Watch or listen to a roundtable discussion with Man of La Mancha director Julianne Boyd and actors Jeff McCarthy (Cervantes/Don Quixote), Felicia Boswell (Aldonza/Dulcinea) and Tom Alan Robbins (Manservant/Sancho Panza). Watch the Video Podcast. Listen to the Audio Podcast.

Inside Man of La Mancha
Excerpt of From Assassins to West Side Story
by Scott Miller, Artistic Director of New Line Theatre in St. Louis, Missouri

Man of La Mancha is inspired by – though not literally based on – Miguel de Cervantes’s timeless 1615 masterpiece Don Quixote, the second biggest selling book in the history of the world. As critic Norman Nadel wrote of Man of La Mancha’s literary source, “Cervantes had begun Don Quixote as a satire on the romantic literature of his day, about 360 years ago, but he went on to write a durable compendium of human folly as well as a testament to man’s unquenchable spirit.” The novel was the prototype for a whole genre of comedy, in which the sanest characters can’t see the real truth of life, and only the lunatics are truly wise.

Being primarily a playwright, Cervantes’ one great novel was at its core about the Battle Between Reality and Illusion, the same eternal tension of the theatre, and the most central tension of musical theatre in particular. Just as Quixote must navigate the fine line between illusion and reality, so too do all musicals have to maintain the same balancing act. Though they may present entirely – even painfully – realistic emotions, issues, people, and worlds, the act of breaking into song will always belong solely to the world of illusion.

Man of La Mancha is not a musicalization of Don Quixote; it is instead a show about a few hours in the life of Miguel de Cervantes, using Quixote as a storytelling device. As the show’s bookwriter Dale Wasserman has written, “My man of La Mancha is not Don Quixote; he is Miguel de Cervantes.” In fact, only a tiny part of the novel is dramatized in the show; after all, there are more than four hundred characters in the novel. When Wasserman originally set out to write the first, non-musical version of his play, he remembers, “In theory the answer seemed simple. I’d write a play about Miguel de Cervantes in which his creation, Don Quixote, would be played by Cervantes himself. The two would progressively blend in spirit until the creator and his creation would be understood as one and the same.”

The Birth of the Madman

The roots of Man of La Mancha lay in the Golden Age of Television, a time in the 1950s when serious drama was the lingua franca of live television, before sitcoms, before weekly dramas. Some of the greatest American playwrights wrote for the Philco Playhouse, Playhouse 90, the U.S. Steel Hour, General Electric Theatre, Kraft Television Theatre, the Hallmark Hall of Fame, and The Dupont Show of the Month, which  first produced the non-musical, first version of Man of La Mancha. Though playwright Dale Wasserman had chosen this title, the network brass didn’t think their audience was smart enough to understand it, so it was changed to I, Don Quixote, missing entirely the point that the show wasn’t about Quixote; it was about Cervantes. The network also demanded the deletion of any references to the Inquisition because it might offend their Catholic viewers. So the prison became a secular one. The original cast included Lee J. Cobb as Cervantes, Eli Wallach as Sancho, and a young Colleen Dewhurst as Aldonza (replacing the fired Viveca Lindfors). The stage manager was Joe Papirofsky, who would later become the world famous producer and director Joe Papp.

The play was in much the same form as we see it today, even to the point of using a fair amount of instrumental music by Rafaello Busoni to tell its story. Wasserman’s first lines in his script were, “There is music. It sweeps and rolls with the bombast and blind arrogance of Spain at the end of the sixteenth century. A confident march is nowhere.” But inevitably, changes were demanded to keep it to only two hours. One of the things to go was a speech Quixote spoke in answer to Aldonza’s question, “What does it mean – a quest?” The cut speech began:

To dream the impossible dream…to fight the unbeatable foe… and never to stop dreaming or fighting – this is man’s privilege, and the only life worth living…

