Men (and Women) on La Mancha
Filichia indulges in more La Mancha madness as he addresses reader responses to last week's column.
"You know I love you," wrote Ellen S. Ward, "but I'm tired of your bashing La Mancha." On the other hand, Val Addams responded by saying, "HATE the show, and always have." Perry Tannenbaum exclaimed, "Amen, Peter!" Dave Gipson said, "Thanks for finally having the nerve to say what I've thought all along. Nothing in La Mancha tugs at my heartstrings. It's basically a kiss blown to an intellectual idealist who thinks he's superior to everyone else." Susan Cassidy opined, "Outside of 'The Impossible Dream,' the rest of the show is boring." Randie Levine Miller was more to the point: "It's stiff, wooden, esoteric, dark, highly overrated drivel, and pseudo-intellectual poetic bullshit."
Am I purposely citing more negatives than positives? Actually, the "nays" on Man of La Mancha that I was e-mailed outnumbered the "yeas" by a six-to-one margin. But I think the nay-sayers just wanted to let me know that no one is alone, whereas La Mancha mavens didn't care to dignify the errant opinions I communicated in my column last week. I did try to soft-pedal my dislike of the show by concluding that I might be crazy for not responding to it -- but that only made Kevin McAnarney say "Crazy like a fox!" and Joel Markowitz proclaim "You're not crazy. I hate this show."
So, Ms. Ward -- and you know I love you, too, from the times we've corresponded and met -- I hope you'll indulge me this one last time, the way Chris Connelly does. He wrote, "Whenever I see your name and Man of La Mancha in the same sentence, I know I'm going to smile -- and I really do mean that as a compliment."
Many readers agreed with my thesis that when and where a theatergoer saw La Mancha would have greatly affected his response. Chris Van Ness wrote that "Seeing Kiley do the show in an intimate space was pure theatrical magic, and the book's flaws were easily overlooked. I loved the original production very much, and I have seen nothing over the years (including the Los Angeles production with nearly the same cast but in the cavernous Ahmanson Theatre) which could come close to equaling it." Snazzy Sasanow semi-echoed that with "I first saw [the show] downtown, enjoyed it, but never thought much about it again. Then, 11 years ago, I saw it again, and excruciating is the best I could say about it." Mark Rinis wrote, "I saw the show downtown. It was brilliantly staged, Kiley and Diener sang magnificently (I won't even discuss Jacobson). But ever since, I've thought the show panders to the audience. I try to avoid it at all costs."
But Richard C. Norton, who shouted "Bravo!" to my objections, did add, "I have to debunk your theory that seeing [the show] at the ANTA-Washington Square automatically made people love it. On my March 1966 trip to New York, I saw four shows and enjoyed La Mancha downtown far less than I liked Sweet Charity, Superman, and Skyscraper." (Well, Richard, if you saw Skyscraper, then you know that everybody has the right to be wrong -- at least once.)
Martin Geiger wrote, "I saw [Man of La Mancha] early in its original run at the ANTA-Washington Square. You are probably right that the uniqueness of the setting, the stirring music, and Kiley's performance may have caused many to overlook the points you raise. I've never seen the show since, but my younger brother -- who also saw the original -- recently saw a preview of the current version and thought the show was flat and boring. Seeing it back in 1965 was a real goosebump experience. You had to be there." But then Geiger made a fascination observation: "Audiences who attended at the beginning saw a connection between the hero's idealism and that of the recently fallen JFK, whose tragic death was then still very much in people's minds. Quixote was a kind of JFK, and the death scene at the end of the show provoked profound sobbing among early audiences."
