When playwright Terrence McNally was asked nearly two decades ago to write the book for a musical version of “Ragtime,’’ he immediately said yes.
That night, McNally began rereading E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel of early-20th-century America, just to be sure. “The book is so musical,’’ he said recently in an interview with the Globe. “It just sings, every page.’’
McNally eventually won one of his four Tony Awards for his contribution to “Ragtime,’’ which opened in 1998 on Broadway and was revived there a few years ago. His other Tonys are for the plays “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Master Class,” and for the book of the musical “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
From Friday through Oct. 7, the Strand Theatre in Dorchester will be home to a production of “Ragtime’’ presented by Fiddlehead Theatre Company in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which earlier this month gave its Beacon of Liberty Award to McNally and his “Ragtime’’ collaborators, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty.
McNally, 73, spoke about his work while he was in Boston to accept the award.
‘If I ever evince bravery in my life, it tends to be at a keyboard.’
Q. “Ragtime’’ explores issues of social justice. Do you see those issues playing out in the presidential campaign and in our current political climate?
A. They play out in our lives every day. It’s an ongoing struggle. To me, a perfect example is what’s happened in the gay-rights movement in my lifetime. There were rights I didn’t even know I wanted. [Laughs.] Now I’ve been happily married for two years. On the same-sex marriage front, it’s a long way to [federal] recognition, but I think it’s going to happen. I think this is a very important election. The seeds planted in the Constitution still have not come to full fruition. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: Sometimes I feel the pursuit of happiness got lost with all the nuts and bolts. Marrying who you want to marry is very much the pursuit of happiness. I grew up in the South with water fountains that were marked “colored.’’ So I’ve seen a lot of change. It’s still frustratingly slow, but I think it’s accelerating all the time. The next couple of months are going to be very exciting. I think we’re going to reelect President Obama.
Q. You’re a playwright who was early in forthright explorations of gay identity in your work. Did you feel you were filling a gap, that it was part of your artistic obligation, or was it just the natural outgrowth of the stories and characters that presented themselves to you?
A. It’s more a natural outgrowth. I’m of the school “Write what you know.” You can educate yourself, but the best writing usually comes from the heart. If you’re trying to write something that you don’t understand and embrace at the very core of you, it’s not going to turn out with quite the authenticity and passion it should have. I never felt there were obstacles. My first play [“And Things That Go Bump in the Night,’’ from 1965] had gay characters and it was roundly criticized for that, but it opened in a Broadway theater. That wouldn’t have happened in a lot of countries.
Q. “Ragtime’’ has proven to have significant staying power as a novel and as a musical. Why do you think that is?
A. Because it really examines who we are as a nation, and what kind of society we want to be, were promised to be, and have maybe not tended to as well as we should. What it says about women is remarkable. That woman [Mother, a white character] picks up a baby, takes in a black child, and raises it and loves it. That’s such a bold, generous, spontaneous act. She did something so human. She’s one of the great characters; to me, she’s the central character in the book.
Q. Since “Ragtime’’ is such a sprawling, heavily populated novel, what was your process when it came to writing the book for the musical? Was it immediately apparent to you what you should focus on?
A. There are whole sections of the book with glorious writing, wonderfully adaptable to musical theater, but the show would have been 24 hours long. We got it down to four, and then the challenge was to cut another 60 minutes. The real author of “Ragtime’’ the musical is Ed Doctorow. I certainly had friends say, “You’re going to make a musical of ‘Ragtime’? That’s impossible.’’ But I figured out who I thought the lead characters were.
Q. You’ve shown a lot of range in your career, becoming known for writing dramas and comedies and dramedies and the books for musicals. What is the appeal for you in tackling different kinds of theater?
A. It’s kind of just natural, frankly. I always like a change. “Golden Age’’ [slated for a Manhattan Theatre Club production this fall, starring Bebe Neuwirth] takes place in 1835. I’ve never written a period play. And it takes place in Paris. I’ve never written a play not set in America. I like to surprise myself. I’ve always been attracted to projects where I don’t know how they’re going to turn out. If I ever evince bravery in my life, it tends to be at a keyboard. And we live in a culture where I’ve felt emboldened to be outspoken, and have not been shut down. I’ve surrounded myself with very bright, very brave, talented people. If I find myself to be the smartest person in a room, I go to another room.
Q. You’ve managed to sustain a long career, not an easy task. What’s the key? You’ve spoken before of your relationship with the Manhattan Theatre Club as a cornerstone for you. Is that a big factor, having a theater committed to producing your work? What about playwrights who don’t have your stature?
A. It was a real artistic home. We had the same goals. When you’re out at sea, plying the rough waters all by yourself, you’ve got to find safe haven somewhere. I’ve been extremely lucky to have a place that supported me and that I could bring my work to. Young people have got to start their own theaters, really. All good theater is a kind of mom-and-pop operation. Start your own theater. I’ve seen one theater, Rattlestick [Playwrights Theater, in New York’s Greenwich Village], just grow. In the beginning, people would say “Rattlesnake.’’ Now they know Rattlestick. It’s very impressive.
Q. What’s your assessment of the current state of Broadway?
A. I think Broadway has gotten very, very conservative. I understand the reasons, when it costs so much to mount a production and so much to buy a ticket, but I’m thrilled when a show like “One Man, Two Guvnors’’ is a hit, “Once’’ is a hit, “August: Osage County’’ is a hit. I salute the bold producers who take a chance and do a play without TV stars. Theater should resemble more a newsroom, with deadlines, than a slow, leisurely workshop development process, which is coming more and more in favor. In theater, you should strike while the iron is hot. It’s the moment. It’s like with food: You taste it, and you don’t wait a week to say if you like the sauerkraut.