Performance Date: 11.11.09
Neil Simon Theatre
I went to see Ragtime and I liked it. It didn’t have me at hello – like the first time I saw Les Miz or the first through fourteenth times I saw Rent (don’t judge) – but I liked it.
I’d come in with high expectations. After all, this is the show that got transferred to the Great White Way after a three week run in DC, giving the musical it’s first Broadway revival a scant 10 years after the original production closed. Talk about buzz. Plus, my friend Jay said Ragtime was one of his favorite musical scores of all time.
I’d never seen the show before, or even heard the music, so some of my enjoyment was from watching the story unfold for the first time. But it was not only that. I liked the performances – a dry humor from the nurturing leading lady, an unnerving intensity from her explosives expert younger brother, the easy charm of the ragtime piano-playing leading man. The voices and the music were enjoyable. The story had enough to it to keep me engaged. I dug the minimal set. All in all, I left feeling rather satisfied.
But then something funny happened. I started comparing notes with other folks who’d seen it, and began to doubt whether I really enjoyed it after all.
First up I polled some musical theater acquaintances. They weren’t that impressed. I asked what they thought of this one actor and they said his voice was “weird.” Intrigued, I asked what they meant by that. His voice had “no breath” and was “muscled” they reported in a way that made me sure this was a bad thing. Now, I remember this guy’s voice being particularly strong and shiny sounding, like a trumpet hitting a high note. In fact, as soon as he opened his mouth, I had the feeling he would be a star. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe shiny trumpet voices are bad and muscley. After all, this was niche expertise, from people who know more about singing than I do.
Next I remembered hearing about someone who saw the DC run of the production and had announced that it was “exactly like the original production” and therefore no great shakes. Interesting. More niche expertise, from someone who had actually seen the original production, whereas I had not. Had I been duped by a knock-off?
Finally, I had dinner with a wonderful actress, singer, and musician friend who confided that she didn’t really like the music in Ragtime. That she didn’t feel any of the songs really grabbed her. Aha. Highly valued niche expertise from a trusted friend. Suddenly I wondered if I hadn’t gotten it all wrong.
Well dear reader, you’ll be happy to know I have shaken off this self doubt, and chosen not to believe as others do just because they might know better. Yes, it’s an After-School Special moment, everyone. But of course that’s not the point. The point is that there’s something to this belief in niche expertise. The belief that if someone is more experienced in a subject than yourself, his or her opinions are more valid than your own. As someone who has watched After-School Specials and Flashdance, I know the experts aren’t always right. But that doesn’t stop me from seeking out more informed thoughts than my own. Not a bad thing necessarily, but supplanting my own judgment with someone else’s? That’s like Junior High 101. We’re not supposed to do that.
Still, it’s tempting. Maybe because we all possess niche expertise in some area or another, and when it comes to our own expert knowledge, we believe others should submit. For example, due to my particular training as an actor, I believe tortured, emotional, Method-inspired, acting performances have absolutely no place on stage. (Film’s another story.) I find them horrible, indulgent, nearly offensive, and I think anyone who is impressed by them is a sucker. You, no doubt, hold some similarly dogmatic view regarding your area of expertise, be it language poetry, Fantasy Football, neural pathways, or Season 4 of So You Think You Can Dance. We know how deeply in contempt we hold the fools who don’t know what they’re talking about on our own turf, so perhaps we can be forgiven for not wanting to be a sucker on someone else’s.
And just for the record, I did like the show. And yeah none of the songs grabbed me, but I liked them when I heard them. And I still think that one actor has a knockout voice. Muscley trumpets are where it’s at. Mark my words.