After it was cut, Cobb stormed into the control room demanding in the coarsest possible language that the speech be reinstated. So it was. Later, considerably calmed down, Cobb said to Wasserman, “This is an important play. It flies in the face of the news, the mood… of all the crud that’s a blight on living here and now. It could have a life… Damn right it’s got flaws. So? Try to understand what I’m telling you. It’s got an opinion. A point of view. An approach. It aims to go somewhere, to say something. So be sure the flaws are your flaws, not the notions of some cockamamie committee.” The show was broadcast live on November 9, 1959. Time magazine wrote, “In humanism’s world of reason, Don Quixote’s crime was not his madness but his faith.” The review went on, “Viewers and critics inclined to snicker at such idealism missed the point of a fine TV drama whose central theme was man’s eternal search for truth.”

After the broadcast, Wasserman went on to other projects, including adapting for the stage the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which he only later realized was very much like La Mancha, both about crazy heroes fighting the establishment, both crushed in the end, both leaving behind one convert or disciple.

Then director Albert Marre approached Wasserman (as others had before) about turning his teleplay into a stage musical. Soon the team swelled to include composer Mitch Leigh (mostly because Leigh was rich and put up the initial investment), and poet W. H. Auden. Wasserman went to see a psychic he knew and asked her if he should stay with the project. She said he should and that “It will be extremely successful. In fact, it will overwhelm your life.” She would be proved right in the years to come. Auden brought on fellow poet Chester Kallman as co-lyricist, but he fell away quickly. And soon, the others realized Auden wrote great poetry but not great lyrics, and that he was writing a different show, a more cynical, more blatantly anachronistic show. They learned the lesson that in almost all cases, poetry makes lousy lyrics. Poetry carries its own music; adding literal music to it only makes a mess.

Next, they called Joe Darion, who had recently written lyrics for archy and mehitabel (later retitled Shinbone Alley), a daring, experimental jazz opera that flopped on Broadway. At first the team asked Darion to fix Auden’s lyrics, but he had no interest in that, so he turned them down. A few weeks later, they called him back to write all new lyrics for the show, and he came aboard. By June 1964, they had a first draft, now titled Highway to Glory. The show was now the first of its kind – a musical within a play, in which the outer framing device (the prison) is not a musical and no one sings there until the end, but the interior reality (the Quixote story) is a full-blooded musical. And the climax of the show comes when Cervantes brings music into the non-musical world of the prison. Like Harold Hill in The Music Man, like Maria in The Sound of Music, Cervantes brings (metaphorical) music to the gray lives of his fellow prisoners, giving them a kind of existential salve, even though many of them may never again see the light of day. This show was a product of its times more than almost any other until Hair.

In the fall of 1964, the show’s creators began holding backers auditions to attract investors, but none appeared. Finally, they were offered a production at the newly renovated Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, to open in June 1965. The deal was too good to pass up, the chance to open their summer season, take time to revise and fix the show, and then to open again at the end of the summer, in mid-August. The show then moved in November 1965 to the ANTA Theatre off Broadway, downtown near Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, the perfect place for it, sharing more in common with radical, anti-establishment works like Marat/Sade and Wasaserman’s own One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, than with Hello, Dolly! or The Sound of Music. The ANTA had no fly space, no proscenium arch, no curtain, none of the trappings of traditional theatres. But by some weird quirk of contract law, the ANTA was officially categorized as a Broadway house because of its seating capacity, despite being some forty blocks from the rest of Broadway, and only a few blocks from other off Broadway houses. So, as it would all its strange life, Man of La Mancha was born straddling the experimental world of off Broadway and the commercial world of Broadway.

Life magazine called the show “a metaphysical smasheroo.” The New York Post said, “Man of La Mancha is a triumph of creative imagination and stagecraft.” London’s Morning Telegraph said, “Man of La Mancha is what theatre is for, why theatre lives and endures.” Rolling Stone wrote, “Man of La Mancha has a heart that sings and a spirit that soars.” John Chapman of the New York Daily News called the original production, “an exquisite musical play – the finest and most original work in our musical theatre since Fiddler on the Roof opened. It moves enthrallingly from an imaginative beginning to a heart-wrenching end.” Norman Nadel wrote in the World-Telegram & Sun, “To reach the unreachable star – what a soaring aspiration for an indestructible dreamer, and what a glorious summation for a bold and beautiful new musical.” He went on, “Thus it goes all evening – realism aligned with romanticism, and each sharpened by the other.”

