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