And just like that, Man of La Mancha is upon us all and open. This was tech/dress week so it’s been rather busy. Techs on Saturday and Sunday, dress on Monday, previews on Tuesday and Wednesday and opening night tonight. The welter of activity on top of all my usual job requirements has kept me racing from pillar to post but I have managed to be where I need to be when I am needed there. I once told my boss, when he tried to keep up with my schedule, that I have practically managed the art of being in two places at once. I just have difficulty with three. He never questioned my ability to keep all the balls in the air after that and I don’t think I ever disappointed him. He has since departed UAB and my new boss is wise enough not to ask too many questions and just accepts that I’m able to do it all.
The 14-16 hour days are serving a practical purpose. They are pulling me out of the funk I’d be falling into as the first anniversary of last year’s calamitous events rapidly approaches. Today is the first anniversary of Tommy’s admission to the hospital after he developed rapid onset fulminant heart failure over the course of a couple days. I had taken one look at him and his sudden onset lower extremity edema that morning and told him to get checked immediately before I headed off to work. He called me a couple of hours later from the emergency room around the corner from my office to say that they had determined his ejection fraction (a measure of heart pumping) was about 25% (normal is 50-75%) and that he was being admitted. I ran over as soon as I was able, got his orders for what he would need for the hospital stay, ran home and collected things up, flew off to my afternoon meeting, and then met him in his hospital room for dinner and to get him settled. This was hardly his first hospital stay in our time together and we kind of had things worked out. We both figured he’d be in a few days, get diuretics and then it would be back to normal with medication changes and close follow up. We had no idea he would be there for the next month and would never come home.
So, over the month of April, I have to process the first anniversary of what was an agonizing hospitalization, physically for him as he became more and more tied to bed with intraaortic balloon pumps, and mentally for me as I tried to hold our life together and started to recognize just how sick he was. In the midst of that will be his first birthday without him, he would be 54 this year; and at the end of the month, the anniversary of his actual death which was sudden and unpredicted, if not wholly unexpected. I may be a little rocky over the next few weeks so if you see me staring off into space a bit more than usual, that’s why. My melt downs tend to be interior in nature.
It is with this in the background that I am processing my experience with Man of La Mancha. I was, of course familiar with the show and have seen a number of productions over the years, including the Broadway revival with Brian Stokes Mitchell some fifteen years ago but none of those shows ever really grabbed me. Perhaps it was weak casting or production values. Perhaps it was my mood going into the theater. It had always struck me as one of those shows that had a better reputation than it perhaps had deserved. I have certainly talked to folk who saw the original production Off Broadway down on Union Square in the mid 60s and how they found it profoundly moving, but I just didn’t get it.
When I was doing Hello, Dolly! this past fall, Jack Mann, the director of that show who was also slated to direct La Mancha came to me and asked me to be part of the production. I was already committed to Tosca for the opera and the production periods overlapped so I was uncertain. He told me to send me the Tosca schedule and then he got back to me offering me the part of the Captain of the Inquisition. He doesn’t have a ton of stage time so it wouldn’t be a problem if I had to miss some rehearsals for Tosca commitments. So, ever the glutton for punishment, I said yes, I’d love to do it. I loved working for Jack and I knew who had been cast in the principal roles so also knew it promised to be a really good production.
Jack, who was suffering from lung cancer, unfortunately died at the New Year, a huge loss for Birmingham theater and it was necessary for Virginia Samford Theater to find a new director. They made a superb choice in Henry Scott, who has been working in town for a few years, mainly for Red Mountain Theater. Tommy had done a number of shows for him as wigmaster and thought the world of him as a director. I had also been fortunate enough to be in a funky little revue show at Red Mountain called Whine and Cheese about aging which he had staged.
