The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Hairspray

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Man of La Mancha

December 11, 1972   United Artists   129 minutes
Having spent my youth at the western edges of the suburban frontier, my hunger for the excitement of cities --and of New York and Bway in particular--was poorly served, even with the occasional venture into Los Angeles. Topographically, Canoga Park was Mexico by another name. There were't many Mexicans around tho--its resettled populace stemmed from all points east: Brooklyn, Chicago, Iowa, Oklahoma, Ohio. As my New York fixation grew, my aversion to anything "Spanish" took root--no doubt concurrent with my budding Anglophilia. Now of course I yearn for those languid days among the sagebrush landscape, those craggy Chatsworth hills that served a thousand westerns. But back in '66, for me Man of La Mancha had strikes against it at the get-go. What a bleak and flavorless locale I thought, and the music, heavily accented with flamenco, was no attraction.  I gave it the benefit of the doubt and saw it (along with most everything else) on my first trip to New York. But I've virtually no memory of the experience, which apparently didn't change my feeling about the show. So when the movie opened a day after my 20th birthday, to reviews that were anything but inticing, I made no effort to see it.

I'm hard pressed to understand why the show has such an emotional hold on people. For those who love it, I offer my apologies--I just don't get it. To some it's enchantment (Ethan Mordden calls its appeal "elemental.") to me it's dreary in tone and look, tedious in melody, repetitive in story, heavy-handed in the telling. On top of that, it has "The Impossible Dream" the bolero-like optimist's anthem--that may once have been, dare I say, affecting--but now so fallen in repute as to signify cabaret kitsch. (What is an "impossible" dream anyway? Isn't anything possible in dreams?) The album was no favorite of mine. It seems the kind of show that wouldn't have an overture, but it does--possibly because it takes a good while before the first song arrives. It has a rousing opening number I'll grant you, but after that the music quickly becomes monotonous, echoing Aldonza's first aria, "It's All the Same." The flamenco-infused score is too parochial for my taste. In actuality flamenco developed several hundred years after the tale's period, but really who cares? It's meant to evoke the Spanish plain, and what better (or, elemental) way to convey the mood? I don't begrudge Mitch Leigh's score for that but for its dullness. Incredibly, Leigh began the project with the poet W.H. Auden as his lyricist. But Auden's satiric verses were too editorial for the piece, and he was soon replaced by Joe Darion, whose previous brush with Bway was the short-lived Shinbone Alley. His future was no better, but La Mancha was a goldstrike that required no other to keep one in the chips. The musical's genesis was a TV drama by Dale Wasserman on The Dupont Show of the Month shown on CBS, November 9, 1959. The play, "I, Don Quixote" starred Lee J. Cobb, with Eli Wallach as Sancho Panza & Colleen Dewhurst as Aldonza. Wasserman's conceit was to have Cervantes enact his not-yet-published character, Quixote, before an unruly group of prisoners, while awaiting trial by the Spanish Inquistion. Director Albert Marre was convinced of its musical potential and urged Wasserman to adapt his play. Marre had a checkered directing career on Bway, mixing classics with insignificant new plays and a few musicals: Kismet, Shangri-La, Milk & Honey. In La Mancha he saw another role for Joan Diener, who became his wife after playing Lalume in Kismet. He first put her atop Wright & Forrest's Grand Hotel tuner, At the Grand, which folded out of town in 1958, but was unsuccessful in casting her since. Just why he engaged advertising jingle-writer, Mitch Leigh, (whose "Nobody Doesn't Like Sara Lee" was his greatest claim to fame) to pen the score is unclear. Leigh was on a tear to crossover to Bway. The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT--a budding jewlbox summer venue, booked a trio of new Mitch Leigh musicals over the summer of '65, beginning with Man of La Mancha on June 24, followed by an adaptaion of a Sean O'Casey play, Purple Dust and to conclude with a Jewish/Chinese Hellzapoppin' called Chu Chem--which was postponed in favor of bringing back La Mancha after a promising reception. Producers Albert Selden & Hal James were soon shopping for a berth on Bway, but found nothing appropriate until coming up with the soon-to-be-razed ANTA Washington Square, a temporary space put up while Lincoln Center was being built. They contracted it for several months but the show would remain there for more than two years before actually moving to the environs of Bway proper. Its geographic isolation was only one of its unique features. The play was peformed on a thrust stage with no show curtain, on a unit set designed by Howard Bay, dominated by an enormous drawbridge stairway. It was the first Bway musical to forego an intermission (followed in quick succession by 1776, Follies, Pippin, A Chorus Line and even Wright & Forrest's Grand Hotel reworked 30 years later into a success.) Unlike most smash hits, La Mancha took four months to catch on, before reaching sellout status for three years. The inescapable onslaught of "The Impossible Dream" in its countless covers gave the show--a rather challenging sell  --its calling card. On the heels of Fiddler it was another case for the serious musical; and a step toward the concept show.

