A Performance of 'Ragtime' on Ellis Island

A performance of songs from Ragtime on Ellis Island

The Ellis Island Registry Room recently welcomed a spectacular concert of songs from the Tony-winning and Drama Desk Award-winning musical Ragtime. We invited Sammi Cannold, the Artistic Fellow at the American Repertory Theater and director of this performance, to share details about this event, which starred Brandon Victor Dixon, Aisha Jackson, Laura Michelle Kelly, Andy Mientus, Michael Park, Robert Petkoff, Shaina Taub, and Brian Stokes Mitchell as narrator.

“Ragtime is a musical that tells the story of different groups--including immigrants from all over the world--in early 20th century America, and part of the piece is set at Ellis Island,” says Cannold. “Accordingly, this concert production of Ragtime was performed in Ellis Island's historic Registry Room, through which 12 million immigrants passed between 1892 and 1954. By setting an enthralling American immigration story on the historic grounds where it transpired, our production sought to bring history to life. And perhaps of more importance than putting this story in such an authentic site, our team felt strongly about placing the themes of Ragtime in the context of what Ellis Island stands for.”

A performance of songs from Ragtime on Ellis Island

“So, in the concert, we specifically chose songs that highlighted Ragtime’s nuanced exploration of American identity, freedom, liberty and other themes related to Ellis Island.”

A performance of songs from Ragtime on Ellis Island

450 guests knew they were in for a unique experience when they arrived on the island, finding themselves escorted through the Baggage Room and upstairs. “Upon arrival in the Registry Room, they were ‘checked in’ at the replicas of Ellis Island’s historic registry desks. Four hundred and fifty seats were arranged to face a stage designed by scenic designer Daniel Prosky and Bestek Lighting and Staging. This allowed audience members to watch our 47 actors and 12 musicians performing selections from Ragtime’s epic score from within the Registry Room.”

A performance of songs from Ragtime on Ellis Island

A standout element of the event: “Our concert was narrated by Brian Stokes Mitchell who originated the role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. when Ragtime opened on Broadway in 1998. Stokes shared stories from his experiences in the original production of Ragtime as well as personal stories of family heritage as his grandmother came to New York through Ellis Island. Perhaps the most notable moment of the evening was when Stokes surprised the audience by joining Brandon Victor Dixon (playing Coalhouse in our concert rendition) to sing ‘Make Them Hear You,’ Ragtime’s rousing anthem that reminds us that we cannot give up on the dream of freedom and justice that America—and Ellis Island—have promised to us.”

A performance of songs from Ragtime on Ellis Island

A performance of songs from Ragtime on Ellis Island

A performance of songs from Ragtime on Ellis Island

A performance of songs from Ragtime on Ellis Island

“Another notable moment included the company’s rendition of ‘A Shtetl Iz Amereke – Ellis Island,’ Ragtime’s epic number to mark immigrants’ arrival at Ellis Island. To perform this song on Ellis Island was quite special and to me, captured the power of putting a site and a story in dialogue as only site-specific theater can.”

After the performance, audience members were invited to explore the exhibits on the island and enjoy light refreshments in the Baggage Room. The event’s signature drink, a prosecco, provided by In Thyme Catering and Evelyn Hill, was offered to all guests.

“Our team ordered chocolate covered pretzels in special ‘Ragtime On Ellis Island’ bags. They were a memorable takeaway favor for many of our guests.”

Cannold says, “It was an immense honor to perform this piece on the island. Our team is beyond grateful to Patti Golden and Evelyn Hill, Tara McGill and Statue Cruises, William Haviland and Bestek Lighting and Staging, and Brianna Virden and In Thyme Catering for making the evening possible.”

Photos courtesy of Jeremy Daniel. Ragtime on Ellis Island was sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts. The piece was licensed for usage by Music Theatre International and the performances were made possible by Actors’ Equity Association. Ragtime was written by Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, and Terrence McNally.