L'événement culturel de l'été à Bruxelles!
In the early 20th century, three major groups are introduced: upper-class suburbanites (Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother, Edgar, and Grandfather), African-Americans (Coalhouse Walker, a piano player, and his lover, Sarah), and Eastern European immigrants (Tateh and his daughter, Little Girl). Historical celebrities figure in these characters' lives.
As Father leaves on a voyage with Admiral Robert Peary (Goodbye, My Love), his ship passes a ship of Jewish immigrants bearing Tateh and the Little Girl, which is arriving in America. Father worries that Tateh "hasn't a chance" in America, while Tateh thinks Father a fool for leaving, and Mother yearns to travel with Father (Journey On). Meanwhile, Evelyn Nesbit testifies in court (Crime of the Century) as Younger Brother watches. Mother unearths a newborn black baby buried alive (What Kind of Woman). The police inform Mother that Sarah, the baby's mother, will be tried for attempted murder and the baby placed in an orphanage. Mother takes responsibility for Sarah and the baby.
Arriving with the immigrants (A Shtetl Iz America), Tateh becomes a silhouette artist, wishing for "Success" but not achieving it. Tenement life is so difficult that the Little Girl is often ill, and Tateh plans to leave New York to find the life he dreamed of. In Harlem, Coalhouse Walker is a respected musician (His Name Was Coalhouse Walker). He still loves Sarah, even though she ran away from him, and resolves to win her back (Gettin' Ready Rag). He purchases a Model T as Henry Ford's workers praise industry ("Henry Ford"). Tateh and the Little Girl pass through New Rochelle as they leave New York City, where they encounter Mother and Edgar (Nothing Like the City) and Sarah sings to her baby (Your Daddy's Son), lamenting having left Coalhouse. She gave birth alone, frightened, and with extreme difficulty, which led her to unthinkingly bury her child. Coalhouse is looking for Sarah but she refuses to see him. He promises to return every Sunday until Sarah takes him back. After weeks, Mother and Coalhouse become well-acquainted (The CourtshipNew Music). Sarah finally forgives Coalhouse and they reunite. Sarah and Coalhouse dream of traveling America in their car once the baby is old enough (Wheels of a Dream).
As Coalhouse's car becomes a symbol of their freedom and the promise of a future, Younger Brother inadvertently stumbles into an anarchist rally on "The Night That Goldman Spoke At Union Square," and converts to the worker's cause. The rally turns into a riot. Meanwhile, another riot/strike is taking place at the textile factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts where Tateh now works. Tateh comforts the Little Girl with a flipbook of her ice-skating. A man sees the "movie book" and offers to buy it. Tateh realizes that he has invented a lucrative product (Gliding).
Returning home from a picnic, Coalhouse, Sarah, and the baby are stopped by a squad of volunteer firemen led by the racist Will Conklin, who attempts to extort an illegal toll from Coalhouse. Coalhouse threatens to find a police officer, but the firemen destroy Coalhouse's car (The Trashing of the Car). Incensed, Coalhouse seeks vengeance (Justice) but white lawyers refuse to take him seriously, and black lawyers do not consider a case of vandalism to be an important civil rights suit. Believing that the vice-presidential candidate can help Coalhouse, Sarah decides to complain to him (President). As she approaches him, a passerby mistakes her for an assassin, and the Secret Service kills her. At Sarah's funeral, the white family, Coalhouse, and Sarah's friends, as well as Emma Goldman and Tateh, sing of their hope that one day there will be justice regardless of race ('Til We Reach That Day).
Harry Houdini performs as Edgar watches (Harry Houdini, Master Escapist), but an explosion proves the scene a dream. Meanwhile, Coalhouse abandons his musical career and vows revenge (Coalhouse's Soliloquy), terrorizing New Rochelle and demanding that his car be restored with Will Conklin turned over to him (Coalhouse Demands). Many unrelated firemen are killed. Booker T. Washington condemns Coalhouse's actions; still, a group of young men joins him. As an escape, Father takes Edgar to a rowdy baseball game, expecting it to be "a civilized pastime" (What a Game). Coalhouse vows arson on every firehouse until his demands are met (Fire in the City).
Social workers attempt to take Sarah's baby from Mother's custody and the violence escalates, so Father temporarily moves his family to Atlantic City, where Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Houdini are performing (Atlantic City). Tateh, now a successful moviemaker under the alias Baron Ashkenazy (Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc), becomes a good friend to Mother and the family (Our Children), later admitting his true identity to Mother. Meanwhile, Coalhouse watches a couple dance (Harlem Pas de Deux) and remembers meeting Sarah (Sarah Brown Eyes). Younger Brother seeks out Coalhouse, anxious to join his cause. Emma Goldman explains that Younger Brother wishes he could tell Coalhouse about his desire for justice (He Wanted to Say). The authorities in New Rochelle contact Father, hoping that he will be able to get through to Coalhouse. Father leaves, telling Mother he hopes they will be able to return to their happy lives. Mother, however, realizes that she can never go "Back to Before".
Coalhouse and his group take over the Morgan Library, a museum containing irreplaceable cultural and historical treasures. Father suggests sending Booker T. Washington into the library to reason with Coalhouse. Washington convinces Coalhouse that he is leaving his son a legacy of murder and lies (Look What You've Done). Coalhouse surrenders peacefully under the condition that his men go free and he receives a fair trial. Coalhouse, realizing the error of his ways, tells his men to continue the fight through peaceful means (Make Them Hear You). Everyone leaves peacefully, but as Coalhouse leaves the library, he is killed by the police.
Edgar turns on a period film projector and announces that the era of Ragtime is over (Epilogue). Younger Brother escapes to Mexico to join Emiliano Zapata. Emma Goldman is deported, Booker T. Washington's Tuskeegee Institute becomes an institution of Black America, Evelyn Nesbit falls from the public eye, Harry Houdini has a mystical experience when Archduke Ferdinand of Austria is assassinated as he dangles over Times Square. Father is killed on the RMS Lusitania. After a year of mourning, Mother marries Tateh and moves to California with Edgar, the Little Girl, and Coalhouse Walker III. Tateh announces his ambitions for moviemaking. Coalhouse and Sarah's ghosts affirm their hope for the future (Wheels of a Dream: Reprise).