What do you get when you combine 61 college students with toe-tapping music and vibrant dance? The answer is The University of Southern Mississippi’s Centennial production of “Ragtime, The Musical,” which debuts March 4 at 7:30 p.m. in the Mannoni Performing Arts Center on the Hattiesburg campus.
The fusion of ragtime music and dance earned this Broadway performance four Tony Awards in 1998 for best book of a musical, best original musical score, best featured actress in a musical and best orchestrations. Southern Miss students have risen to the challenges and expectations of this show and tackled it with energy, vigor, enthusiasm and determination, said Jennifer Hart, music director for the Southern Miss production.
“I’m so proud of our cast and orchestra,” she said. “We have students with all levels of experience and all of them are learning so much working on a project like this. It’s not every day that you can be a part of a production on this scale.”
“Ragtime” stands above many modern musicals in the level, difficulty and sheer amount of music it requires. It is a uniquely American story told through song and dance and reflecting the diversity and culture of New York City at the turn of the 20th century. In addition to the scope of the show, singers are required to sing in various dialects, styles and languages. The orchestral score presents similar challenges with elements of romanticism, gospel, ragtime, marches, barbershop, blues and swing.
“The instruments even have to imitate an industrial assembly line at one point,” Hart said. “The orchestra executes these styles convincingly and precisely with little or no time between these diverse styles.”
The music of “Ragtime” varies just as the cast it is meant to represent, from the haunting melodies and moaning figures of downtrodden African Americans to the chromatic folk passages that follow the immigrant groups travelling the oceans toward the promise of a new life.
Initially, ragtime music was frowned upon by many professional musicians of that time who felt it was an inferior musical genre. It finds its origins in African American music that gained popularity due to its ragged rhythm that was a signature style of African American bands.
“Perhaps they [professional musicians] were merely feeling threatened by both the new form and the black artists who were gaining an audience of all colors,” Hart said. “As mentioned in the show, ragtime music had quickly spread and club orchestras played for large crowds, turning Harlem into a hub for art.”
Dance also plays a strong role in formation of this unique musical form. Kelly Ferris Lester, assistant professor of dance at Southern Miss, is the choreographer for this musical. “Ragtime is not just about the music of the early 1900’s, but also the dancing that was emerging in America,” Lester said. “This style of dance led to swing dance, which led to jazz concert dance, which are all American dances. People listened to music and danced to forget about their troubles and worries. This is true for all races and social classes at that time and even today.”
“Ragtime” will run March 4-6 at 7:30 p.m. and March 7 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18 for adults; $15 for faculty, staff, seniors, military; and $10 for students. For more information on “Ragtime,” on the Internet visit www.usm.edu/arts. For tickets, visit www.southernmisstickets.com or call 601.266.5418.
“Ragtime” Music Director Jennifer Hart leads rehearsal with Southern Miss students. (Submitted photo)
About The University of Southern Mississippi
The University of Southern Mississippi, founded in 1910, is a comprehensive doctoral and research-extensive university fulfilling its mission of being a leading university in engaging and empowering individuals to transform lives and communities. In a tradition of leadership for student development, Southern Miss is educating a 21st century work force providing intellectual capital, cultural enrichment and innovation to Mississippi and the world. Southern Miss is located in Hattiesburg, Miss., with an additional campus and teaching and research sites on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; further information is found at www.usm.edu.