Minority Report on Man of La Mancha
Filichia tilts against the windmills of public opinion concerning that musical with the song about ''The Impossible Dream.''
Mitch Leigh's music remains stirringly wonderful, Brian Stokes Mitchell is dazzling, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is a marvel, Ernie Sabella is terrifically droll, Jonathan Kent has added some deft touches, Luis Perez' abduction sequence correctly stresses that rape is more a crime of power than one of sex, and Paul Brown's set is a sight to behold. Yet, for the 36th year in a row, I don't like Man of La Mancha, and feel it's the most overrated hit musical I've ever encountered.
John Cheever once said that he could tell everything about a man just from the way he jumped into a swimming pool. I believe I can tell when and where a person saw Man of La Mancha from his level of enthusiasm. The most rabid fans -- the ones who raise their eyes heavenward and put their hands over their hearts -- saw the original production between November 1965 and March 1968, downtown near NYU at the ANTA-Washington Square theater, a temporary, prefabricated house that had a thrust stage and semicircular seating. Man of La Mancha, I suspect, owed a great deal of its success to this new-to-New-York configuration, which made the show look novel and exciting. Those man-made horses on which Don and Sancho ride? They had to be more resplendent in this more immediate setting.
The ANTA-Washington Square was always meant to be a temporary structure, so when it was razed, La Mancha had to make do at a regular proscenium house -- the Martin Beck, where it resided from March 1968 to March 1971. I've noticed that many of those who saw it there loved it, but to a markedly lesser degree than those who saw it downtown. Still, its critical reception, multiple Tony-wins, and hit song ("The Impossible Dream") allowed audiences to enjoy it. La Mancha then traveled downtown to the Eden (now a multiplex) and back uptown again to the Hellinger (now a church). But, less than a year after it closed in 1971, it was back at a thrust house -- the Vivian Beaumont, where it collected another legion of staunch fans, though perhaps not as overzealous as the original crowd.
I suppose that if I had been in one of those original ANTA-Washington Square audiences, or if I had seen Richard Kiley do the show on one of the occasions when he trotted it out, I might have been seduced. Alas, circumstances relegated me to first see La Mancha under the proscenium arch of the Colonial Theatre in Boston in 1966, with José Ferrer as Quixote; it was the show's first national tour. But I do believe that, even if I had been in New York in 1965 and caught an early performance, I would have eventually noticed what makes me resist the property.
Well, every musical theater enthusiast I know hates some hit show that everyone else loves. So, after Show Music magazine asked critics "What was the most overrated show of the 20th Century?" it described my negative La Mancha response as a "surprising choice," then quoted only the tip of the iceberg of my comments: "Any Spanish show shouldn't have a Jewish Sancho, and no show should have such bad lyrics."
That Jewish Sancho (Irving Jacobson) actually happened because La Mancha was supposed be one of three shows in rep at the Goodspeed Opera House when the musical tried out during the summer of '65. A company of actors would play a part in each show, and Yiddish theater favorite Jacobson was needed for the very Jewish Chu Chem; he was cast only as an afterthought in La Mancha. But Chu Chem didn't get done that summer after all and, once La Mancha got rolling, no one had the heart to fire the all-wrong Jacobson.
Now comes the main event: At the inn, Quixote sees the scullery maid Aldonza, who'll later flat-out admit that she's a whore -- and he brands her a virgin. Why couldn't he say that she's a wonderful person underneath without going to extremes? Jesus had a good deal of feeling and compassion for Mary Magdalene, but he never needed to convince himself or others that she was a virgin.
My irritation continues when Sancho tells us Quixote won't be disappointed that Aldonza is illiterate because "noblewomen are so busy with their needlework, embroidering banners for their knights, that they aren't able to read." My ire is exacerbated when Quixote claims that a smelly dishrag is a gossamer token of a woman's esteem and a shaving basin is actually a golden helmet. Two gypsies do a hot, lusty dance, and he thinks they're brother and sister. He doesn't take umbrage when the best the innkeeper can do in naming him is "Knight of the Woeful Countenance." Some compliment!
The Padre says that Quixote has a "gentle delusion," and while it may be no more than that, I don't understand why Sancho and Aldonza are inclined to make him their mentor. And how much can it mean that Aldonza is transformed only when Quixote is about to die? This is a time when people say anything just to be nice. It's considered good form and apparently has been for some time; the ancient Romans came up with the expression de mortuis nil nisi bonum -- "of the dead, say nothing but good." (Ask Stephen Schwartz what he thinks about Bob Fosse, who barred him from Pippin rehearsals and took total control of his musical, and Schwartz always gives this expression as his answer.)
Listen, I'm a pretty sentimental guy, especially where theater is concerned. Whenever Peter Pan asks me to applaud to save Tinkerbell, I clap my hands as loudly as I possibly can. Back in the '70s, I was part of the Boston student movement that kept King of Hearts -- a film that suggests that people outside an insane asylum aren't necessarily more sane than the ones inside it -- at a Cambridge movie theater for seven years. I'm all for seeing the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. But I see no worth in seeing a half-full glass as a full one.
And yet, and yet...there's one thing I must admit about Man of La Mancha. Here's a story about having an Impossible Dream, and Lord knows that the show itself achieved one. Here was a musical produced by one man who'd never produced anything and another whose previous four Broadway shows ran an average of 39 performances. Only Kapp Records would record La Mancha after heavyweights Columbia, RCA Victor, and Capitol all passed. "We'll make golden history," Quixote sings -- and Man of La Mancha has done just that, becoming one of the most recognizable titles in musical theater history, with five Broadway productions in 37 years. Maybe I'm the crazy one after all.