State of the Art

‘Man of La Mancha:’ The greatest musical nobody does these days

Richard Kiley won a Tony Award in 1966 as the leading actor in “Man of La Mancha.”
Richard Kiley won a Tony Award in 1966 as the leading actor in “Man of La Mancha.” Associated Press

Sometimes the stars simply align. Composer Mitch Leigh, lyricist Joe Darion and book writer Dale Wasserman all had exactly one great musical in them, and it opened on Broadway 50 years ago this autumn: “Man of La Mancha,” the first New York show I ever saw and one original cast album I would take into permanent exile if I were limited to 10. (Maybe five.)

Nobody thinks much about the show today. It’s too humble for audiences who want to see characters fly or sing from the tops of rotating turntables or magically ride boats across lakes to dungeons. The costumes are rags, the single set a Spanish cell, the props things you could find in a Renaissance prison.

As far as I know, the show has been done just twice in the last 20 years in Mecklenburg County, once on a national tour with Robert Goulet and once at Theatre Charlotte. The last Broadway revival came 13 years ago.

It’s not a condensation of “Don Quixote,” as some think. Instead, author Miguel Cervantes – who has been thrown into jail in Seville circa 1590 – acts out incidents from his unfinished novel for fellow prisoners, who take on roles in the narrative. They first threaten to burn his manuscript but eventually become supporters, and the show ends with him being led forth to his trial.

I had the misfortune to see José Ferrer, who couldn’t quite sing the score, as Cervantes/Quixote. He had done a version in Los Angeles and stepped in for the great Richard Kiley for two weeks in spring 1966, when my Spanish teacher took a bunch of seventh-graders to the Washington Square Theatre. But the other members of the first cast – Joan Diener as Aldonza, Irving Jacobson as Sancho and the rest – were intact. You can see them here, in rare footage from “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Three things make this show immortal. First, its melodies can be beautiful or harsh as needed, and they often have a Spanish flavor. Leigh was best known beforehand for the advertising jingle “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee” but surpassed himself with the rousing title song, the bewitching “Dulcinea” and the ubiquitous “The Impossible Dream.”

Second, the lyrics are simple, clever and inspiring. Leigh originally planned to collaborate with master poet W.H. Auden, writing four or five songs with him on spec. But Wasserman found them anachronistic, obscure, pessimistic or painfully class-conscious. Here’s the beginning of Auden’s “Song of the Quest:”

Once the voice has quietly spoken, every knight must ride alone

On the quest appointed him into the unknown.

One to seek the healing waters, one the dark tower to assail,

One to find the lost princess, one to find the grail.

Through the wood of evil counsel, through the desert of dismay,

Past the pools of pestilence he must find the way.

Hemmed between the haunted marshes and the mountains of the dead,

To the valley of regret and the bridge of dread.

Lovely poetry, but I am starting to hear faint echoes of “Spamalot.”

Third, Wasserman’s book provides an optimism that’s hard-won, never cheesy and ultimately heart-warming. America needed that in the wake of JFK’s assassination, the violence of the Civil Rights Era and the beginning of the long slide into the Vietnam War.

It still does, and the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death will be observed next April. Could some theater company please celebrate him with “Man of La Mancha”?

Toppman: 704-358-5232