New Rochelle, New York, 1906. A large Victorian house on Broadview Avenue, the home of an upper middle class family: Father, who has derived his wealth from the manufacture of fireworks, flags and bunting; Mother; their son, the Little Boy; and Mother's Younger Brother, a genius at explosives who works in Father's fireworks factory. This is the Gilded Age, an era of industrialization, when prospects for wealth and happiness seem to be boundless. Everything is new and anything is possible.
In Harlem, crowds dance to the music of ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. In Latvia, a widower named Tateh dreams of escaping with his daughter, the Little Girl, to America.
America is filled with famous characters: mesmerizing illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini ... J.P. Morgan, the wealthiest man in America ... radical anarchist Emma Goldman ... chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit, former mistress of Stanford White, the brilliant architect who has been slain by Nesbit's millionaire husband, Harry K. Thaw. Called the "Crime of the Century," this murder has scandalized the nation (Ragtime).
On the dock of New York Harbor, Mother bids farewell to Father who is joining Admiral Peary on an expedition to the North Pole (Goodbye, My Love). As the boat disappears into the distance, another appears. It is a rag ship sailing to America, carrying refugees from western and eastern Europe, including Tateh and the Little Girl (Journey On).
Infatuated with Evelyn Nesbit, Younger Brother visits a vaudeville house in Manhattan every night to see her perform (The Crime of the Century). One night, a news photographer waits for Evelyn. She kisses Younger Brother merely for the publicity, then saunters away, leaving Younger Brother heartbroken and disillusioned.
In New Rochelle, Mother, who is planting in her garden, is shocked when she finds a black infant boy. The police arrive with Sarah, the scared and mute mother of the child. Before the police can charge Sarah with attempted murder, Mother intervenes, saying she will take responsibility for Sarah and her baby. Mother brings them into her home (What Kind of Woman).
On Ellis Island, crowds of immigrants, including Tateh and the Little Girl, arrive, delirious with joy and optimism (A Shtetl Iz Amereke . Success). On the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Tateh calls out from his cart to passersby, offering to sell them paper silhouette portraits, with very little success. Months pass. Tateh's desperation increases. A man stops, but instead of buying a silhouette, he asks Tateh to sell him the Little Girl. Enraged, Tateh attacks the man. Full of self doubt, Tateh wonders whether America's golden promise was only a lie. In his disillusionment, he has a vision of Harry Houdini. Tateh is inspired to escape his own confining circumstances. He sells his cart and, with the Little Girl, leaves New York on a trolley. The little money he has will take them as far as Boston.
In the Tempo Nightclub in Harlem, Coalhouse Walker Jr. entertains the crowd. While introducing one of his numbers, he reminisces about a woman he loved named Sarah, and vows to win her back (Gettin' Ready Rag).
Henry Ford and his assembly line appear before Coalhouse in an apparition and he watches intently while a Model T is built (Henry Ford. This is the new mass production technology that will transform the country and the world. Coalhouse buys one of these new cars.
In New Rochelle, Coalhouse asks firemen outside the Emerald Isle firehouse for directions to Broadview Avenue. Chief Willie Conklin forbids Coalhouse to pass and forces him to turn back. In the house on Broadview Avenue, Sarah sings a lullaby to her child (Your Daddy's Son). Coalhouse arrives and asks to speak with Sarah. Sarah refuses to see him. Coalhouse leaves, but persistently returns every Sunday for several weeks, hoping Sarah will speak with him. Finally Mother invites Coalhouse in for tea. Coalhouse tells Mother he is a musician, and she invites him to play a tune on the piano. Coalhouse obliges, playing a ragtime melody.
Five months pass. One Sunday, Father returns home unannounced from the North Pole. Surprised to see Sarah, her baby and Coalhouse in his house and to learn about Sarah's predicament, Father wonders whether he has been away too long. Mother ponders why they have grown apart, and are unable to experience the love that Coalhouse has for Sarah, a sentiment shared by Younger Brother. Sarah finally heeds Coalhouse's words of love and comes downstairs into his embrace (New Music). Coalhouse takes Sarah and their baby for a ride in his new Model T. Coalhouse promises Sarah that this is the beginning of a new life and a better time for them and their son (Wheels of a Dream).
In Lawrence, Massachusetts, Tateh works in front of a loom for 64 hours a week for just under six dollars. One day, the workers go on strike. In New York, at a rally at a workmen's hall in Union Square, Younger Brother hears Emma Goldman call for a general strike in support of the striking mill workers (The Night That Goldman Spoke At Union Square). Inspired by her passionate words, Younger Brother calls out his support. Within three days, every mill in Lawrence is shut down. Factory owners call in the militia to protect their property. Tateh puts the Little Girl on a train that will take her to a home for safety. A riot breaks out. Tateh hears the panic stricken cries of his daughter as the train begins to move. Tateh runs and ultimately pulls himself onto the train. He comforts the Little Girl with a flip book of silhouette images of her skating that move as he flicks the pages (Gliding). A Conductor is attracted by the moving picture book and buys it.
In New Rochelle, Coalhouse and Sarah drive by the Emerald Isle firehouse. Again, Willie Conklin and the firemen block their way. Willie speaks abusively to Coalhouse, demanding twenty-five dollars, claiming that Coalhouse is driving on a private toll road. Wanting to confront the firemen on his own, Coalhouse orders Sarah to leave.