Man of La Mancha was perhaps the first true “concept musical,” the kind of musical in which the over-arching metaphor or statement is more important than the actual narrative, in which the method of storytelling is more important than the story. The show starred Richard Kiley as Quixote and Joan Diener as Aldonza, and it won the Drama Critics Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Variety Drama Critics Award, the Saturday Review Award, and five Tony Awards, including best musical and best score. The show moved uptown in March 1968 to a regular Broadway house, the Martin Beck Theatre, then, oddly, moved in March 1971 to the off Broadway Eden Theatre, then again in May 1971 to the Mark Hellinger Theatre back on Broadway. It ran a total of 2,328 performances and was revived in 1972 (less than a year after the first production closed), and again with Kiley in 1977. The world famous French/Belgian songwriter and singer Jacques Brel saw the show in New York and fell in love with it. He brought it to Paris, playing the lead himself. Luckily, a French cast album was made, preserving Brel’s soulful interpretation. Productions of La Mancha were mounted all over the world, and in September 1972, it even opened in the Soviet Union.

Don Miguel de Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra was born in 1547 and lived until 1616, a witness to the decline of Spain’s great golden age. He joined the army at age twenty and showed great bravery during his five year stint, though while he was in the army he was felled not by weapons but by malaria. Despite his sickness he rose up anyway (shades of Quixote!) and threw himself into battle, sustaining two wounds to the chest and a musket ball through his left hand, crippling it.

He returned to Spain at thirty-three and began to write plays, a total of thirty to forty in his lifetime, though almost none have survived. Though his great fame came from his novel Don Quixote, written at age fifty-seven, near the end of his life, most of his output was for the stage. He had an affair with a Portuguese woman but she deserted him, leaving him with a daughter named Isabel. He married again, this time into money – or so he thought. But now he had to support his wife, his daughter, his mother, his widowed mother-in-law, and two sisters. During this time, he was imprisoned twice for owing back taxes. The Inquisition tried him under the Purity of Blood laws and, because he had Jewish blood in his family history, he was excommunicated, only barely escaping nastier punishments.

He finished his famous novel, Don Quixote, in 1604, and though it was a huge success, he never received any royalties from it. Ten years later, as poor as ever, Cervantes began work on a Quixote sequel, but someone else beat him to it, and published a sequel of his own. Cervantes’ own sequel directly responded to the faked one, incorporating the forgery into its narrative. He finally died in 1616.

Cervantes’ own life was full of contradictions. He had great talent but was unsuccessful and poor most of his life. He was an artist but worked as soldier, tax collector, and other prosaic jobs to pay his bills. Likewise, his Quixote is full of contradictions, deeply principled and deeply crazy; an ordinary man, a bad knight, and yet a great philosopher. He can be moved far too easily to anger, and yet treats Aldonza with such profound respect. He tries to make the world a better place and yet also messes up people’s lives everywhere he turns. Clearly, Wasserman’s impulse to blend the characters of Cervantes and Quixote was an insightful choice.

