In my other musical theater-themed class this semester (The Great American Musical), we recently discussed a concept that our textbook author termed “Musically Enhanced Reality Mode,” also known by the acronym MERM. The basic idea of MERM is that by entering into a musical number, performers are able to do things that would never be permissible in a regular play. This is normally achieved by a suspension of disbelief by the audience. For example, in Tim Rice and Elton John’s Aida, the addition of music transforms a discussion about fashion between Amneris and Aida into a huge dance number, complete with a fashion show. MERM supercharges the emotions of a scene and brings them to life with intense passion.
In Ragtime, entering into MERM doesn’t shift the show into campy dance numbers, fashion shows, or anything of the sort (with notable exceptions of a few songs like “Henry Ford” or “What a Game” which are lighter and more comical). Instead, the music increases the passion and emotion of the characters in a very believable way. What I’ve been drawing on as an actor with a music background is how to integrate the content of the show’s score into my own portrayals of my characters.
For example, the calm, yet slightly punctuated opening phrases of the New Rochelle in the opening number were not written that way by chance; they convey a sense of superiority and condescension embodied by the characters who sing them. Similarly, the dramatic phrases in “Coalhouse Demands” emphasize the frantic urgency of the town in response to a supposed madman on the loose.
One of my primary challenges as an actor in Ragtime is to use the music as a source for my motivations and thought processes throughout the show while still maintaining a level of believability. I have a tendency to over-exaggerate emotions and gestures onstage (blame my campy musical theater background) which has to be carefully controlled in a show like this.
We (as a cast) want to tell this story as vividly as the creators intended it to be told, but have to do this while carefully tempering our modes of expression. Evoking MERM in Ragtime should allow us to create a story that brings both history and our audience to life.