I nodded when I read Donald Butchko's assessment: "I have always shared your disillusionment with one of the ardently loved shows of all time." Then I stopped nodding. "However," Butchko continued, "in reading your article, I see we don't agree at all. Even if one is willing to turn the suspension of disbelief up a few notches to accept the fact that a band of prisoners would be willing to help Cervantes tell his tale, if only out of sheer boredom, one would have to have a vision of reality as distorted as Quixote's to accept it the way Wasserman presents it. Why does Cervantes get to bring a trunk of props and papers to jail? Not just any props, but swords and jousting poles. The fact that he is allowed to bring weaponry into a PRISON is made more unbelievable by the fact that the other prisoners don't think of using [that weaponry]. Why use the props to tell a stupid story when they could revolt and get the hell out of there?"
A few readers took issue with my criticizing the work of lyricist Joe Darion. Wrote Harry Turpin: "Sancho's character may have to sing some lyrics that aren't quite as brilliant as, oh, say 'Rent, rent, rent, rent -- we're not gonna pay rent,' but they fit for his character. He's a silly sidekick and it makes sense for him to say silly things. He supports his leader, his mentor." To which I reply: Yeah, he must be a silly sidekick if this guy is his mentor! Please remember that I'm all for optimism and hope; I just think the writers exaggerated in the way that they characterized Quixote.
Danneau agreed: "The writers took Don Quixote way too seriously. Isn't he portrayed satirically in Cervantes' book as a sad sack who embodies the whole assortment of human foibles, rather than a noble doer of good deeds who's lovable in spite of, or perhaps because of, his mild delusions?" Don Henke rebutted with, "Remember the 'willing suspension of disbelief?'" Frank Soldo echoed that. "What you say you dislike about the show (and, more accurately, the classic on which it's based) is the very thing a lover of musicals does each time he or she enters a theater -- suspend his or her disbelief. When we go to the theater, especially musical theater, don't we all suspend our disbelief in order to escape 'real life' for a few short hours and enter a world of imagination?"
Yes, but I'll bet my life that both Don and Frank have been at musicals where there's been an all-too-silly or all-too-obvious song cue -- a plink of a piano key, a spotlight suddenly turned on -- or something like that that made them groan. Neither one of them can possibly say that they haven't found something in a musical that was too hard to believe, too much to swallow, too ridiculous. That's Man of La Mancha for me.
Matthew Murray, the oh-so-talented and wise critic for Talkin' Broadway who recently also joined the staff of TheaterMania, wrote: "The depth of your anger for every aspect of this show utterly baffles me." But I know Matthew and have heard him rail incessantly about Mamma Mia! for more than a year now; in fact, one of his recent e-mails to me clouted it again. Believe me, he hates that show MUCH more than I dislike La Mancha.
I think I know why: I was there when La Mancha became a juggernaut. I endured running into people who would excitedly say, "Have you seen Man of La Mancha?! I LOVED it!" I'd read the smug ads in the newspaper each day, which said (and I quote) "What!? You've only seen Man of La Mancha ONCE?!" I would hear "The Impossible Dream" everywhere I turned. Though I'll be the first to say that Mamma Mia! is no masterpiece, it has never bothered me much one way or the other. But here's Matthew, in his 20s -- as I was when La Mancha hit -- having to bear the Mamma Mia! juggernaut. He has to endure running into people who excitedly say, "Have you seen Mamma Mia!?! I LOVED it!" He has to hear ABBA songs everywhere he turns. For him, La Mancha is long-ago history but Mamma Mia! is now, just as he is now. So the depth of his anger for every aspect of this show does not baffle me.
While Ed Weissman wrote that "the play within the play never worked for me," he brought up an interesting point. "La Mancha is the only hit show with no coattails," he observed. "Every other big hit has been followed by a show put together by key personnel from that hit. Sometimes they work (or are even better): Carousel, Damn Yankees, Gypsy. Sometimes, they just slide through: Molly Brown, Zorba. Sometimes they flop: Tenderloin. In all cases, they come in with a big advance generated by people's desire to see the next show put together by those wonderful folks who brought them that last hit. But Chu Chem, with the same composer, director, and set designer as La Mancha, never had an advance. And neither did Cry For Us All, with the same director, composer, set designer, and star (Diener). La Mancha was even still running during both of them. Why? I need to know. This is my quest."