It's accredited the greatest, most influential novel ever written but has anyone actually read Don Quixote lately? I certainly haven't--nor have I ever entertained the idea of doing so. The opus is actually two novels published ten years apart in 1605 and 1615--at the end of Miguel de Cervantes life. Over the next four centuries numerous works of art, music, dance, theater and film were inspired or adapted from it--none of which threatened to overshadow the original. But Wasserman was more interested in the author than his creation. In this way he lets Cervantes perform--nay, defend--his narrative before a captive public. It was a clever conceit, demanding a Story Theater format, making horses out of bedsheets and mops, finding props on the prison floor. In addition, this Putting-on-a-Show framework allows for songs & dances, and even a "rape ballet." But on film such artifice would suffer rather quickly, which suggests a shift to the literal was inevitable. Italian producer Alberto Grimaldi, whose resume included films by Fellini, Pasolini and Sergio Leone, secured the rights to La Mancha and set it up with United Artists. The original intent was to use Kiley, Diener and director Marre--but the latter's inexperience with film soon changed that. In his place they engaged British director Peter Glenville, who quickly signed his Becket star, Peter O'Toole with the intention of removing most of the music. UA wasn't thrilled with the idea of dismantling a Bway smash, and Glenville was replaced with Arthur Hiller, bolstered with longtime MGM music guru, Saul Chaplin--as associate producer. They retained O'Toole with the score, and--no doubt with Grimaldi's influence--a strong Italian contingent: Sophia Loren, cinematographer Giussepe Rotunno, and production designer Luciano Damiani. The picture was to be filmed in Italy--tho not in any romantic locations. (La Mancha is one of the least scenic, more barren regions of Spain; less interesting even than the scrubrush SoCal environs I hated as a child. Another reason I resisted the movie.) Hiller was an odd and uninspired choice. A TV director, he made his transition to film with Julie Andrews' first pic, The Americanization of Emily. Since then he helmed a number of minor Hlwd comedies and one monster hit, Love Story--which put him on Hlwd's A-list for a brief period in the early '70s. Yet he'd never been associated with anything musical, or on this scale. I had it in mind Hiller's direction would be lacking, but it isn't fair to say he's the problem with the movie. It's the material itself, somehow convincing on stage, but flat or off-putting in a realistic setting. It's as dreary as Anatevka, but it hasn't got Bock & Harnick's lovely melodies to sweeten the mood. It has Mitch Leigh. I keep looking over the songlist for what was a highlight and I can't really find one. All the numbers seem to be declarations or explanations, not expressions of feeling, but "This is who I am, This is my agenda," etc. The three-part "I'm Only Thinking of Him" has some minor appeal, and Aldonza's spewing, declarative numbers border camp:

     I was spawned in a ditch
     By a mother who left me there
     Naked and cold and too hungry to cry
     I never blamed her
     I'm sure she left hoping
     That I'd have the good sense to die.

