Broadway production 1998
Ragtime the Musical - PLOT SYNOPSIS

Act One

The musical introduces the American experience at the turn of the 20th century through the eyes of three different facets of society, in the New York City area. The first is an upper-class white family from New Rochelle—Mother, Father, Mother's Younger Brother, Grandfather, and the Little Boy, Edgar. Theirs is a genteel, sheltered atmosphere, far from the bustle of Harlem, where the African-American community, including a beautiful young woman named Sarah, explores a new kind of music pioneered by a pianist named Coalhouse Walker Jr. Meanwhile, immigrants from all parts of the globe set out to seek better lives in the tenements of the Lower East Side, among them Tateh, a Jewish artist from Latvia, and his young daughter. These three disparate worlds are connected only by celebrities: tycoons such as J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford, activists such as Booker T. Washington and Emma Goldman, and entertainers such as Harry Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit, who has been catapulted into fame by the murder of her wealthy lover Stanford White by her millionaire husband Harry K. Thaw. As the century dawns, the separate worlds of New York City begin to blur together (“Prologue—Ragtime”).

Mother and her Family say goodbye to Father as he embarks on Robert Peary's expedition to the North Pole. He asks Mother to oversee his affairs, her first experience with any kind of independence. He assures her that nothing will change in his absence but Mother, feeling adrift without dreams of her own, hopes differently (“Goodbye, My Love”). On board Admiral Peary's ship, Father encounters the ship's First Officer, Matthew Henson, and is shocked to find he is a black man. He catches a glimpse of the rag ship carrying Tateh and his Little Girl to America and waves at the immigrants, who he cynically imagines "don't have a chance" in America. Tateh, incredulous anyone would want to leave such a wonderful country as America, returns the hail, while Mother, back on shore, also wishes Father a safe passage (“Journey On”).

Mother's Younger Brother, an intense, awkward young man, is consistently in search of something fulfilling in life, and his latest obsession is Evelyn Nesbit. He takes a regular seat in the balcony of the vaudeville theatre where Evelyn performs her act, a risqué parody of her husband's murder trial (“Crime of the Century”). After the show ends, Younger Brother confesses his love to Evelyn. She kisses him, but only for the benefit of a press photographer, cheerfully rejecting him once he has served his purpose.

Back at the family's home in New Rochelle, Mother discovers a black newborn baby who has been buried alive in her garden. The police arrive with Sarah, the baby's mother, and on an impulse Mother takes responsibility for both Sarah and her child. She marvels both at her newfound compassion and at the realization that her husband would never have allowed her to make such a decision were he present (“What Kind of Woman”).

At Ellis Island, the immigrants arrive at their new home (“A Shtetl Iz Amereke”). Tateh eagerly begins his new life, drawing silhouettes and selling them from a street corner cart, but he quickly finds the American Dream not so readily accessible. Emma Goldman attempts to get him to join the Socialist movement, but he is determined to leave politics alone. The Little Girl grows ill and Tateh rapidly becomes destitute. A low point comes when a wealthy stranger offers to buy the Little Girl from him, and he snaps, cursing his new country. Inspired by the success of immigrant magician Harry Houdini, Tateh resolves to sell his cart and begin again somewhere else (“Success”).

The people of Harlem dance to Coalhouse's music (“His Name Was Coalhouse”) and he sings of his lost love, Sarah. Having discovered where she is, Coalhouse embarks on a plan to win back her affections (“Gettin' Ready Rag”), culminating in a visit to Henry Ford's factory for a brand new Model T, and the inventor himself proudly explains his system of automated production (“Henry Ford”).

Back in New Rochelle, Mother and Edgar wait for the trolley to New York City and meet Tateh and the Little Girl, who are heading to Boston. To set an example for her son, who is staring rudely at them, Mother surprises Tateh by engaging him in polite conversation (“Nothing Like the City”). On his way to find Sarah in New Rochelle, Coalhouse encounters a volunteer fire squad, led by chief Will Conklin, who react with hostility to the sight of a black man driving his own car. Meanwhile, Sarah sings to her son in the attic of their new home (“Your Daddy's Son”), attempting to explain how her heartbreak, fear and despair led her to make such a terrible decision.