Coalhouse leaves the car to look for a policeman. The firemen vandalize and destroy the car. Coalhouse returns. Seeing what they have done, he vows to find justice. Increasingly frustrated and outraged by bureaucratic apathy and ineptitude and the law's delay, Coalhouse proclaims he will not marry until his property is restored to him (Justice). Sarah is shattered, but she is determined to help Coalhouse. At a political rally, she attempts to speak with the Republican vice-presidential candidate (President). The police, thinking Sarah is armed, club her with their nightsticks. She dies. Coalhouse, Mother, Younger Brother, Tateh, Emma Goldman and Sarah's friends mourn her death (Till We Reach That Day).
In New Rochelle's Main Street Theatre, Harry Houdini is handcuffed inside a packing case. Willie Conklin and his firemen then place a package of dynamite inside with him while the Little Boy looks on. The firemen nail the case shut and it is lifted above the stage. The case explodes in mid-air and falls open. It is empty (Harry Houdini, Master Escapist). Suddenly, in his bed in the house on Broadview Avenue, the Little Boy sits up, wide awake. Houdini's escape was a nightmare, and the Little Boy senses that many people are about to die.
Coalhouse has begun a reign of vengeance and terror, killing firemen and burning down firehouses. Coalhouse declares he will agree to end the violence when his car is restored to him in its original condition and Willie Conklin is turned over to him (Coalhouse's Soliloquy . Coalhouse Demands).
In New Rochelle, reporters and photographers descend upon the house, searching for information about Coalhouse. Tension grips Mother, Father and Younger Brother. Father chides Mother for taking Sarah in, blaming her "foolish female sentimentality." Younger Brother defends Coalhouse and attacks Father for his complacency. Younger Brother angrily leaves.
To relieve the pressure, Father takes the child to a baseball game. Father's expectations of a civilized afternoon are disrupted by the rowdy behavior of the many immigrants and lower class people in the crowd (What a Game).
Back home, reporters continue to besiege Father and his family. Father suggests that the family take a trip to Atlantic City to escape the harassment (Atlantic City . New Music (Reprise)).
On Atlantic City's boardwalk, elegant vacationers are filmed by the Baron Ashkenazy, a director (Atlantic City, Part II . The Crime of the Century / Harry Houdini Master Escapist (Reprise)). The Baron introduces himself to Mother and her family and tells them about his career in the new motion picture industry (Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.).
As evening falls, Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Houdini stroll on the boardwalk and meet. Disillusioned they commiserate about how fast the world is changing and how fleeting their fame is.
The next morning, Mother and the Baron chat while his daughter and the Little Boy play together. Mother is attracted by the Baron's charm; he is drawn to her kindness. The Baron confides that he is not really a Baron. He is Tateh, a poor immigrant Jew who wants to give his daughter a better future. Mother is moved, and says she is happy their children are friends (Our Children).
In Harlem, Younger Brother searches the streets for Coalhouse, but he is greeted with derision and told to leave. He meets one of Coalhouse's followers who takes him to their hideout. As they depart, Coalhouse emerges from the shadows. Seeing two lovers on the street, Coalhouse reminisces about the first time he met Sarah (Sarah Brown Eyes). Younger Brother arrives at the hideout, blindfolded (He Wanted To Say). Coalhouse allows Younger Brother to join him and his men, vowing that with Younger Brother's genius and dynamite, he will unleash an act so terrible that no white man will ever mistreat a black person again.
In Atlantic City, Father tells Mother he has been called back to New York City -- Coalhouse and his men have taken over the Morgan Library and threatened to blow up the building and its priceless contents unless his demands are met by that evening. The authorities believe Father, as someone who knows Coalhouse, can help them negotiate a peaceful settlement. Father promises Mother that when this crisis is over, their lives will be as they were before Mother found Coalhouse and Sarah's baby, that they will once again be happy. Mother tells him things will never be the same (Back To Before).
In New York, a crowd of police, reporters and onlookers maintains a vigil outside of the library. Willie Conklin is restoring Coalhouse's car, but the authorities refuse to hand the fire chief over to the ragtime musician. They demand that Coalhouse come out of the library. Father arrives and tells them Coalhouse will listen to Booker T. Washington.
Coalhouse sits inside the library surrounded by many priceless treasures and artworks. Bundles of dynamite are everywhere. Among his men is Younger Brother. Booker T. Washington enters. Coalhouse respectfully tells Washington he always tried to follow Washington's words of wisdom and action. Washington replies that Coalhouse's actions are the destruction of everything for which he has fought. Washington, reminding Coalhouse about the legacy he will leave his son, urges him to give up and leave the library, promising that he will intercede on Coalhouse's behalf during his trial. Despite angry protests from his men, Coalhouse agrees to surrender on the condition that his men can leave unharmed. Washington departs.
A hostage arrives at the door. It is Father. Recognizing Younger Brother, Father demands an explanation. Younger Brother asks Father to tell Mother that he has always loved and admired her. Father tells Coalhouse that his restored car is ready. As he prepares to leave, Coalhouse urges his men to tell their story to ensure his struggle was not in vain (Make Them Hear You).
Coalhouse's men leave the museum and drive off. Assured that his men are safe, Coalhouse thanks Father for his family's kindness and prepares to leave. Coalhouse asks Father whether he will be killed. Father replies, "No," that the authorities are decent men. Coalhouse walks out the door and is greeted by a barrage of gunfire.
Following Coalhouse's death, Younger Brother joins the great peasant revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in Mexico. In Sarajevo in 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated, triggering World War I. In the Atlantic in 1915, Father is among the 1,200 men, women and children who perish when the Lusitania is torpedoed by a U boat off the Southwest coast of Ireland. After mourning for a year, Mother accepts a marriage proposal from Tateh whom she adores. Together with the Little Boy, the Little Girl, and Coalhouse and Sarah's son, also named Coalhouse, they move to California to make a new home and start a new life (Ragtime / Wheels of a Dream (Reprise)).
- Dennis Kuchrawy