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Wasserman, Heal Thyself!

Filichia suffers through Dale Wasserman's new book about the creation of Man of La Mancha logo
What's more apt to read on a plane ride to Spain than a book about a musical that's set in Spain? I'm referring to Dale Wasserman's The Impossible Musical (Applause Books), which tells how his dark-horse tuner Man of La Mancha came out of nowhere to win the 1965-66 Tony over shows that had been much more hotly anticipated (Mame, Sweet Charity, and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) and went on to become a musical theater staple.

Wasserman's book reads like a hagiography, and woe to the critic who doesn't like his show. He especially castigates Martin Gottfried who, Wasserman claims, wrote with "considerable inaccuracy" when he referred to one of the show's tenors as a baritone. Gottfried, he says, also "committed a journalistic sin even more offensive; he'd misquoted a lyric." Listen, we all make mistakes -- and that includes Wasserman, who himself committed many a "sin" while writing this book with equally "considerable inaccuracy." Early on, he quotes a line from La Mancha: "Facts are the enemy of truth." Well, that sets the tone for the book. Virtually everything Wasserman writes about producer Philip Rose's career is inaccurate, and that's just the beginning.

When Wasserman tells of how La Mancha began as a TV special called I, Don Quixote, he mentions that the show's director was Alec Segal. But no: It was Alex Segal. I'll concede that Wasserman could have nicknamed the guy "Alec," but later he says that his "old friend" Alec Siegal [sic] staged his play One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. The man is even listed in the index under two different spellings!

Later, Wasserman writes: "In the modern musical, of course, the lyrics come first." Really? Earlier this month, Craig Carnelia told me that Marvin Hamlisch's music came first in their Sweet Smell of Success. Doesn't Wasserman know after all this time that composers and lyricists have different ways of writing? Apparently not -- and the fact that he added "of course" to his statement makes it even more ludicrous.

In the section of the book that covers preparations for La Mancha's tryout at the Goodspeed Opera House, Wasserman explains the most atypical casting Irving Jacobson as Sancho: "He was funny, he was agile, he sang well, and despite a trace of a lower East Side accent" -- excuse me, Dale, but it was more than "a trace" -- "he was not only believable but immensely endearing." What Wasserman doesn't mention is that Goodspeed's original plan in the summer of '65 was to do three musicals that utilized the same performers and Jacobson was a natural for Chu Chem, which had a Jewish theme. That's the reason he got into La Mancha.

Wasserman then brags that Goodspeed's "success, this fame stretching nearly 40 years now, is due to" La Mancha. Granted, the show was an essential building block in the East Haddam theater's economic and artistic history. But so was Annie, which also started at Goodspeed and went on to a longer Broadway run. So Wasserman shouldn't make it sound as if his show was single-handedly responsible for Goodspeed's survival.

Then Wasserman tells of the day that Jacques Brel came to get the rights to La Mancha so he could play Cervantes/Quixote in a Paris production. "Of course," Wasserman writes, "I knew the Off-Broadway Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris." Given that Wasserman says that Brel's La Mancha opened on December 11, 1968, and given that Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well opened less than 11 months earlier, I suspect that Brel met with Wasserman long before the Off-Broadway songfest was produced.

"La Mancha, in the third year of its run, was still selling out," Wasserman writes. "A road company starring José Ferrer was just about to open in New Haven." Again, no: I saw Ferrer and company in Boston on November 1966, one year (not three years) after the Broadway premiere. Need I add that I didn't much like the show?

So, should we believe Wasserman's claim that "I, the bookwriter, wrote 'To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe'" -- even if he reinforces that claim no fewer than four times in the book? Don't think that Wasserman doesn't resent what happened next: "The lyricist then wrote 'To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe' -- whereupon, through the alchemy of contractual usage, the words became his forever." But that's a common experience for a bookwriter; he writes a scene and then the lyricist takes his song hook from it. Why is Wasserman less gracious than, for example, Joe Masteroff, who acknowledges with a so-what shrug that the same sort of thing happened in She Loves Me and Cabaret?

Wasserman claims that, when he was shopping around his yet-to-be-produced musical, Kermit Bloomgarden loved it but, "at this juncture, Kermit was only semi-active; he was diabetic, in ill health." Then why did Bloomgarden produce five shows, including Equus, over the next 11 years -- a most prolific number for a '60s-'70s producer? Maybe Bloomgarden just didn't like Man of La Mancha.