They couldn't stomach this verse out of Loren's mouth, so it was cut for the movie. But the score feels so weak that by the show's end it barely registers. A would-be comic number for Sancho Panza, "A Little Gossip" is glaringly filler, and the Padre's "Psalm" upon Quixote's death is negligible. It doesn't help that most of the numbers are just sung in medium or close shot, in voices not quite up to the task. There's little in the way of dancing, just some movement in the "The Abduction," and a fight sequence staged by the ever-utilitarian Gillian Lynne. (On Bway it was by the king of exotic choreography, Jack Cole). In the end it all comes back to "The Impossible Dream." La Mancha is exhibit A of a show that's catapulted beyond its natural sea level by a single song. The film's ads drove that point home: "Peter O'Toole, Sophia Loren and James Coco dream the Impossible Dream in an Arthur Hiller film"--which unintentionally suggests we dream on if any of this seems like a good idea.
Dale Wasserman (whose other key success was adapting Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for the stage--tho initially it flopped on Bway) wrote the screenplay (a virtual carbon of his libretto) but not the newly-imagined prologue, which he later thought worthy of denouncing. I beg to differ. From a cinematic perspective its an arresting, even promising opening--almost like a Fellini film: exotically costumed actors performing street theater; which sets the precedent for Cervantes' theatrical bag of tricks once he's in prison. 
But what a dark show! Fiddler got thru a whole act before we faced the pogrom. Here we see the totalitarian fist of the Inquistion right from the top--come to arrest him in mid-performance. Yet, isn't this more fitting than the stage libretto--that he's persecuted for his writing than for putting a lien on a church in his menial job as a tax collector? Wasserman felt the mock trial Cervantes gets in prison more intriguing than his subsequent appearance before the Inquisition (where he was likewise acquitted--tho the musical gives no hint he'll survive.)


