Monday, June 29, 2009

A Little Knight Music

Our third week of performances of Wayside's Man of La Mancha ended yesterday with a wildly enthusiastic audience. I understand we had some former interns of the theatre in attendance, as well as other well-wishers, but I also attribute our continued good response to the continued growth of our performances.

(You're not tired of my going on and on about Man of La Mancha, are you? Yes, I know I have written about my experiences with this production many many times, but I offer no apologies. It is very normal for me to obsess about my work, when I am working. In addition, this show has sneaked up on me and grabbed me by the windmills.)

All of us doing the show have been running across the same reaction, when we tell a friend, relative, or stranger that we are doing this piece. "Man of La Mancha?" the listener will undoubtedly exclaim, "I LOVE that music." It seems that the show is remembered primarily for its musical score, though I am a bit surprised to hear so. If you ask a civilian to name (or even hum) a song from the show, they can usually come up with only one item. But that item is so huge that people believe they remember the whole score.

The item, of course, is "The Impossible Dream," which burst off the Broadway stage in 1965, and may be the last Broadway show tune to become a true standard. There were certainly other hit songs to come out of subsequent shows, but "The Impossible Dream" has passed out of the "show tune" arena and become an actual classic.

Nobody can really pinpoint any other songs from the show. Theatre Geeks may be able to hum the title tune, if given a hint:

"I am I, Don Quixote

The Lord of La Mancha,

My destiny calls, and I go..."

...and perhaps the haunting tune of "Dulcinea" rings a bell with some hardy theatre-goers, but the truth is, there is only one reason everyone remembers the music of La Mancha so fondly: "The Impossible Dream". The director of our production, Warner Crocker, has been quoted as saying, "If your Don Quixote can't deliver "The Impossible Dream," do No, No, Nanette instead." (OK, I paraphrased that a bit for comic effect, but the truth behind the remark remains.)

Well, our Don Quixote delivers the song, in abundance. It is not unusual for his forthright performance of the number to stop the show with lengthy, well-deserved applause. Tom Simpson is spectacular in the role; the challenging score sits beautifully on his voice, and he has made acting choices which fully flesh out this character. His performance moves seamlessly from the aristocratic storyteller Cervantes, to the eccentric nobility of Quixote, to the heartbreaking fragility of the delusional Alonso Quijana. Tom is a DC actor known primarily these days for his work in musicals, but I can attest that he is also a first-rate dramatic actor. It is a privilege to stand next to him throughout the show.

Our particular production has an ensemble quality which most star vehicles do not provide. With Tom as the anchor, Wayside's La Mancha incorporates terrific supporting performances which bring the lesser known songs to life. (I have a hunch I'll be writing about those performances before we close later this week.)

I openly confess that I am not a competent judge of music, which will not, of course, stop me from judging the music. The composer of Man of La Mancha, Mitch Leigh, struck gold with this show, providing some melodies which linger in the soul. His lyricist, however, does not rise to the same level. Yes, the words to "The Impossible Dream" can't be challenged, but it seems that in some of the other songs, lyricist Joe Darion twists sentence structure to provide a convenient rhyme:

"In my body it's well known

There is not one selfish bone."

Really? I like lyrics which sound like characters might naturally say them.'t. (I refuse to admit that I may be prejudiced against the lyric writer because I made up my own at the first preview. This has nothing to do with that. Really. I promise.) Darion has an unfortunate habit of repeating phrases over and over again. And over and over. Again. Over and over. Once you notice it, you can't stop hearing it.

Neither Mitch Leigh nor Joe Darion was able to recreate their La Mancha success in other projects. Composer Leigh returned to Broadway with the musical telling of the Odyssey legend in Home Sweet Homer, a notorious flop which opened and closed in a single night, despite the star power of Yul Brynner in the lead (not by coincidence, Joan Deiner, La Mancha's original Aldonza, was the show's leading lady). Lyricist Darion did little better with Illya Darling, the musical version of Never On Sunday which starred the original film's Greek beauty Melina Mercouri. Unfortunately, she was paired with (get this) Orson Bean as her romantic leading man, and that show failed as well.

But nobody really cares about these guys' later failures. Folks still remember Man of La Mancha primarily through its music, or rather, through its huge central ballad. And who am I to quibble?

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