Coalhouse arrives at the Family's door on his quest to find and win back Sarah. He is stunned to learn of her child's existence and when she refuses to see him, he resolves to return the following Sunday. This continues for some time (“The Courtship”), and eventually Mother invites him inside for a refreshment. He tells her of his career as a musician and his plans to support his family. Father returns home from the North Pole to find Coalhouse playing ragtime in the Family's parlor. He is stunned by the unexpected and unorthodox changes to his household, and he finds Mother unsympathetic to his complaints. He reflects on how much he has missed and how unsure he is of the world, but Mother and Younger Brother have embraced the changes. Hearing Coalhouse's music, Sarah finally descends to forgive him, and the lovers are joyfully reunited (“New Music”).

Coalhouse takes Sarah on an idyllic picnic, where he tells her of his hopes for the future, inspired by the words of Booker T. Washington. With their son in their arms, the pair sing about the promise this country offers their baby boy (“Wheels of a Dream”).

Emma Goldman speaks passionately in a Worker's Hall, promoting the textile mills strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where mill workers, including Tateh and his daughter, are suffering at the hands of the national militia called in to settle the strike. Younger Brother takes respite from the cold inside the rally and finds inspiration, imagining Goldman is speaking directly to him (“The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square”). The rally descends into a riot as Goldman is arrested, which mirrors the chaos in Lawrence. Tateh, participating in the strike, is attempting to evacuate his daughter to safety, but he is struck by a policeman and they are separated. At the last moment he leaps on the train to accompany her out of Lawrence. As she sobs, terrified at the violence, Tateh calms her by showing her his newest invention: a flip book of moving silhouettes. The conductor of the train they are on offers to buy the book and Tateh, hurriedly dubbing it a "moviebook", sells it to him for a dollar. Recognizing that he has a product people will buy, Tateh celebrates his first chance at real success and resolves never to look back (“Gliding”).

Returning home from their picnic, Coalhouse and Sarah are stopped by Will Conklin and his volunteer fire squad. Conklin demands a toll be paid in exchange for passage but Coalhouse will not yield to the injustice. As Booker T. Washington gives a lecture advocating patience and dignity in the black community, the firemen destroy the Model T and roll it into a lake (“The Trashing of the Car”). Incensed, Coalhouse seeks justice but the system has none to offer (“Justice”). Furious and determined to keep his dignity, Coalhouse postpones his marriage to Sarah until his car is restored, which prompts her to seek justice on his behalf. She hears of a campaign rally in New Rochelle and goes in the hopes that the vice-presidential candidate will be able to help (“President”). However, she is mistaken for a would-be assassin by JP Morgan and beaten to death by the Secret Service. At her funeral, grief and anger overtake her mourners, who alternatively demand an end to such injustice and pray for the day when all people will have justice and equality. As Mother, Father, Tateh and Emma Goldman look on, Coalhouse collapses by Sarah's grave (“Till We Reach That Day”).

Act Two

In a dream sequence, The Little Boy watches Harry Houdini perform a daring escape act in which he is locked in a dynamite-laden box by Will Conklin. The box explodes, and although Houdini emerges smiling from the audience, the little boy wakes up screaming from his nightmare ("Harry Houdini, Master Escapist"). He yells for his mother, proclaiming that something bad is going to happen. He is proved correct when a volunteer firehouse is bombed and several firemen are killed.

After Sarah's death, Coalhouse vows to get justice on his own terms (“Coalhouse's Soliloquy”). He terrorizes New Rochelle, killing several firemen and bombing a volunteer firehouse while posting demands that his car be restored and returned to him, and that Will Conklin be delivered into his hands. Booker T. Washington condemns Coalhouse's actions but many angry young men are drawn to his cause (“Coalhouse Demands”). The family stands at the center of the scandal as Mother retains custody of Sarah and Coalhouse's baby. Father blames her for bringing this turmoil into their lives, but Younger Brother furiously lambasts him for his blindness. He storms out of the house. Mother is becoming increasingly irritated by Father's actions, and encourages him to explain to their son what is happening. Instead, Father invites Edgar to a baseball game, an act that earns him his wife's open scorn. He expects it to be the genteel, respectful game he played in college, and is horrified to find himself in the middle of a rowdy crowd of immigrants and drunks (“What a Game”).

