The creative team behind Ragtime is familiar with shows about life in America at the turn of the 20th century. It’s the setting for their hit show that opened on Broadway in 1998, and it’s the setting for a new musical they are debuting April 23 in Sarasota.
Knoxville will have its world premiere at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, reuniting the Tony Award-winning Ragtime team for the first time: Stephen Flaherty (music), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Frank Galati (director). Preview performances are happening now through April 22.
Galati also wrote the book for the new musical, based on James Agee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiographical novel A Death in the Family. Asolo Rep commissioned the piece in 2018 after being approached by the Roy Cockrum Foundation with a grant to produce a work it might not otherwise do. The theater knew Galati, who lives in Sarasota and is an associate artist at the Asolo, wanted to adapt Agee’s work.
The play begins with Agee at a writer’s workshop in 1955, as he sets out to write about an incident in his youth that affected him, his mother and his town. It looks back at the period around the turn of the 20th century and World War I.
Once it was commissioned, Galati reached out to Flaherty and Ahrens. The piece was workshopped in 2019 and set to premiere in 2020 when the pandemic hit and put it on hold.
Ahrens said hearing from Galati was thrilling for her and Flaherty because working on Ragtime was one of the greatest experiences of their lives. They immediately agreed to be involved.
“Delving into the play that he had adapted from the original source material, which was so lovely and simple and emotional and true, it was very moving,” Ahrens said.
Producing artistic director Michael Donald Edwards said the opportunity to produce and premiere the musical was like winning the lottery.
“This work has a particular stature because it’s reuniting Frank Galati, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty for the time together since they created Ragtime,” Edwards said. “And this feels climactic in a way that he’d be creating this brand new musical with this extraordinary artistic team, its incredible cast and a story that is incredibly meaningful to him. And I think that’ll be meaningful to our audiences, too. I think it’s an American classic already.”
Galati was inspired to adapt Agee’s novel because it had long meant something to him and he revisited it several years ago. He said the poetry of the novel feels like it’s reaching for music and “feels like it wants to live in a lyrical world.”
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The pandemic hit just before the production was going into tech rehearsals. Flaherty said in the two years since, they’ve had more time to develop the musical. He joked that Galati had a new idea the morning the team spoke with the Tampa Bay Times.
“I think everybody’s come back to the theater with oddly a lot more than we had two years ago,” Flaherty said. “... This cast has really become this family, this community of support to one another.”
There is a lot of ensemble singing that guides the narrative and also supports the play’s theme of community, Flaherty said.
Because most of the musical takes place in 1915 in Tennessee, Flaherty looked to a roots or Americana sound, but also thought about how families entertained themselves during that time. He thought of string instruments like piano and guitars, which actors will play on stage.
For Ahrens, who as lyricist is the liaison between the book and the music, intuition is key.
“I‘m the person who takes a scene that has been spoken, beautiful spoken language and it gets to a very emotional point, and I go, ‘Oh, they want to sing,’” she said. “I figured out what they’re singing about and, again, the novel was so rich that I found myself just not exactly quoting things from the novel, but really just letting them into my bones and out they would come.”
Ahrens said the music is the emotion of the play and lyrics tend to be the intellect. She often asks Flaherty for what he calls a “swatch” of music for a character.
The trio is excited to premiere the show to the world.
“We hope the audience will embrace and enjoy and be nourished by this beautiful story, and we’re very confident that they will,” Galati said.
If you go
Knoxville opens April 23 and runs through May 11. Orchestra and mezzanine seats start at $57 and balcony seats start at $33. Previews run through April 22. Asolo Repertory Theatre, 5555 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets are available at the box office, by phone at 941-351-8000 or 800-361-8388, or online at asolorep.org.