The film expands the intimidating, monstrous dungeon drawbridge into a whole sequence: a captive march to a citadel, then down a very deep, very dank stairwell into its bowels--and then the drawbridge to hell. From here on the film follows the libretto but shifts to outside locations in the telling of Quixote, including the errant knight's "battle" with a windmill--which does have a certain visual impact. The inn Quixote mistakes for a castle is the pic's primary set--a lifeless courtyard in shades of clay and pewter (the sky forever in clouds of gray); the film is in relentless monochrome. The Inn is a 16th Century truck stop--used by muleteers (transporters of goods; i.e. truckers)  who end up kidnapping and raping Aldonza, thanks to Quixote's actions. It's an odd story: a senile old man makes a nuisance of himself all around, but manages to endow an illiterate scullery tramp with self-esteem. Cervantes' prison jury isn't pleased with his ending, so he improvises another. I'm not sure why this was necessary, or what it was intended to suggest--Miguel was quick on his feet? At any rate, he improvises another, tho it drags the film down with a 15 minute deathbed scene--with the inevitable Big Song reprise. Cervantes saves his novel just in time. And as he's led away to face the Inquisition, we get yet one more round of vowing to "run where the brave dare not go"; to goad us into believing the power of fantasy. How far is it, really, from clapping for faeries in Neverland? Where Cervantes' Don Quixote embraces fantasy to defend the world from evil, Wasserman's "Cervantes" copes with it by putting on a musical. You'd think that's a message right up my alley. Alas, not in this package.
In theory Peter O'Toole isn't a bad choice for Cervantes/Quixote--very much in line with his career playing warriors, eccentrics and kings. He'd already made one film musical, and got an Oscar nomination for it! But his singing (and to be fair, his songs) were the worst parts of Goodbye, Mr. Chips. And as this was a more demanding vocal role, it was decided he would be dubbed. They did a good job in finding a singer (Simon Gilbert) whose voice matched O'Toole's; the only problem being the songs sound like they're sung by O'Toole. He seems drained of energy during the numbers, not soaring with the anthems he's given. (It's refreshing to hear how full-voiced and  in-character  Richard  Kiley  is  on  the  OCR.) 
Sophia Loren is unquestionably one of the screen's great beauties and her range runs from high society dame to kitchen slut--which is what Aldonza calls herself. The joke, or irony in Quixote's seeing her as the virginal, beautiful Dulcinea, is that she is anything but--the harder, the uglier, the better. 
Yet it's impossible not to see Loren's radiant beauty despite her dirty face and uncombed hair; her bosom heaving over her tightly pulled peasant blouse. She may be all wrong for the part but she pulls it off without your mind wandering to who else they could've cast. If nothing else, she brings some visual stimulus to what's a dull pallete. Her singing isn't bad, but then her songs require more spitting than hitting notes. Hard to believe it was her 63rd movie in just two decades--compared to O'Toole's 19th. In the film's European release she was top-billed above him. As Sancho Panza, James Coco is sweet and understated--less borscht-belt Jewish than Bway's Irving Jacobson; a nice complement to O'Toole. An obvious character actor, Coco reached unlikely leading man status in Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers--which is about the only plausible explanation I'd offer for why he shared above-the-title billing with Loren & O'Toole. Gino Conforti whose fiddling skills earned him roles as a gypsy violinist in She Loves Me and the title role in Fiddler on the Roof  was the sole original La Mancha cast member to repeat his performance on film. Conforti, whose rubbery Italian face was a staple on TV sitcoms of the '70s, played the barber who wears the shaving basin Quioxte takes for his crown--essentially a cameo. Ian Richardson (allegedly the first actor to appear naked on Bway--in Marat/Sade) plays the padre and sings in a rather high register. There are others but none make much impression.
Based on their success with Fiddler on the Roof, United Artists had reason to think they could buck the collapse of the Roadshow format, (which the recent Cabaret and 1776 both eschewed) and launched La Mancha into the Rivoli on December 11, following Fiddler's lucrative 58 week run. It lasted 16 weeks. As was on stage, there was no intermission and the film barely stretched past two hours. But the pic was savaged by critics and proved a hard sell to the public. It earned a fraction of Fiddler's take--$3,300,000 in film rentals--another nail in the Big Musical coffin in Hwld. Any hope for another Best Pic nomination (as with Fiddler) was shattered with a single nod: for Laurence Rosenthal's musical scoring--pumping up Leigh's tunes (devoid of violins on Bway) to symphonic Hlwd height. Few of the numbers give any pleasure. O'Toole's Cervantes has some energy in the title tune, but as Quixote he stands stiffly immobile and sings while dullness sets in. He sings the Big One as if staring into a teleprompter, reading the lyrics. Loren's songs, like nearly all her scenes, are a continuous wade thru a sea of surly men, taunting, mauling and heckling her--the point made so often that her eventual rape (done as a sort of ballet) illicits little surprise, or registers much impact. Coco's comic numbers are seriously deficient in humor as well as melody--which makes his choice to undersell them an act of gracious talent. I first saw the movie in Sept '75 and only because I had the luxury of HBO--which then, in its infancy, ran nothing but recent theatrical movies--right at home. It went on my list, and was otherwise forgotten. Coming to it nearly 40 years later I had no expectation other than reaffirming my indifference and distaste, which is why I'm surprised it wasn't as horrible as its reputation suggests. Over several viewings I caught details I previously missed--(such as Richardson's eagerness, as a prison inmate, to play the padre in the pantomime)--which isn't to say the musical is layered with great depth of details and ideas but more, I suspect, of how often my mind was inclined to wander.
The summer before the movie's release the show was revived at Lincoln Center for four months with much of the original cast. The '72 fall season on Bway only reinforced how quickly so much had changed. Suddenly Hair's Galt MacDermot was the veteran talent--Bway's new Prince of Pop--with two gigantic musicals--that both flopped--putting a quick whammy on his Main Stem future. The autumn's only hit, Pippin, was credited more to director Bob Fosse than Stephen Schwartz, who cried all the way to the bank, and still does so. I still kept up with my news of the Rialto (which admittedly was not as exciting as it had been just a few years before) as well as regular, if less religious, viewing of no less than 24 prime-time TV shows. But I was most occupied, as I should have been, with my own local inroads into theater--and the friendships it spawned. Tho I had technically started my Junior year of college at San Jose State, I might as well have stayed at DeAnza for all the time I was still spending there. I can't recall how it all came about but by Xmas break I had written a show and with Mike Holler's staff blessing, recruited all my friends to mount a production set to open the third weekend of January 1973.

