It is time again for “Ragtime.”
The 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow was made into a film in 1981 and then a musical, which debuted in 1998 on Broadway, where it won a handful of Tony Awards.
But “Ragtime” is enjoying a resurgence and will appear at Salem State University in a production that opens tonight.
“It seemed so ‘now,’ which begs the question: What has changed?” said Peter Sampieri, the show’s director. “Why are we dealing with this now?”
Three main stories are interwoven throughout “Ragtime,” and each is paralleled in headlines today, although the story is set in the first two decades of the 20th century.
The play is about class, contrasting the lives of successful WASPs from New Rochelle with those of a Jewish immigrant on Manhattan’s lower east side, a character named Tateh, who supports himself and his daughter by cutting paper silhouettes for passersby on the street.
“Ragtime” is also about race, focusing on Coalhouse Walker Jr., an African-American piano player from Harlem who resorts to violence after he is clearly wronged but fails to find justice in a racist legal system.
And the play highlights the struggles of women, such as Tateh’s wife and a character named only Mother, matriarch of the family from New Rochelle, whose options for survival seem limited to either selling sex or obeying their husbands.
While these imaginary characters interact with each other, they also cross paths with a wide range of historical figures from the era, such as escape artist Harry Houdini, car manufacturer Henry Ford and architect Stanford White.
The resulting interconnections make history seem intimate, while elevating the importance of everyday lives and giving “Ragtime” a panoramic sweep.
“It is epic,” Sampieri said. “It is massive.”
He has accommodated this elevated scale in part by trying to “explode out from the proscenium arch,” both through his direction of the actors and in the design of the set.
“We have lots of levels,” Sampieri said. “I’ve taken out the orchestra pit and put stairs in front, in a nod to the strata” of different social levels.
He saw the original Broadway production, which had a record-setting budget that was used to build mechanized scenery, which Sampieri can’t begin to reproduce.
But he studied the photography of Jacob Riis, who documented the misery of urban life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for inspiration in his designs.
“Our set is stationary, but it’s transformed by how it’s lit, to evoke different locations in the audience’s imagination,” Sampieri said.
He has also created a sense of scale by casting 28 actors, which Sampieri said is a “huge” number for a college production.
They include Jon Gray of Newburyport, who is appearing in his first musical with this production, where he is playing “at least seven or eight” characters.
“Everyone has a large and important role to play,” he said. “I’m one of those parts, helping to tell the story.”
Along with portraying Grandfather in the family from New Rochelle and a fireman, he plays Henry Ford, who sells a Model T to Coalhouse Walker Jr.
“He’s one of the biggest advocates of capitalism,” Gray said. “In that respect, he does not see race, he just sees profit.”
Ted Silva of North Andover plays Father, who leads the family from New Rochelle and is bothered by change in the world around him.
“He’s very stuck in his ways, very comfortable in what society has afforded him,” Silva said. “He’s in a position where he’s a wealthy man, he’s a breadwinner for his family. He’s comfortable with that.”
But after leaving for a year to explore the North Pole with Admiral Peary, Father comes back to find that everything has changed, which is symbolized by the music that Coalhouse Walker Jr. plays on his piano.
“He’s hearing this new type of music, this ragtime — it’s emblematic of everything he’s come back to,” Silva said. “The lyric he sings is, ‘Where have I been, how did we change, caught in this strange new music?’”
Silva said that the music is used symbolically throughout the show, to emphasize the different themes and stories.
“It does a lot of blending of different styles,” he said. “It represents each ensemble. With the New Rochelle ensemble, there’s kind of a classical sound. With the immigrant ensemble, you get traditional music of those cultures, and with the Harlem ensemble, it’s the ragtime.”
Ryan Doyle of Andover, who plays Younger Brother, said that the generic names of his and other characters reflect their roles as social types.
“It’s an ambiguous kind of collective character, that represents a lot of other people,” Doyle said.
Yet Younger Brother is also an intense individual and falls head over heels for Evelyn Nesbitt, a chorus girl who is caught up in a sensational trial.
Later, after listening to anarchist Emma Goldman talk about the Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Younger Brother discovers a passion for social justice.
“He wants more meaning, he wants to cause change, light a fuse,” Doyle said.
Doyle has been involved in musical theater since he was 9 and participated in Massachusetts Educational Theater Guild programs when he was at Andover High School, but he said “Ragtime” is unique.
“It’s something that stands out from anything I’ve done before,” he said. “It’s such a powerful play, talking about so many relevant things.”
If you go
When: April 11-13 and 18-20 at 7:30 p.m. and April 14 at 2 p.m.
Where: Sophia Gordon Center, Salem State University, 356 Lafayette St., Salem
How much: $20 general admission, $15 for seniors and students 18 and up, and free for under 18
More information: www.salemstatetickets.com or 978-542-6365