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?

A LIttle Late to the Wake

Since my Internet access has been limited lately, and with no television service in my digs, I've been unable to mention several folks who recently died, but who deserve some attention. At the top of this list has to be Dr. Jerri Nielson Fitzgerald. You may recognize this picture, which swept the world back in 1999:
This sunny scientist was stationed at the South Pole when she discovered a lump in her breast. Bad weather marooned her there for many months, during which time she performed a biopsy on herself, and discovered a malignant tumor. Chemo was airdropped to the station, and she treated herself. Her cancer went into remission, and she became the poster gal for courage and stamina. According to her husband, her cancer returned several years ago, and she died last week at the age of 57.

Quite a few weeks ago, this guy died:

He was actor Frank Aletter, who was one of those workhorses of the Hollywood industry, appearing in hundreds of episodics and features. He worked constantly, but probably had his greatest fame in the 60s, when he headlined a couple of forgettable sitcoms, including It's About Time, in which he played an astronaut who was transported back to the era of the caveman (Imogene Coca was in the cast). His death caught my eye a while back, as he was one of our neighbors when I lived in Los Angeles. His daughter, Kyle, was a classmate of my little sister's, and his wife at the time was Lee Meriwether (the above pic is their wedding photo).

Regular readers of these pages know that I have a lot of respect for actors who spend their careers "in support," and Aletter was one of the best. Also in that class would be the guy at left. He was T. Scott Cunningham, a stage actor who spent his career Off-Broadway and in regional theatres. He was well known in New York circles as a great interpreter of the works of Nicky Silver, and appeared in the original productions of Pterodactyls, Fit to be Tied, and The Eros Trilogy. He was a founding member of the Drama Department, and appeared in the biggest hit to come from that troupe, As Bees in Honey Drown. He was only 47 at the time of his death a few weeks ago.

Here's a bigger star who died just this past weekend, or at least she WAS a big star back in the day:


She was Gale Storm, and she had quite a career in the 1950s. Though she started in movies, she never hit the big time until she moved to television, where she starred in two top sitcoms, My Little Margie and The Gale Storm Show. She defined the perky, plucky, trouble-causing, lovable heroine of the period. She reemerged decades later when she wrote frankly of her alcoholism, at a time when such openness was still a bit taboo. She died this weekend at age 87.

I can't say I'll miss this guy. Billy Mays was a leader in the tacky world of the infomercial, and if it can be said there is a star of the genre, he was it. He also appeared in millions (well, it seems like millions) of shorter commercial shots, hawking cleaning products, kitchen gadgets, and just about everything else nobody needs. He died unexpectedly yesterday at the age of 50. (An autopsy is planned. He was reportedly knocked on the head on Saturday when his airplane made a rough landing, but walked away from the incident. Remind anyone of Natasha Richardson's awful death recently?) Anyway, Mays carved a huge career out of the theory that American consumers will buy things if you shout at them. I have hopes his commercials will be yanked from the airwaves, but that's probably too much to ask for.

Keep that mute button handy.