The Spanish Inquisition – A Little Background

Man of La Mancha is set in a prison vault, a waiting room of sorts for those to be tried by the Inquisition or other courts. And that prison and all it implies swims under the surface of the show throughout, never letting the audience forget that this story is being told inside a cell, to an audience who are also imprisoned. References to imprisonment are everywhere in La Mancha, in explicit terms, as in the scene with the Moors, and also more subtly, as when Quixote speaks of his “captive heart.” And certainly, many of the characters in the interior story are metaphorically imprisoned, including Aldonza, Antonia, and others.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, opposition to the Roman Catholic church swept across Europe, and Spain in particular feared being overtaken by Muslims and Jews. So with roots going back as far as 1100 a.d., Pope Innocent III established a tribunal in 1215 called the Inquisition to try people accused of heresy against the church. The word heresy comes from the Latin word for choice. In other words, choice was not an option when it came to God; you believed what the Pope told you to believe, or else. The Inquisition was originally intended to protect the Church and to protect “civilization” in a world where secular law enforcement was often absent or irrelevant. There was no central authority (other than the Pope), no single Inquisition, but instead several relatively independent Inquisitions, in Italy, Spain, and Portugal, and later in Latin America.

The Inquisition judges, aided by local bishops and state authorities, would come to a town and announce a thirty days grace period for all heretics to come in and confess their crimes and be punished, after which the trials began. The names of witnesses were kept secret. Torture was often used to force confessions of guilt. At public ceremonies, the names of the guilty were announced and punishments inflicted, ranging from fines and excommunication to imprisonment for life or burning at the stake, called “purification.” Since canonical law forbade the clergy to participate in bloodshed, the more severe penalties were determined by the clergy but carried out by the secular authorities.

The European concept of “innocent until proven guilty” was too high a standard to successfully fight the spread of heresy, so the Pope changed the rules. He appointed “inquisitors” who would secretly gather information, opinion, rumor, and gossip, build their case, and then arrest and accuse the alleged heretic. It was then up to the accused to recant or be burned at the stake. Those were the choices. And even if the accused recanted and admitted his heresy, he still had to inform on others, much like Salem Witch Trials and the House Un-American Activities Committee in America in the 1950s. If the accused would not inform on others, he would be imprisoned anyway and be fined all his possessions. In some cases, people were accused posthumously, and if convicted, their graves would be vandalized and they still would be fined all their possessions; but since they were already dead, that meant their surviving family would be stripped of their home and possessions and left destitute.

By the early 1400s, the Inquisition began to fade from public view.

Except in Spain. During the Middle Ages, Jews had been expelled from most of Europe and many had settled in Spain, where they lived happily. But by the end of the 1300s, economic and social problems sent Spaniards looking for scapegoats and they found them in the Jews. Hoping to end the resulting violence and upheaval, the crown declared that all Jews in Spain either had to convert to Christianity or leave the country. Those who did convert now could rise to high social, governmental, and religious positions previously off limits to them, but this brought with it resentment and fear from Christians who could not rise as high. And so the Inquisition was resurrected.

The new and improved Spanish Inquisition, the most feared and brutal of all, reached its height in Spain during the days of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Quite separate from the Inquisition which had come before, this one was controlled not by the Pope, but by Ferdinand, who carried it to outrageous extremes, in large part in order to acquire for himself the great wealth held by the converted Jews of Spain. The Inquisition was used as a cloak for grand larceny as well as political and private revenge, and the inquisitors were known for their fanatical zeal and great cruelties. It was a product of its time – the church and state were united closely (mostly for the profit of the state), and heresy was considered a crime against both, to be compared only with high treason and anarchy.

The Inquisition continued in modified form in Spain until 1820. The Congregation of the Holy Office was established by Pope Paul III in 1542 to review the judgments of the Inquisition courts and to examine charges of heresy. It was supplanted during the Vatican Council II (1962-1965) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Miguel de Cervantes was tried by the Inquisition in 1597, and was excommunicated for “offenses against His Majesty’s Most Catholic Church,” escaping more severe punishment, which could’ve included burning at the stake. He served several prison terms.

