Robert Petkoff & Sarah Rosenthal in 'Ragtime'
During 'Journey On,' I imagine what it must have been like for my grandfather to see the Statue of Liberty for the first time."
About the author:
Robert Petkoff is versatile enough to play the cowardly knight Sir Robin in Spamalot (on tour and then on Broadway), Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest (at BAM, directed by Sir Peter Hall), Romeo in Romeo and Juliet (at Hartford Stage) and now a rather sexy Tateh in the Broadway revival of Ragtime. When Broadway.com asked Petkoff to write about what his current role means to him, we had no idea that the actor actually felt a personal connection to the immigrant tale he’s telling every night at the Neil Simon Theatre. Read on for details on a real-life Tateh’s journey to America.
In 1907, a father and his child began the arduous journey across Eastern Europe to a port city in Germany. There they would board a ship to America, the land of dreams and opportunity. If you’re familiar with the musical Ragtime, then you’ll recognize this as the beginning of the story of Tateh and his Little Girl hoping to start a new life. It is also the story of my own grandfather and his father as they emigrated from Bulgaria to New York. Passing through, of course, Ellis Island.
When I got the role of Tateh in the current revival I immediately reached out to my father to fill in the details of my grandfather’s journey that I had heard over the years. My great-grandfather was Petko Gaunchev. When asked his family name at Ellis Island, my grandfather, not understanding English, essentially said he was Petko’s son. In Bulgarian: Petkoff. The immigration officer immediately re-christened him Peter Petkoff.
He was 13 when he arrived, but his father claimed he was 16 so he could work instead of going to school. They helped dig the sewers in New York City for a time before working their way up the St. Lawrence seaway and ending up in Minnesota.
Because of my history, I feel a very personal connection to the immigrant story of Tateh. Each night, during “Journey On,” I imagine what it must have been like for my grandfather to see the Statue of Liberty for the first time. What joy after weeks on a ship across the Atlantic! Also what fears and hopes his father must have had about their future in America. I sometimes have to fight to keep from becoming too emotional during this moment, but I always look at Sarah Rosenthal (my Little Girl) and realize I can’t show that to her.
My personal connection plus this extraordinary company of actors and musicians has made Ragtime the best experience I’ve ever had in the theater. Marcia Milgrom Dodge has directed and really collaborated with the company with such passion and such a delicate hand. Her excitement and commitment and love of rehearsal is infectious.
I’m one of the few principals to have joined the company after the show's successful run in Washington D.C. I was a little anxious about how the cast would take to having a new Tateh after the wonderful actor Manoel Felciano portrayed him so well. After one day of rehearsal, though, any anxiety was put to rest. My two biggest scene partners, Christiane Noll and Sarah (Mother and the Little Girl) never once made me feel like I was working in the shadow of anyone else. It was a fresh start for all of us.
It doesn’t hurt that they are both terrific actors. I’ve not worked with many actors of Sarah’s age that are as present as she is on stage. I can change anything, nightly, and she is always there with me. She has an emotional honesty that is rare.
As for Christiane, I can’t imagine a better actress for the role. Of course she has a very personal connection, being a new mother herself. She is also that rare scene partner who wants to keep digging, keep making it fresh every night. She has terrific instinct and keeps me on my toes as we meet and re-meet throughout our onstage journey. It’s very easy to fall in love with her eight times a week!
In fact, I can’t remember when I did a play in which I felt every single person was so perfectly cast in their roles. From Quentin Earl Darrington III playing Coalhouse to Michael X. Martin playing a one-line reporter (one of his many roles), each actor on that stage fills their characters with life and depth.
Ragtime has such a beautiful, moving score and its story is as modern as ever. The great reward of telling this story is seeing its effect nightly on our audiences. At curtain call, the raw emotion on people’s faces is incredibly gratifying. Don’t get me wrong: The standing ovations we receive each night are wonderful, but what makes them more special are the intensely emotional faces of people for whom the evening was more than a diversion—it's a story they’ll think about long after they’ve left the theater.
I don’t think this was the dream my grandfather had when he arrived in America: a grandson acting on the Broadway stage! But I do think he’d be proud to have a part of his story told to complete strangers who would find, in that story, an emotional connection to their own lives.