My creative process began with the sum of my current obsessions, influences and private amusements; a collage, if you will, or a mash-up of anything and everything. The spark came from my first exposure to Fellini at a campus screening of Juliet of the Spirits the previous spring. One image in particular riveted me: a line of faceless nuns silently shuffling along in the background. From this and my absorption of a book called Why a Duck? featuring the best exchanges of Marx Bros. movie dialogue, I somehow concocted Cracked Ice, "a peace of nunsense"--in which I stole from Alice in Wonderland, Medea, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Waiting for Godot, Duck Soup, 42nd Street, The Sound of Music, and The Living Theater. The cast consisted of ten nuns (in colored habits)--half of which were my sophmore stalwarts: Mickey, Laura, Helen Maciazek, Sally Jansen and Jane Oros. My Risk-playing bro crew, Ken & Dave built sets and ran the show, but Reed--in addition to writing and performing his original tunes on accordian--played the Pope as a sort of hippie Groucho. It was Laugh-In thru my own go-for-broke lens.
(Apparently I was on the right track as a dozen years later a far milder revue called Nunsense ran Off-Bway forever and toured relentlessly as well.) In addition to writing and producing Cracked Ice (a title I've always been fond of), I was also directing it. And in this novice position I was a clueless tyrant who couldn't understand why too few could pick up my simple dance moves for the finale: "Feet Do Yo' Stuff" (yes, from the Hallelujah, Baby! OCR); and had everyone hating me by opening night. Reading a recent biography of Charles Ludlum, I was struck by the similarity of experience in his early days forming the Ridiculous Theater Company. It was a distinctly underground production, but my poster (cribbed from a Hirschfeld drawing) of two nuns dancing on an iceberg drew the curious and to our shock the first night was a sellout. We had to turn some away the next night--and since those two performances were to be the whole run, we were granted another week. After the first cheering audience everyone loved me again, and it did seem they all had a good time performing the show. And of course the cast parties were cathartic. In the scheme of things it was small potatoes, I know, but to this absolute beginner it was just short a thrill of opening on Bway. I was 20 years old. I had just read Moss Hart's Act One; I had just produced my first opus and the future looked limitless and beautiful. My windmills all ahead of me.

Postscript: As I publish this Elaine Stritch has just died. Giving thought to the idea of what a strange and marvelous Aldonza she might have been!

Next Up: Godspell

Report Card:  Man of La Mancha
Overall Film:  C
Bway Fidelity:  A-
Songs from Bway: 13
Songs Cut from Bway: 2 
New Songs:  None
Standout Number: "Man of La Mancha"
               (for the dancing horses) 
Casting:  Marquee madness
Standout Cast:  James Coco
Cast from Bway:  Gino Conforti
Direction:  Musically clueless,
     dramatically competent, if unexciting
Choreography:  Staged movement,
     little dancing
Ballet:  D:  "The Abduction"
Scenic Design: Rustic Italiano
    (where signage was unknown)
Costumes:  Country rags--boring
     Felliniesque togs in street theatre--fascinating
Standout Set: Hilltop village at beginning
Titles: Shades of Bond-ism, very '70s
               End titles as well--just credits
Oscar noms: 1 -- Scoring

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