Levels of Reality

In the novel Don Quixote, author Miguel de Cervantes plays with both the form of the novel and with the nature of reality. Quixote was the first novel about novels. He takes an extensive pot shot at chivalric romance novels both directly and indirectly through parody. Over the course of the novel, Don Quixote continually comes across stories and storytellers; each uses his own style of relating his tale, and with each, Cervantes comments further on the nature of narrative, on the relationship between writer and reader, performer and audience. Señor Quijana is the man from La Mancha, who collects chivalric romance novels, which he reads so obsessively that he goes mad, and he believes he is the knight Don Quixote. Dale Wasserman describes the geographic La Mancha this way:

A wide bleak plain stretching from Cordoba on the south to Toledo on the north. In La Mancha, the songs of the people wail and cry. It’s climate? Nine months of winter and                                  three months of hell. Its sky is a hard and unforgiving blue, its horizons too wide; they stupefy the eye. Its easy to invent fantasies in La Mancha, to believe that here men                                            might go mad and invent worlds not yet made.

Quijana considers his novels reference works as well as entertainment. He uses them for the research that is part of his preparation to sally forth into the world. They are his only source of information on the life of knights, the life he is about to adopt for himself. To the soon-to-be knight errant of La Mancha, these books constitute his only reality. The world around him fades, and he molds what must remain so that it fits into his new reality. Cervantes has taken the convention of an author creating a reality in his book which the reader must accept, and has blown it up to fantastic proportions. Señor Quijana not only accepts the realities in his books, he literally believes them and adopts them as his own reality; and his greatest problem lies in the fact that those realities abide in the distant past. This reality he has adopted is at odds with the world around him.

Don Quixote is both reader (of chivalric romances) and writer (as a teller of stories of knights, as chronicler of his own exploits, and as alter-ego of Cervantes); yet it is his voracious reading which has made him insane. How deep into these nested stories can we get before we forget where reality is? In the case of Man of La Mancha, we have three authors (Wasserman, Darion, and Leigh), who have created a fictional character based on a real person (Cervantes), who plays a fictional man (Quijana) who thinks he’s a real knight (Quixote); and additionally in the musical, the other fictional characters (the prisoners) play still other fictional characters in Cervantes’ play (the innkeeper, Aldonza, Carrasco, etc.). Going one level deeper, Aldonza then becomes Dulcinea when she finally sees the beauty in Quixote’s view of the world.

The strange relationship between reality and unreality is what writing – and theatre – is all about. What is a novel (or a play or movie) but unreality commenting on reality, unreality acting on reality, unreality posing as reality. With the advent of “reality shows” on television, unreality and reality are often so alike that it’s impossible to tell them apart. Of course, if we could easily tell them apart, the game would be over. Writers could no longer play with the two, juggling them back and forth, playing a mental shell game with the reader. The challenge is always the same – and even more difficult in the unreality of musical theatre – how extreme an unreality can a writer take and dress up as reality without the reader/audience rebelling against it? Can he create a man-eating Venus Flytrap from outer space? A transgendered East German rock singer now living in a Kansas trailer park? A “sweet transvestite” from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania? How about a half-boy, half-bat who just wants to be loved? And the other question – how close to reality can the writer shape that unreality, still keeping the two separate?

Knight of the Woeful Countenance

An actor portrays Miguel de Cervantes in Man of La Mancha, who in turn portrays Señor Quijana, who has becomes Don Quixote de La Mancha. At the end of the show, the Governor says, “I think Don Quixote is brother to Don Miguel,” in other words, all that is brave and good about the mad knight is also a part of Cervantes. When this story takes place (the late 1500s), there have been no knights in Spain for over three hundred years, but this is entirely irrelevant to Quixote. What matters to him is what those knights stood for (at least as portrayed in his books). Most of the characters in the show think Quijana/Quixote is insane because he sees windmills as dragons, a kitchen wench as a high born lady; he sees the world as he’d like it to be, as he thinks it should be, instead of as it is. Quixote says in the musical, “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies?” Even more today than when the show opened in 1965, our real world does seem lunatic – urban gang violence, killer drugs, wars and terrorism throughout the world. The only way to stay sane in our contemporary world is to see the world as it could be. Though Man of La Mancha is almost forty years old, and the novel is almost four hundred years old, the message is as timely today as ever.