The story itself is interesting: the tale of three different families intersecting during the early 1900s, as well as the social and racial struggles that were common at the time. What brought the story to life was not the music or costumes, but rather the authenticity of the characters. They were well-constructed and believable, and they could’ve easily been real. They behaved in a logical manner according to their personalities, sometimes sending to work against themselves, which is how people actually act. They each held deep beliefs and acted on them, making the characters function on a much deeper level that musical theater characters usually do.
Of note, the racial tensions were palpable. My area is predominately white, though there are a good number of cultures and races just a bit down the road. The performance we saw probably has 75% of white people in attendance. To their credit, when the Irish fireman character uttered the “N” word, the audience gasped and fell silent. The shock of the word rippled through the crowd and set everyone on edge. Watching racism play out on stage was heartbreaking and hard to watch. It gave us white folks a better insight into what black folks and Jews had to face a hundred years ago, and sadly, still today. The words hurled across the stage to other actors could easily be heard at any protest around the US, which makes the story of Ragtime relevant and fresh, even though the show premiered in 1996.