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It's Anything But an Impossible Dream 
An article dedicated to a performance I participated in during 2003

"Too much sanity may be madness and the maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be."
--Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

The Book

There is a story that King Philip III of Spain once saw a man reading beside the road and laughing so much that the tears were rolling down his cheeks. The story then goes on to say that the King made the following statement: "That man is either crazy or he is reading Don Quixote."

 Without delving too deeply into a history lesson, it must be said that Cervantes wrote his masterpiece during one of the darkest periods in Spanish history. Under the rule of King Philip II, Spain had become entrenched in religious fervor - including the Spanish Inquisition. 

Cervantes himself served in one of the many European battles against the Turks. It was in 1571, during the Battle of Lapanto, that he lost the use of his left hand. Worse yet, in 1575, during a return to Spain, he was captured by pirates and held for ransom. It wouldn't be until five years later than Cervantes would be free.   

Spain had changed drastically during Cervantes's absence. The economy of one of Europe's most powerful countries was faltering. This was especially evident to the family of Cervantes and many other middle class families who found themselves struggling. Cervantes, talented writer though he was, would spend most of his life in debt, just struggling to survive. The Spanish government, whom he had so loyally served, did little or nothing to help it's struggling people. It was now that the turning point came in Cervantes' view of the world. His life, and his writing, would now be heavily tainted with the knowledge that the so-called "holy" motivations of religious wars and the Inquisition were nothing more than materialistic shams.

And so, it is not difficult to see the roots of Don Quixote. The portrayal of the naive and idealistic Don Quixote seems ever so much more tragic when the reader sees how bitterly the world mocks him. When the First Part of Don Quixote came out in 1605, it was an immediate success. It was such a success that it was shortly (within two decades) translated into English, French, and Italian. In 1615, a year before his death, Cervantes released the second part of Don Quixote's story. One can't help but be awed by the bravery;  for Cervantes to make such bold statements against those who ran the mechanics of Spain at the time. People had certainly suffered torture and death at the hands of the Inquisition for much lesser offenses. Perhaps it is Cervantes' determination to tell his story that explains the success and enduring recognition.

Cervantes pulled off a great accomplishment in Don Quixote: He created a book that could be seen as full of whimsy and humor from the most cursory glance, but which had an underlying theme which made the humor that much more bittersweet. Windmills become giants, women of ill-repute become virtuous ladies, and an old swayback horse becomes the most valiant steed ever to bear its knight. It is also considered one of the first of the popular/romantic fictions, a whole new genre which appealed to the popular audience; a field later to be landmarked by famous classic authors such as Alexandre Dumas.

The Musical

Don Quixote's journey from text to stage (and screen) was also one that was thought, by the nay-sayers of the entertainment world, to be "an impossible dream." 

It all started with a rumor planted in the ear of playwright Dale Wasserman in 1959. While reading the International Herald Tribune, Mr. Wasserman discovered that he himself was writing a screenplay for Don Quixote and had even chosen an actor to play the lead. This came as quite a shock to the playwright as he was doing no such thing at that time. However, appropriately enough, he is in Spain as he reads this fateful clipping, and so begins our hero's journey. As he further explores the background of Cervantes and his world, he becomes more than slightly enamored with the idea of Don Quixote, until finally, he is snagged by the line: "I know who I am, and who I may be if I choose." If any statement summed up the feelings of an actor, Mr. Wasserman felt, this was the one. So began our hero's journey. 

Dale Wasserman did not start out writing this work as a musical. Instead, it was intended to be a play - a play to be broadcast on live television, no less. After presenting his idea to a producer he knew would be willing to take more risks than most, David Susskind, he gets the okay to write the work. After many trials and tribulations (including a name change from Mr. Wasserman's Man of La Mancha to a 'dumbed down' I, Don Quixote), the play makes it to live TV. Despite those who felt that the play was too 'intellectual' for popular entertainment, the show received positive feedback from the public.

Our story, luckily, does not end there. Mr. Wasserman felt that the story had not been completely told, and he was to continue to work on the play for five more years before discovering what the missing element had been: music. He was joined by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, who would compose and produce lyrics for the musical.

In a time when Broadway was at its height, with such light-hearted musicals such as My Fair Lady, Camelot, The Sound of Music and Hello, Dolly! - the serious subject matter of La Mancha was not initially expected to be well received by audiences. As a matter of fact, La Mancha itself would not debut on Broadway, but instead in a small theater near Greenwich Village. 

"The Man of La Mancha" had now 'set the stage' to turn the world of theatre on its head! The musical opened November 22, 1965 at the Anta Washington Square Theatre in New York and was was an instant hit. Never before had a musical managed to take audiences through such a gamut of emotions and do so with such undisputed success. The musical won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and would run for 2329 performances between 1966-1972. It was the third longest running musical in the decade, and it's fame would not die away at the end of the historical run. The musical still draws huge audiences, including a 2002 Broadway revival of the musical, starring Brian Stokes Mitchell (a Broadway veteran who has also made guest appearances on TV shows such as Frasier) as the incomparable Don Quixote and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Aldonza/Dulcinea (of The Perfect Storm and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves).