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Friday, Sep 29, 2023

J-Term Musical Celebrates 10 Years

Few Winter Term traditions enjoy as much student and community popularity as the J-term musical, started a decade ago by Town Hall Theatre (THT) Executive Director Doug Anderson and Department of Music faculty Carol Christensen. In celebration of its tenth anniversary season, Director Anderson and Music Director Christensen chose Ragtime, a sweeping portrait of early 20th century American life from three vastly different perspectives. Last year’s ambitious production of Les Miserables involved over 60 students and sold out in three hours, and this year’s selection, Ragtime, sold out in about a week.

Involving about 35 actors who mount a complete show in only three weeks, as well as 20 musicians under the direction of Opera Company of Middlebury Musical Director Emmanuel Plasson, Ragtime continues a tradition of excellence that has gained the J-term musical a reputation as one of the most popular events of the entire year, largely due to the unique resources available to the College through its partnership with THT.

“Middlebury is really very lucky to have two such amazing talents and teachers as Carol and Doug,” two-time J-term musical veteran Jack DesBois ’15 said. “It’s something that I doubt many small liberal arts colleges have as a resource. It’s the type of attention that you might get at a conservatory.”

This year’s production includes three visiting professional actors, a feature common to Theatre Department shows but brand new to the J-term musical. This addition to the cast brings a level of experience to the production that parallels and enhances the students’ own intensive efforts.

“It’s been really great working with these professionals,” DesBois said. “We can talk with them in our free time about what the performing life is like for those of us who are potentially considering it.”

Originally a novel of historical fiction written by American author E.L. Doctorow in 1975, Ragtime premiered on the Broadway stage in 1998 with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty. Featuring huge names of musical theatre like Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell, the original production garnered four Tony nominations for leading actors and an astonishing thirteen nominations overall. Though a critical smash, the show closed after only two years due to financial troubles largely attributed to the lavish $11 million budget, which included features such as a working Model T automobile and fireworks in each performance.

Ragtime includes a lot of historical figures and historical events in the storyline which makes it really interesting as an American. I’m learning about our own history in a sort of modified way because Doctorow, Ahrens and Flaherty take great liberties with chronologies,” DesBois said.

Despite its short run, nearly two decades later Ragtime’s timeless story and gorgeous, expansive score ensure that the production is a staple of the American musical theatre canon. Alternately following Jewish immigrants fighting the misery of tenement slums on the Lower East Side, a ragtime piano player in Harlem and upper-class residents of New Rochelle, Ragtime grapples with a distinctly American clash of cultures at the height of an era of national transformation.

“The interesting thing about this show is a lot of the characters are historical figures, like Booker T. Washington, and a lot of characters have names, and some of them don’t,”four-time J-term musical veteran Mike McCann ’15 said. “You can interpret that as the writer basically using these characters as archetypes to represent the different viewpoints.”

Musical styles within Ragtime, which includes a large number of solo and ensemble pieces, range from ragtime rhythms to klezmer styles of the Lower East Side to bold brass marches to period parlor songs, offering a taste of the multitude of prominent musical styles in the country at the beginning of the 20th century.

With only three intensive weeks to stage the show, students participating in the J-term musical undertake a grueling schedule of rehearsal five days a week in addition to building the set on the two Saturdays preceding the performance weekend.

DesBois, who directed the Spring 2014 Middlebury College Musical Players production of RENT and played the wolf in the 2013 J-term staging of Into the Woods, is taking on another leading role in Ragtime as Tateh, a Latvian Jewish immigrant to the Lower East Side in the early 1900’s. As the focus of one of the three main story arcs, Tateh transitions from the struggle of developing a livelihood from his artistry to eventual success in his chosen field, providing ample acting challenges for DesBois as he worked to craft the nuances of his role in under three weeks.

“He’s kind of two characters in act one and act two,” he said. “After he’s made it big he takes on a whole different persona, so there’s a lot of drama with Tateh but also the opportunity to play the comedy when he’s burlesquing and being over the top. This is challenging because one actor has to be able to get both of those aspects which are usually very separate types of theater, but it’s been real fun for me.”

McCann has held leading roles in Hairspray, Into the Woods, Les Miserables, and now Ragtime, in which he portrays a character simply known as father, the patriarch of the white, well-educated, upper-class storyline in the suburb of New Rochelle. Father, who sells fireworks and other, as he describes them, ‘accoutrements of patriotism’ to immigrants eager to show their national pride, leaves the comfort of his family for extended periods of time to venture on quests of exploration. After returning from a real-life journey to the North Pole with Admiral Robert Peary, father finds his family dynamic turned upside down in ways he had never imagined.

“At first glance he is the one static character in the show, as his one defining characteristic is that he doesn’t want anything to change,” McCann said. “The most challenging thing about playing him is deciding if I’m supposed to be portraying him as unchanging or if I can somehow show that inner confusion and turmoil within him as he tries to keep his perfect life together. He’s not one of the heroes of the story, but at the end he is definitely changed.”

Ragtime is perhaps such an apt show for this year because its timeless themes of race relations and acceptance are particularly topical in the wake of the recent events in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island, N.Y., which have again thrust racial issues under the microscope of national attention.

“It’s interesting how it deals with issues that are almost perpetually in the forefront of the American mind,” DesBois said. “The book was written in the 70’s in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, and it’s still completely relevant today.”

“I think a really cool, kind of interesting connection is one of the biggest numbers in the show after all of this violence and a great tragedy has occurred and the entire cast sings ‘Till We Reach That Day’ and it’s about this great day in the future where there will be no more violence and there will be equality and justice for everyone,” McCann added. “The thing is, we’re still not there. It’s over 100 years from when this play was set, and we’ve come a long way, but we’re still not there. There’s still a lot of work to be done, and that’s something that strikes home with the entire cast when we sing that song. It’s a beautiful number.”

Both DesBois and McCann have aspirations to enter the performing arts in some capacity when they graduate this spring, and their experiences working on the J-term musical have proved useful in shaping their future plans.

“It’s definitely been a great experience to work on a professional schedule, which is what we’re doing,” DesBois said. “It’s very helpful for gauging whether or not this lifestyle is for me, and I’m finding that I can handle this kind of grueling schedule, which is great.”

Musical theatre is often only popular with a niche audience, but each J-term production has drawn students from all over campus as well as the larger community, and the quality of the musicals continue to amaze.

“We work really hard and we put on great shows,” McCann said. “The reason the Town Hall Theater is able to do so many events is because people in this community love the arts so much. I think it’s popular amongst students because it creates this intense, close community. You spend three weeks, six hours a day with the same people. You build closer friendships in those three weeks than you do in your entire college experience, and I will continue to tell people that it is great and that they should do it because it’s terrific.”

Ragtime opens tonight, Jan. 22 in the Town Hall Theatre at 8 p.m., and will have subsequent shows at 8 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 23 and Monday, Jan 26, with a matinee performance at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 24. Tickets are sold out for each performance.