Artistic Director Terry Weber and Managing Director Jeni Lamm of The WordPlayers answer some tough questions regarding the upcoming summer musical, Ragtime.
Question 1: Your website indicates that Ragtime is rated PG13 for “some violence, mild profanity and adult themes.” This show seems like a very odd choice for a company of Christian theatre artists. How do you explain this choice?
Jeni: We would all love to live in a world where everyone treated each other nicely and justly. We would love an environment where no ugly, offensive language was ever used. However, we are not going to have that this side of heaven. Theatre represents life – the good and the bad aspects of human nature. In Ragtime, we see both good and bad. The language used by some of the characters is rather rough and the situations presented rather ugly – like life, then and now.
Terry: The themes of Ragtime include struggle against racism, struggle for economic justice, and struggle to forge community and understanding. As Christians, these issues may recall for us Jesus’ call to love others as we love ourselves, his parable of the Good Samaritan, or many other Scriptural references to sacrifice, mercy, and justice.
Question 2: I take it this is not a happy, feel good musical like Music Man or The Sound of Music. Some people might think it’s about people like Scott Joplin and Ragtime music. Just what is it about?
Terry: This epic musical powerfully illustrates the struggle and hope of three culturally different families. One is African-American, one is Jewish immigrant, and the other is suburban WASP. It’s a work of historical fiction, set in the first decade of 20th century America, when the term “melting pot” was coined. The worlds of the three families intersect with dramatic results. Stephen Flaherty’s score is stunning. The book and lyrics by Terence McNally and Lynn Ahrens, respectively, create characters and situations that won’t soon be forgotten. Ragtime raises questions of morality and social justice. It reminds us of how far we’ve come as a society and how far we have yet to go.
Question 3: The WordPlayers’ mission is to “impact theatre audiences and artists by telling stories from a Christian worldview.” How does Ragtime fit your mission?
Terry: Looking at it from a Christian worldview, there are characters in Ragtime who make choices which are clearly sinful. These sins are not glorified in our production. Some of these characters repent of their sinful actions; some do not. Those who don’t repent meet undesirable ends. Those who do repent have hope for redemption, while still perhaps suffering greatly due to the consequences of their actions. There are characters who try to make choices, with varying degrees of success, in line with the Christian philosophy of “Love God; love others.” There is a song that includes a direct appeal to God in prayer. The heroes of the play (just like most of the heroes of the Bible!) are greatly flawed. In experiencing the story from a Christian worldview, I see, in the end, that Ragtime’s dream for a day of hope and justice can only be realized if I “lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord.” (Ps. 121:1-2)
Question 4: The WordPlayers’ vision is “a community uplifted by excellent, Christ-centered art, where artists are freed to develop and use their God-given talents in a positive environment founded on Christian principles and values.” How is Ragtime Christ-centered art?
Terry: The WordPlayers has never attempted a production of this size and scope; yet we felt compelled to undertake it. To us, it’s a God-sized thing. In many ways, we feel completely inadequate to realize it. If it comes to fruition with any modicum of success, it will be because of the presence of Christ’s Holy Spirit. This production of Ragtime has been a year and a half in the making. That time has included much prayer by many people. The Christian leaders of this project have longed for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in every area. The making of the play is as much a story of community-building as the story of the play. The theatre artists whom God is assembling for this project come from a wide range of experience, training, socio-economic realities, and faith traditions. Not all are Christians. There are many different, even disparate, personal reasons why they are involved. However, because every effort will be made to keep Christ-like love and compassion in the center of the process, we trust that God will be working through the process. In my experience, He nearly always works in surprising and unexpected ways. I can’t wait to find out what they are this time!