Saturday, August 14, 2010
I was a teenager when, first, I saw Man of LaMancha. I was living in Switzerland, in a town called Berne, and I spent as much time going to the Stadttheater Berne as I could; for, there, they did American musicals (in German - but they were American musicals, nevertheless, and the locals LOVED American musicals). It was there that I was first exposed to West Side Story (you haven't lived until you have heard this show in German), On the Town (renamed New York New York), The Fantasticks, Godspell... any number of shows, ballet, opera... all at Stadttheater Berne. When I saw Man of LaMancha I had no idea, whatsoever, about Cervantes or Don Quixote. I only went to see an American musical being performed by the repertory company of the Stadttheater, including my friend, Steve Barton.
Man of LaMancha changed my life.
I was sixteen or seventeen and searching for something. I didn't know what. I still don't; I only know that I am still searching. Don Quixote is one of the true heroes of fiction, of literature, of film, of Broadway. So noble, so good and true a man is to be emulated. If more people in the world wanted to be more like Don Quixote, the world might be a better place. At sixteen or seventeen, to be exposed to that story in the form of a musical with THIS score, I was destined to be changed, forever.
Shortly after seeing that production, I went with my family back to the states for summer vacation: a week in New York, a month in Texas, a month in California. During our week in New York, every summer, I went to the theater, I got lost in the city and I shopped. I shopped for Broadway window cards, cast albums and play scripts. That summer I went home with the canary yellow original cast album with the Hirschfeld caricature of Richard Kiley and Joan Diener, as well as a paperback edition of the playscript, brown, with the same Hirschfeld drawing. I played that record album for the next year, solid, and continued to play it throughout my adulthood, switching to compact disc when technology demanded it. I saw the (lamentable but endearingly earnest) film version and I listened to the studio cast recording with Placido Domingo and Julia Migenes. Always, I went back to the Richard Kiley original cast album. It was the right one for me.
When I read that Brian Stokes Mitchell was to play Cervantes/Quixote in the revival (not the first revival - there was one with Raul Julia and Sheena Easton before I moved to New York that continues to hold a fascination for me), I frowned. I rather like the man simply known as 'Stokes'. I have enjoyed him on Broadway in Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime and Kiss Me Kate; and though I only saw the dvd of his Carnegie Hall appearance in South Pacific with the incomparable Reba McEntire, I really enjoyed that, too. However, I did not, at first blush, understand the logic in casting him in Man of LaMancha. Oh, I knew he would sing the songs beautifully; but Stokes is a stud. He would never (underline, caps, italics) be believable as the frail and ailing Quixote. I really liked the idea of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, though. I love, love, love me some Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. I could get behind that idea, as well as the inevitable, the natural, the forgone conclusion that Ernie Sabella would be playing Sancho Panza. I just didn't know what it would be like - a young, healthy, vibrant, stud of Don Quixote.
I didn't read the reviews. I still don't know if the show was considered a hit or a miss. I only know that the day Pat and I walked into the Martin Beck Theater I had my chip on my shoulder. It was as though I were demanding of Stokes: Prove me wrong. I sat, defiantly, in that chair with my arms folded. Waiting. Demanding. Waiting. Prove me wrong.
I have to admit that the production values were interesting; but not as exciting as I would have liked. Something about those production values was too slick; something about the set was too modern, too shiny, too pretty, too interesting. It's a prison that Cervantes walks into. I wanted wood and straw and dirt and grit. I didn't get it but I can forget that. I can forgive that.
As the play started, some fierce bitch was wailing some fantastic spanish lament of some kind. That, I liked. And then, the action was under way. I must say: Mary Matrantonio was, indeed, as stunning in the role as I felt, instinctively, that she would be. I mean, let's face it: this is a great American actress who should work more than she does - but I know she has a family and maybe she works only when a part comes along that she really wants to play. This is just such a role. She completely embodied and captured Aldonza for me, even though my gut feeling about Aldonza is that she should be a little more weatherbeaten than the gloriously gorgeous Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. I always saw Aldonza as a real pig of a whore. Rode hard and put away wet. Mary Mastrantonio is one of the most beautiful women of all time... not really pig material. This, though, was the director's vision and Mary's interpretation and I went wherever she lead me, and gladly. Harsh, cold, beautiful, vulnerable, implacable with one or two cracks and a voice that rang the rafters off. And let's just say Ernie Sabella, when dropped into these roles that seem to have been written for him, is irreplacable. He is simply one of a kind and essential to the world of character actors - and aren't we all glad these characters exist, just for him?
So I have, clearly, navigated this story so that I could save Stokes for last. After all, that's what it is all about, right? The man who plays Quixote. The man on the quest.
I sat, arms folded, left eyebrow raised, cheeks sallowed in, underbite jutted forward, tacitly demanding that Stokes prove to me why he was getting to play this one of a kind role, this leader of all idealists, this hero in a world where heroes no longer exist. Stokes entered, looking every bit the stud that we know him to be. He said his lines, he transformed from Cervantes into Quijana into Quxote, he interacted with his cast members, he acted, he sang. My arms were folded; but, one by one, the change overtook me. The eyebrow came down. The cheeks softened. The jaw dropped and the clench softened. All of this as, slowly, he drew me in. This beautiful actor cast against type was actually managing to change the mind of a true skeptic.
Then it happened.
Stokes stood center stage.
The orchestra played.
He opened his mouth.
"To dream the impossible dream. To fight the unbeatable foe. To bear with unbearable sorrow. To run where the brave dare not go...."
When he finished this most famous of songs, the audience was screaming. Pat turned to look at my tear stained face as I gasped, through, hyper-ventilating breaths..
"God. Damn. It." says I
"What?" whispered Pat.
"He got me."
To hear that voice sing that song live is one of the greatest gifts this one time idealist and all time show queen will ever be given. I was happy, on that night, to be proven wrong. Stokes, please prove me wrong again.
This morning I sat down to write a story about Moon Over Buffalo for this blog. When I went to do the laundry, I put on my headphones. My friend has been dating an actor who was on Broadway in The Little Mermaid; that show having been on my mind because of this, I had been listening to that cast album. I scrolled the playlist down and spotted it: Man of LaMancha. I hadn't listened to it in a little while. That would be good Saturday morning laundry doing music. I needed to decide between Richard Kiley, Placido Domingo, Keith Michell or Brian Stokes Mitchell. I chose Stokes.
Listening to the revival cast album brought back so many beautiful memories and feelings. That fierce bitch that starts the show, the crystal bell that is Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's voice, the pathos that is Ernie Sabella's heart, the glory that is Stokes. So, listening to it, my plan to write about seeing Carol Burnett live for the first time was put on the back burner, as I rushed home, inspired, to honour a show and character that has lived in my blood for thirty years.
Each day the 16 year old idealist that first saw Man of LaMancha grows a little more faint as I age into a more realistic, a more cynical person. This is a choice I made and continue to make, every day. Idealism is no longer an important part of my life or personality; it grows as faint as a 16 year old with cheek of tan and long wavy hair, walking home in the autumn air of a Swiss night, after a thrilling trip to the theater. This morning, though, walking home with the laundry, into the blazing morning sunlight, I heard Aldonza say "My name is Dulcinea" and an entire company of actors piped into my ears and my mind, singing a great anthem, one I have loved these three decades. Their final notes, their final sentence, their final harmonies and philosophy touched a nerve and one tear belonging to a 16 year old rolled down a 46 year old cheek..
"To live with your heart striving upward to an un... unattainable sky."