had roots preceding Doctorow.  Another reason Ragtime at Duke is special is because we have the resources to really get to the meat of this material and Jules to guide us on that road to discovery.

Rather than organizing my paper chronologically, which could take literally hundreds of pages, Jeff and I decided my paper should be organized by motif.  My ideas are Union, Risk, Adaptation, Given Circumstances, Individuality, and Trust.  I’ll discuss these concepts and the numerous instances in which each been relevant to my experience producing Ragtime.

Below is my first draft for the Adaptation section.  After talking about how the story of Kohlhase has been adopted over the past 5 centuries (what you see here), I will discuss adaptations that we have made presenting a musical written for the commercial Broadway setting in an academic University setting.  I have just re-written the last paragraph about novel-to-musical adaptation, incorporating our discussion last night. It’s more reflective and meaningful now, a bit of a blog-post-within-paper.  Thanks to everyone for inspiring me last night.  I welcome your comments and feedback on this rough draft.


            Adaptation is one of the pillars of the Broadway theater industry, rare is the musical that cannot name a film, play, or work of literature in its ancestry.  Novels and short fiction in particular have long been subject to the theatrical adaptation, exposing stories to new audiences along the way (Cox 1; Tornquist 12).  Ragtime is no exception, the musical is fourth in a lineage that can be traced back to real-life events that occurred in Saxony in 1532 (King).  Ragtime’s tale of justice offers a remarkable case study in the adaptation of a story in response to changes in society and entertainment culture.  In our production of Ragtime we engaged in a stimulating discussion regarding the laws and ethics surrounding adaptation as we grappled with proposals to make small changes to the structure of the musical.

In 1532, Hans Kohlhase crossed a border between what is modern-day Berlin, Germany, and the province of Saxony. At the border, two of his horses were seized as a toll.  A legal battle ensued as Kohlhase fought for retribution for his stolen horses, to no avail with the courts of Saxony.  Kohlhase retaliated by forming a gang to burn down houses, earning notoriety and the attention of Martin Luther.  Kohlhase refused to stop terrorizing until his horses were returned, and continued on his rampage until 1540, when he was captured and executed (King).

The story of Kohlhase was passed down in history and caught the attention of Prussian novelist Heinrich Von Kleist, who in 1811 fashioned a novella from it that doubled as a subtle political commentary on the hot-button political issue of the time: Napoleon’s taxing of the Prussians.  Simply titled Michael Kohlhaas, the novella dramatizes the story of the man it makes its protagonist and concludes in Kohnlaas’s suicide and martyrdom for the cause of justice. The was popular and a favorite of Kafka, but fell into obscurity until garnering the attention of E.L. Doctorow, who described his 1975 novel as a “deliberate homage” to Von Kleist’s novella.

Doctorow proves an artful adaptor, bringing the story of Kohlhaas to New York City in 1906.  The spine of the narrative—Colehouse’s pursuit of justice—remains intact, but finds new context.  Doctorow presents a new and unique writing style, an omniscient narration with a straightforward tone, a lack of quotation marks, and very short sentences.  The writing suggests that it is history, in one chapter envisioning the account of the Goldman rally in Union Square found in Younger Brother’s diary as primary source.  The novel was well received by critics and won the 1975 National Books Critics Circle Award.  It was adapted into a 1981 film that was lauded with eight Academy Award nominations.  The film’s adaptors heavily emphasized the Nesbit-Thaw storyline.

The novel-to-musical adaptation presented a significant challenge given its scope.  Broadway producer Garth Drabsinky approached Doctorow about optioning the rights to Ragtime because Drabinsky’s objective was to produce a musical that would be epic in proportion, proving both a critical and commercial success (Knapp).  Recent events and the publicly-traded status of Drabinsky’s production company, Livent, Inc., meant that he needed a mega-hit musical on the profitability level of Phantom of the Opera before the year 2000 to prevent bankruptcy (Jones).  Despite this, Drabinsky spared no expense in the development and production of Ragtime, which cost $10 million to develop and an additional  $2 million to market, making it one of the most expensive musicals in history at the time of its opening (Azenberg).  It was later discovered that Livent was at the time engaging in what the Securities & Exchange Commission described as a “fraudulent revenue-generating scheme,” funding Ragtime with money it did not actually have (Knapp).

In our February 14, 2012 class we had an 80-person discussion about Ragtime’s adaptation from novel to musical.  It was intriguing to hear others’ perceptions of the choices Doctorow had made.  Some expressed disappointment that Evelyn Nesbit and Houdini had been reduced to caricatures, but I loved Jeff’s counterpoint that the material for Evelyn to have a character arc can be found if you do your homework.  McNally had to make tough choices in adapting, a three hour musical can only hold so much. I appreciate his decision to make Mother, Coalhouse, and Tateh characters of roughly equal magnitude whose stories we follow from the first to the last minute of the show. Coalhouse does not appear until the second half of the novel, while many of the other main characters have their chapter and then fall back into obscurity, much like the life of the real Evelyn Nesbit.  McNally could have chosen to structure Ragtime the musical as vignettes, a la Sondheim’s Company, but this structure would not be as profound and epic as the way he chose to structure it.  By centering the musical around three arcs of fictional characters and making the historical characters secondary, McNally makes Ragtime easier for the audience to track and experience as an emotional journey.