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The Writers of Ragtime

E.L. Doctorow, Novelist

E. L. Doctorow (1931-2015) was one of the most accomplished American novelists of the second half of the 20th Century, often considered in an elite company with Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Philip Roth and only a few others. Named for Edgar Allen Poe, Doctorow was born in New York City and attended the Bronx High School of Science.

Doctorow graduated from Kenyon College with honors in 1952, then did some graduate work at Columbia University, but did not earn another degree. He joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany for a time. In 1954, he married Helen Setzer, with whom he has three children. For three years, Doctorow worked for Columbia Pictures as a literary talent scout. His job was to read books and let Columbia know which could be turned into lms. His time at Columbia may have inspired a young Doctorow to take up writing, convinced he could do better than the authors who’s work he reviewed.


Ragtime, his 1975 novel, may be his most admired and popular work. Set before World War I, it features historical people of that time such as Sigmund Freud, Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, and U.S. President William Howard Taft, plus various ctional characters. It won the National Book Critics Circle award and sold 4.5 mil- lion copies. It became a lm in 1981 and a Broadway musical in 1998.

The idea for Ragtime started when Doctorow was living in a house in New Rochelle, New York, that had been built in 1908. Tormented by writer’s block, he forced himself to write about the walls of his house, then started thinking about his neighborhood and what it had looked like in 1908 and the trolley tracks that connected New Rochelle to New York. “I was imagining what things were like in that time, with awnings on the windows and trolley cars going down the hill to the [Long Island] Sound and people in straw boaters and women with para- sols,” he told Lisa W. Foderaro of the New York Times when he sold the house in 1999. “One image led to another, and I was off the wall and into the book.”

Some critics questioned the way Doctorow placed historic characters in ctional situations in Ragtime, such as when he portrayed famed psychologists Freud and Carl Jung taking a ride together on the Tunnel of Love at the New York City amusement park Coney Island. On the other hand, that mischievous boldness was a key element readers liked about the novel. “The feeling of Ragtime was a rebellious feeling,” Doctorow told Janet Maslin of the New York Times. In the mid-1970s, non- ction was threatening to displace ction as the center of literary ambition and atten- tion, and Doctorow said he felt the need to take a stand for c- tion. “My feeling was, ‘if they want facts, I’ll give ‘em facts like they’ve never had before,’” he told Maslin.

Doctorow’s subsequent work includes the award winning novels World’s Fair (1985), Billy Bathgate (1989), City of God (2000) and The March (2005); two volumes of short ction, Lives of the Poets (1984), and Sweetland Stories (2004); and two volumes of selected essays, Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution (1993) and Creationists (2006). He is published in over thirty languages.

Doctorow’s attempts to define America through its great writers, its past, and its pres- ent politics, while common among the elite of American ction writers, often contrast with the work of his students, whom he complains too often write cramped rst novels of limited vision. Epic stories of the past, far from being es-

capist, reveal the roots of today’s culture and con icts, he believes. “Any time you set a book in the past you’re inevitably writing about the pres- ent,” he told Bruce Weber of the New York Times. 

Stephen Flaherty, Music

Lynn Ahrens, Lyrics

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty are considered the foremost theatrical songwriting team of their generation. With a creative collaboration that has lasted more than thirty years, they are winners of Broadway's triple crown--Tony Award, Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics Circle Award, as well as two Grammy nominations, for their score of the hit Broadway musical Ragtime. They also received two Academy Award nominations and two Golden Globe nominations for the songs and score of Twentieth Century Fox's animated feature film, Anastasia (Gold Record and Number One Song). In 2014 they received the Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement, and in 2015 they were inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.

They are co-creators of the Broadway musical Once On This Island (eight Tony Award nominations, London Olivier Award, Best Musical), as well as Seussical, based on the works of Dr. Seuss, which received Grammy and Drama Desk nominations and is one of the most frequently performed shows in America. They have premiered four new musicals at Lincoln Center Theatre: My Favorite Year; A Man Of No Importance (Winner, 2003 Outer Critics Circle Award, Best Musical); Dessa Rose (Audelco Award, Best Musical, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations); and The Glorious Ones (five Drama Desk nominations including Best Musical.) Additional theater credits include Lucky Stiff (Helen Hayes Award, Best Musical); Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life; Ragtime 2009 Broadway revival (six Tony nominations, seven Drama Desk nominations); and most recently on Broadway, Rocky, which won a Tony Award for scenic design and received four nominations and eight Drama Desk nominations. Rocky premiered in Germany in 2012, where it continues to play. Their most recent collaboration is Little Dancer, an original musical with book and lyrics by Ahrens and music by Flaherty, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, which had its world premiere at the Kennedy Center in 2014.  Their newest musical is a full-stage production of Anastasia, which opened on Broadway this spring.  