And here's a Wasserman statement that will surprise most readers: "In truth, I don't like Don Quixote." That's why he framed the story around Miguel de Cervantes getting in and out of prison. (Isn't it interesting that two of musical theater's most durable properties, Gypsy and La Mancha, center on a different character than the one we might expect?) Perhaps one reason Wasserman landed on the idea of an incarcerated Cervantes is that he'd had a similar experience: He informs us that he "did time at a couple of detention camps," though he doesn't say why.

Wasserman takes pride in having made at least some of Don Quixote work on stage when, by his own estimate, 400 other adapters have failed. His explanation for their lack of success? "[T]hey tell the tale of a delusionary oldster who sees one thing and thinks it's something else. The first time this happens, it's funny. And perhaps the second time, upon which the law of diminishing returns sets in." But that's what happens in La Mancha, too!

Dale Wasserman
Wasserman is certainly entitled to his opinions, but see if you agree that original lyricist W.H. Auden's words had "an ingenuity in rhyming unmatched even by Sondheim" when you read the seven-plus pages of his lyrics that are included in the book. Whatever the case, Auden's words were found wanting and "a substantial settlement was made." Could we hear a little more, Dale? Was it a one-time-only payment or a piece of the action? (For example, I'm told that Maury Yeston got a percentage of La Cage aux Folles because he was the first composer hired for the show and penned a few songs for it.) Joe Darion joined the project in 1964 and wrote a song for Aldonza called "What Kind of Animal Am I?" (An aside: Given that, just two years earlier, Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse had created a gold record standard called "What Kind of Fool Am I?" would you have written a song with so similar a title?)

Wasserman gets plenty of facts wrong in the section where he notes that La Mancha composer Mitch Leigh never had a hit without him. Cry for Us All, he says, "lost an estimated $3 million." But that show was produced a year before Follies, which dropped less than a million and was still the most expensive failure up to that point, so Cry for Us All certainly didn't lose more than three times as much! Of Chu Chem, Wasserman mentions that it failed "three separate times," but he confuses the show's ignominious 1966 out-of-town collapse in Philadelphia with a different production. He's dead wrong in saying that Odyssey had a "short" tour, for it played all 52 weeks of 1975 in engagements around the United States. He gets the Broadway opening date of that show, by then retitled Home Sweet Homer, wrong by a year. And while he thinks that he has listed every Leigh disaster, he's missed Halloween, a 1972 calamity that played in Pennsylvania.

Anyway, if we're going to catalogue failures, look who's talking! Wasserman's other musicals include Montparnasse, Shakespeare and the Indians, A Walk in the Sky, Western Star, and Wait for Me, World. Go ahead, tell me the plot of any one of these. I'm listening! At least most of Leigh's flops reached Broadway.

Why does Wasserman mention Leigh's failures at all? We see why when he rhetorically asks us, "What happened to the team that had created this 'classic?'...With success, they became alienated. Then antagonists. And finally, enemies." He illustrates this by noting that he didn't speak to Joe Darion for five years (though, he reports, they reconciled before Darion died) because he thought the lyricist was too greedy. And while Wasserman doesn't say whether or not he and Mitch Leigh have remained on speaking terms, it's a safe bet that they won't be after Leigh reads The Impossible Musical.

Here's the thing: La Mancha is supposed to be a beautiful celebration of the human spirit; Wasserman writes that people have sent him "a flood of mail" about how the show changed their lives, and he believes that the musical "reawakened the ideals of adolescence, ideals that had died in the attrition of living." It seems, though, that the creators of La Mancha don't buy their own message. If they did, they would have found ways to get along after their great success.

I read with interest Wasserman's admission that he first had the germ of an idea for La Mancha when he was in Madrid and read in a newspaper that he was there to research Don Quixote for an Yves Montand movie. "[I]t was likely that Montand's press agent had planted the item to get his client's name in a column," Wasserman writes. That's what started him thinking about Don Quixote -- and, given that I've always found Man of La Mancha a phony work, I find it fitting that it started with a lie.

To me, Wasserman sounds phony again when he says that, following the show's success, "there'd be times that I'd wished the whole thing never happened." (You and me both, Dale!) He expresses his hatred for the 1972 movie version -- but the book contains no fewer than six pictures from it. He says that many people have proposed a remake of the film; "I find no problem in turning them down," he tells us, "until the day an offer comes attached to the right concept for making it. I have my own notion of what that concept is but will hoard it privately pending other elements falling into place." Well, as Chris says in The Ritz: "Honey, you can die with your secrets."


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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