What a difference 10 years can make, says openly gay actor Josh Walden, who performed in the 2009 Broadway revival of Ragtime and now prepares to play Harry Houdini in the April 16–28 production of the show at the Hobby Center.
The sprawling musical, based on E.L. Doctorow’s acclaimed 1975 novel, seems to pit three disparate groups—genteel whites, restless blacks in Harlem, and eager Jewish immigrants—in a fight for America’s soul at the turn of the 20th century. Against a background of transition and turbulence, progressive members of each group unite to form a more perfect union.
“In 2009, when Barack Obama was just coming into office, it was thrilling and exciting and wonderful,” says Walden. “The finale represented hope and inclusion. It felt like, ‘Oh my God, this is the time!’”
But today, says Walden, the same show feels like nothing less than a call to arms. “You look at the script and the word ‘immigrant’ jumps out at you. At the end of the show, we are saying to the audience, ‘We are better than this. We can change all the ugly things out there that are hurting us.’”
In the production for Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS), Walden plays Houdini, the real-life Hungarian-born immigrant who gained fame in the United States as an escape artist. In Ragtime, Houdini inspires a fictional character, Tatel, to pursue his American dream of becoming an artist and providing for himself and his daughter.
The lives of other characters are transformed by their interactions with more actual American figures, including wealthy capitalists J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford, anarchist Emma Goldman, orator Booker T. Washington, and explorer Robert Peary.
Gay playwright Terrence McNally won a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical when Ragtime debuted on Broadway in 1998. Nominated for 13 Tonys, the show lost Best Musical to The Lion King, but won Best Orchestrations, Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (for Audra McDonald, who sang “Your Father’s Son”), and Best Original Score (for composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty).
“Ragtime is a deeply moving musical,” says out TUTS artistic director Dan Knechtges. “Twenty years after Ragtime opened on Broadway, the themes it dealt with are even more relevant today. We’re still grappling with issues of race, class, gender equality, and political clashing. I love works of theater that give us some answers and inspire us to create a more equitable society.”
The 2009 revival of Ragtime was nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Direction of a Musical and Outstanding Choreography for Marcia Milgrom Dodge, who is directing and choreographing the show at TUTS. In addition to his Harry Houdini role, Walden is assisting Dodge, who was his favorite teacher at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Walden made his Broadway debut in a revival of 42nd Street and subsequently appeared in revivals of A Chorus Line and, as Mercedes, in La Cage aux Folles. Then, in 2009, Dodge cast him as real-life showgirl Evelyn Nesbit’s jealous millionaire husband, Harry K. Thaw, in Ragtime at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC. When the musical transferred to Broadway, he recalls, “It was exhilarating. I remember watching them load our set at the Neil Simon Theatre and thinking how proud I was to be some sliver of the magic that was behind seeing our show celebrated on Broadway. I also remember thinking about why we were telling the story at that specific time.”
When: April 16–28
Where: Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St.