NEW YORK - For weeks before a new Broadway production of "Ragtime" began previews, Christopher Cox and Sarah Rosenthal kept coming up with creative excuses to sneak a peek inside the Neil Simon Theatre in Manhattan. Even though Chris and Sarah are child actors in the show, they weren't allowed inside the building while the set was being constructed. But quite often, the backstage door was left open, and Chris could catch glimpses of boxes of props and lighting equipment being hauled inside. And Sarah felt a little thrill every time she saw the marquee trumpeting the show's title in bold black letters.
"There have been so many times that I've waited outside a stage door in the cold to get someone's autograph," she says. "It's exciting to think that now, someone might want my autograph."
So Sarah has spent weeks practicing her signature. One recent version had an elaborate swirl on the "S" and daggers shooting from both the "h" and "l" ending her first and last names. If her autograph will adorn a program that might become someone's theatrical keepsake, Sarah wants it to look distinctive."To know that I'm actually part of a Broadway show is pretty cool," she says.
Dozens, possibly hundreds, of actors and actresses debut on the Great White Way each year. But no more than a handful are still in middle school.
When the musical revival opens next Sunday, the cast will showcase the talents of five local performers, including 12-year-old Chris of Columbia and 13-year-old Sarah of Pikesville.
The other three native Marylanders in the cast are Bobby Steggert, 28, who was raised in Frederick; Dan Manning, 57, of Ellicott City, who portrays Grandfather; and Carly Hughes, 27, of Columbia, who is a member of the ensemble.
"When you're in a Broadway show, you feel like you're part of a larger history," says Steggert, who plays Younger Brother, one of the show's biggest roles. "You're part of an esteemed community of some of the finest performers in the world."
But the odds were stacked against either Chris or Sarah making it this far. For both youngsters, their characters - named respectively The Little Boy and The Little Girl - are the first professional roles they've ever tackled.
"I remind my son that he's one of the few actors to perform on Broadway without ever having actually auditioned for a Broadway show," says Chris' father, David Cox.
"Ragtime" is a musical based on E.L. Doctorow's seminal novel about three American families at the turn of the 20th century: a family of upper-middle-class WASPs; an African-American family; and a father-daughter pair of Jewish immigrants.
The original production opened in 1998 and won Tony Awards for its script by Terrence McNally and score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Ten years later, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington decided to stage a revival.
Sarah might never have read for the role if it hadn't been for her big sister. It was 16-year-old Hannah Rosenthal, who has acting aspirations of her own, who stumbled across the audition notice for "Ragtime" in Back Stage Magazine.
"Hannah told me that I'd be perfect for the part and that I should go for it," Sarah says.
But on the day of the final audition - and after having made it through three or four earlier rounds - Sarah fell ill with an ear infection that made it virtually impossible for her to sing on key.
"I couldn't hear a thing," Sarah says. "I told my mother I wanted to go to the audition anyway, but I was a real mess."
And indeed, Sarah initially was cast as an understudy. But she recovered her health and her vocal prowess. After just a few rehearsals, she was elevated to the role of Tateh's daughter.
"My friends have been asking me if they can pay Hannah to find auditions for them," Sarah says.
Chris has known since the second grade that he wanted to be an actor and director, and he set about achieving his dream with typical determination. One day after school, he saw an ad on television for the John Robert Powers acting and modeling school. Before Kathy Cox knew what was going on, her son was handing her the telephone.
"Here," Chris told her. "They need to talk to an adult."
Through the acting school, Chris acquired an agent and began going out locally on auditions. In the late summer of 2008, he tried out for the production of "Ragtime."
"I felt confident and powerful when I sang for them, and something that I said made them laugh," Chris says. "They called on my grandmother's birthday and said I got the part."
The artistic team at the Kennedy Center never expected the "Ragtime" revival to have a second life in the Big Apple. But in May, the cast began hearing rumors that producers were coming down to see the show. By July, it was official - "Ragtime" was going to Broadway, and by the end of summer, Chris and Sarah had been invited to join the New York cast.
"It didn't sink in for two weeks," Sarah says. "It felt pretty amazing."
As thrilling as the announcement was, it threw both families into disarray. Giving Sarah and Chris their big chance meant that the parents, as well as their children, would have to relocate to Manhattan for an indefinite period. It meant that the kids would have new homes and new schools.
"I've lived in Baltimore my whole life," Sarah said. "I had everything all planned, where I was going to high school, what I was going to do next. My plans have all changed."