Henry has a background in theater and dance (Steve and I actually saw him in the Tommy Tune Bye Bye Birdie at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco circa 1991 when he was a chorus boy) and all the skills necessary to direct, stage and choreograph La Mancha to one singular vision. As my part is small, I’ve been able to sit out and watch rehearsals and see how he can find small changes in blocking or business that make an enormous difference in the shape of a scene or the relationships among characters. He does it all with a calm energy. He never raises his voice, he finds a way to coach and coax the best out of you. I hope I get to work with him many times in the future.
I’ve been busy trying to figure out what La Mancha is actually about. The simplistic answer is, of course, that it’s a musical version of Don Quixote. Yes, the musical tells the story of the dotty Spaniard but it doesn’t do it in any sort of straightforward way. The action is confined to a dungeon of the Spanish Inquisition. Miguel Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, has been imprisoned for offenses against the Spanish Catholic Church (he tried to collect taxes from them in his role as a tax collector). The true story of Cervantes is rife with such interesting episodes so the frame is based in fact. The imprisoned Cervantes, to protect himself and his manservant from the depredations of the other prisoners, beguiles them with the tale of Quixote, assuming the role of the knight while his manservant essays his squire, Sancho. The other prisoners are drawn into the tale to act out the various characters but the reality of prison and the dangers of the Inquisition keep intruding until Cervantes himself is finally called to give answer to the judges. As he leaves, the prisoners, and the audience along with him, recognize how his presence among them and his storytelling has transformed them from helpless skulking beings back into humans of dignity and worth.
This makes it a show about many things. First and foremost, it’s about the power of narrative. Don Quixote, written contemporaneously with the plays of Shakespeare, is often considered the first novel. Cervantes invented a way of connecting to readers through fictional characters and transforming those readers as his characters learn and grow. And the narrative of the show is multilayered. It’s the narrative of Cervantes telling the story of Don Quixote. It’s the narrative of the whole show being given to the audience. It’s the narrative the awakening of the humanity of the prisoners and the use of story to shine a light in even the darkest times. As I am now in the grandparent generation, I keep coming back to storytelling as being one of my key functions, as it is of everyone in middle age. The role of the elder in society is to teach the young who they are as people (the parents need to keep them alive and fed and educated) and this is best accomplished in story, be it myth, once upon a time, or a treasured classic book or movie that has survived for generations and can continue to be shared downward. What else is it about? It’s about hope and the need to hold on to it no matter the circumstances (a good lesson for our current political climate). It’s about the wisdom of simplicity. There are very few great works of literature that tackle dementia. (It’s a taboo subject. No one wants to look in that mirror and see the disease that destroys the self staring back at them.). King Lear is the usual one cited (and it plays out in my waiting room every couple of months complete with bickering daughters and a parent who refuses to acknowledge his or her lack of capacity). Don Quixote touches on it as well. He, with his gentle delusions, lives in an alternate reality of chivalry and romance and his disorder lets him cut through artifice to more essential truths. As audience, we are saddened when he is ‘cured’ and cheer when he returns to his quest. But isn’t this point of narrative fiction? For us to enter into the world and mind of the other, to a place where we can forget our day to day problems and live for a while in Westeros or Wonderland?
Henry is big on circles. Rehearsals begin with a circling of cast and crew and the circle is important. It’s a reminder that each of us is equally important and equidistant from the center, no matter the role. We are a company that works together and respects everyone’s individualities and talents and at the same time we are a group that cannot function if every piece is not present. But that’s what a show is and probably why I have always been drawn to theater over film. Theater is ephemeral. It doesn’t last other than in memory after the show closes and the set comes down and the costumes are packed away and the cast has moved on to other projects. But, for one brief shining moment, a group of people come together and create something beautiful, something that they could never have created as individuals, something greater than the sum of the parts. And that’s what a society endeavors to do. Sometimes societies, like shows, can go terribly wrong and you look back afterwards and wonder what were y’all thinking. But sometimes, everything goes very right and there’s magic on stage and the energy and enthusiasm of the audience lifts you to even greater heights.
Here’s to a great run everybody.
I have a bunch more to say about Man of La Mancha and the people involved but it’s late and I’m tired and I have clinic in the morning so I’m going to save that for later this weekend.