Father's attempt at distraction is not enough to keep at bay the effects of Coalhouse's demands and acts of violence (“Fire in the City”). As the outside world bears down on the family, Father decides to move them all to Atlantic City where there is the promise of an escape from the worries of New York (“Atlantic City”). Upon their arrival, the family encounter a film crew taking shots of the boardwalk, directed by none other than Tateh, who has re-invented himself as "the Baron Ashkenazy", a pioneering director and producer of moving pictures (“Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.”). Also present in Atlantic City are Evelyn Nesbit, whose career is now in a downward spiral, and Harry Houdini, who is recovering from the loss of his beloved mother by delving into the supernatural. When he encounters Edgar on the street, the young boy urges Houdini to "warn the Duke" before running off. Edgar and the Little Girl soon become fast friends, prompting the growth of a friendship between Mother and Tateh. Together they marvel in how simple and profound children's lives are, and he confesses to her his humble origins, an act of trust that touches her greatly (“Our Children”).

Back in Harlem, Younger Brother seeks out Coalhouse but is repeatedly turned away until Coalhouse is convinced that he can be trusted. As one of Coalhouse's men leads Younger Brother to the Gang's hideout, Coalhouse, who has banished music from his life, watches a carefree young couple ("Harlem Nightclub") and remembers his first encounter with Sarah (“Sarah Brown Eyes”). Once Younger Brother arrives, he is unable to articulate why he wants to join the fight. The men's profound thoughts are narrated by Emma Goldman, but instead he merely tells Coalhouse "I know how to blow things up." (“He Wanted to Say”).

Coalhouse and his men, including Younger Brother, take over J.P. Morgan's magnificent library in the heart of New York City and threaten to blow it up. Father informs Mother that he's been summoned to New York to help reason with Coalhouse. Before he goes, he assures her that everything will soon return to the way it was, but Mother has changed too much to allow that to happen (“Back to Before”). Upon his arrival at the tense police encampment around the library, Father suggests that Coalhouse may listen to Booker T. Washington. Coalhouse allows Washington to enter the library but remains unreachable until Washington mentions the legacy Coalhouse is leaving his son. Coalhouse and Washington work out a deal for peaceful surrender but Younger Brother is enraged by Coalhouse's abandonment of their cause (“Look What You've Done”).

Washington leaves and Father enters the library as a hostage. The change in his life that he has been so forcefully trying to ignore finally manages to squeeze into his heart as Coalhouse convinces Younger Brother and his men that violence will not solve injustice. Coalhouse charges them all to change society through the power of their words and by telling their children their story (“Make Them Hear You”). Profoundly affected by their leader's sacrifice, Younger Brother and the Gang leave the Morgan Library peacefully while Father tells Coalhouse about his son. Coalhouse thanks Father for his kindness and, as he leaves the library, is shot and killed by the police.

Edgar takes on the task of fulfilling Coalhouse's wishes that their story be told. The company returns to tell us the conclusion of each of their own stories: Younger Brother departs for Mexico to fight alongside Emiliano Zapata. Emma Goldman is arrested and deported. Booker T. Washington establishes the Tuskegee Institute, while Evelyn Nesbitt fades into obscurity. Harry Houdini realizes upon the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that Edgar's warning was the one truly mystical experience of his life. Father is killed when the RMS Lusitania is sunk, and after a year of mourning, Mother marries Tateh. They adopt Coalhouse and Sarah's son, naming him Coalhouse Walker III, and move to California. Watching his children play, Tateh is struck by an idea for a film series centering on a group of children of different races and classes banding together. The Era of Ragtime may be over, but as the united family is watched by the spirits of Coalhouse and Sarah, America continues to assimilate and flourish (“Epilogue: Ragtime/Wheels of a Dream: Reprise”).

Read more: Ragtime the Musical Lyrics
synopsis to Ragtime the Musical plot