So Chris, Sarah and their parents have devised comforting rituals to begin each day. When David Cox drops Chris off at the rehearsal studio, father and son bump knuckles in farewell, then flutter their fingers in a manner that resembles exploding dynamite.
And just before Lisa Rosenthal leaves Sarah at the theater, she says goodbye with two lines inspired by "Project Runway." It's one of Sarah's favorite TV shows, possibly because it also features unknown artists trying to get their big break.
"Be fierce, little girl," Lisa Rosenthal tells her daughter. "Make it work."
That Sarah does.
One minute, she's sitting upstairs in the makeshift schoolroom, reading an eighth-grade biology textbook issued by the state of New York and contemplating options for a project on mitochondria. (The kids spend an average of four hours each day being tutored on the set.)
The next minute, John Mara, the "child wrangler," gets a phone call: Chris, Sarah and their understudies are needed downstairs in the rehearsal studio.
As she clambers down one flight of stairs, opens the door to the rehearsal studio and steps foot on stage, Sarah transforms herself from a confident young girl with a droll sense of humor into a frightened newcomer in a new land. Her shoulders tense and draw inward. She looks down at her feet, so that her long, brown hair partly obscures her face.
Sarah's lightning-quick metamorphosis doesn't escape actor Bobby Steggert's notice.
"Sarah has the ability to just exist on stage," he says. "She's not performing. And she seems to have learned how to do that at a very young age."
The Little Boy has more scenes and dialogue than does The Little Girl, but Sarah says that hers is the more difficult role.
"The Little Girl has to tell her story without words," Sarah says. "I have to use my movements and my emotions."
For his part, Chris possesses an analytical turn of mind that has impressed the older actors in the cast.
"To be an actor, you have to know how to be in rehearsal," says Carly Hughes, who is part of the acting ensemble and understudies the lead role of Sarah.
"The other day, the director, Marcia Milgrom Dodge, told Chris that he should be over-imploding his Ts in one scene to make sure that every consonant is audible. And Chris asked, 'Oh, and should I be doing the same thing here and here?' Not every kid would know how to take a note he had been given and apply it to other parts of his performance."
Both Chris and Sarah say that the "Ragtime" troupe has become like a family. During breaks in rehearsal, Sarah and her understudy, Kaylie Rubinaccio, 11, of Rockaway, N.J., have been weaving friendship bracelets for virtually every member of the cast and crew.
And Chris has formed a tight bond with his understudy, Ben Cook, 11, of Lorton, Va. The boys spend practically every spare minute filming videos with such titles as "Nerf Gun Zombie Attack."
If Chris and Sarah want to hold onto every moment of their time in New York - Sarah has had the silk frock she'll wear to the opening night cast party picked out for more than a month - it's partly because their time on Broadway carries a built-in expiration date.
Both are on the brink of adolescence, and both are still growing. Both have a clause in their contracts stating that if - when - their heights increase by a scant 2 inches, they will be replaced. Chris also will have to contend with a changing voice. He's a soprano now, but he won't be one forever.
"My contract is only for six months," he says. "But I want to do this for as long as I can."
When the red velvet curtain pulls back across the proscenium arch next Sunday, Kathy and David Cox, and Lisa and Ken Rosenthal will be part of an opening night audience of about 1,400. (Ken Rosenthal is a baseball reporter for FoxSports and a former columnist for The Sun.) The families went through a similar mix of terror and pride last spring when "Ragtime" opened at the Kennedy Center. But this time, the stakes will be even higher.
"As a parent, you think everything your child does is amazing," Lisa Rosenthal says. "But then she's on stage, and you're in the audience, and you're listening to people talk about her.
"And your daughter is making people cry."
Meet the Marylanders
Who: Christopher Cox
Role in Show: The Little Boy (Edgar)
Broadway Experience: Making his Broadway debut
Who: Carly Hughes
Role in Show: Ensemble; understudy for Sarah
Broadway Experience: Appeared in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"
Who: Dan Manning
Hometown: Ellicott City
Role in Show: Grandfather
Broadway Experience: Making his Broadway debut
Who: Sarah Rosenthal
Role in Show: Little Girl (Tateh's Daughter)
Broadway Experience: Making her Broadway debut
Who: Bobby Steggert
Role in Show: Younger Brother
Broadway Experience: "Master Harold ... and the Boys," "110 in the Shade" and "The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island"
If you go
"Ragtime" is in previews at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., New York, and officially opens Nov. 15. Curtain times: 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, matinees 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $20-$125; premium seats $300. 212-757-8646 or neilsimontheatre.com.