Individually, Ms. Ahrens wrote lyrics and co-book for A Christmas Carol, which ran for ten years at Madison Square Garden; she also wrote its teleplay adaptation for NBC’s Hallmark Entertainment Special. For her work in television she has received the Emmy Award and four Emmy nominations. She is a mainstay writer and singer for the renowned animated series Schoolhouse Rock and has contributed lyrics to the feature films Camp and After the Storm, as well as to the dance play In Your Arms. Her short stories and essays have been published nationally, and she was nominated for the Best American Essays and Pushcart Anthologies. She recently wrote the screenplay for the independent feature film Lucky Stiff, directed by Christopher Ashley. She is the recipient of the Betty Comden Lilly Award for lyrics.

As a composer Mr. Flaherty’s concert pieces have premiered at the Hollywood Bowl and Boston's Symphony Hall. He has received commissions from the Guggenheim Museum and Carnegie Hall, among others. Earlier this year he composed the score to the new dance play In Your Arms, directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, which featured the writing of ten noted playwrights (New York Stage & Film.) Other theatrical projects include writing the incidental music for Neil Simon's Proposals on Broadway and the musical score for Loving Repeating: A Musical Of Gertrude Stein (Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Musical.) Film scores include Bartok the Magnificent (Twentieth Century Fox) and the documentary After the Storm.

Ahrens and Flaherty's shows have been recorded by BMG/RCA Victor, Sony, Atlantic,Decca Broadway, Varese Sarabande, Universal, JAY Records and Broadway Records, and their songs have been performed and recorded by a diverse array of artists. A print anthology of their music, "The Ahrens and Flaherty Songbook," is published by Alfred Publishing, and a live double CD of their work titled “Nice Fighting You” was recently released on Broadway Records.  They serve on the governing body of the Dramatists Guild of America and are members of ASCAP, NARAS and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They are Education Ambassadors for the New York Pops and co-founded the Dramatists Guild Fellows Program.

Terrence McNally, Book

Poignant and playful, brilliant and biting, the ground-breaking work of playwright Terrence McNally crackles through five decades of American theatre.  He is a writer equally willing to challenge an audience’s view of the past and open them to the possibilities of the future.


As playwright coming of age in the creative explosion of the theatre scene in the 1960s and 70s, Mr McNally’s plays cried out against Vietnam, satirized stale family dynamics, mocked sexual mores, all with laser-sharp wit and insight. Part of a generation of remarkable American voices in the theatre, he offered a unique and vital imagination to both the Off-Broadway and Broadway world.


His contributions to the art of theatre are incredibly far-ranging; penning landmark plays such as Master Class, Love! Valor! Compassion!, and Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune that celebrate men and women—biographical and fictional, gay and straight—who embrace life’s possibilities in all their ridiculous and painful glory. He has contributed the books of ground-breaking musicals such as The Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime, and The Visit, that challenge notions of race, class, and sexuality. In the world of opera he has created the librettos for the poignant Dead Man Walking and the upcoming Great Scott at the Dallas Opera.


By the time he won the 1993 Tony for Best Book of a Musical for Kiss of the Spiderwoman (the first of four Tony awards), Mr. McNally was already a recipient of multiple Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel, and Obie Awards. He was inducted to the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1996 and has been honored by numerous organizations for his ongoing contributions to the theatre.


Mr. McNally’s ability to move effortlessly between history and current events, intimate emotional portraits and sweeping cultural landscapes, continue to make him an integral part of the American theatre, combining a sacred tradition of theatrical storytelling with an audacious spirit for skewering its hubris.



Mr. McNally is both a keeper of our shared theatrical inheritance and a great pioneer in its ongoing evolution.

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