When “Man of la Mancha” opened a half-century ago, its symbolism as a reflection of the nation’s tailspin not only was striking, but timely in an unexpectedly ironic way.
The ground-breaking musical about Don Quixote opened off-Broadway (in Greenwich Village) on Nov. 22, 1965, two years to the day after the murder of President John F. Kennedy sent America into an indelible decade of turmoil and rebellion, looking desperately to recover its heart and soul.
Heart and soul are the chief attributes of the musical’s dual lead role of 17th century author Miguel de Cervantes and his immortal character, Don Quixote, who mistakes windmills for enemies and a barber’s pan for a “golden helmet.”
The musical, which won five Tony Awards in its day, including Best Musical and Best Actor (for brilliant Broadway leading man Richard Kiley), is back on the boards, at Westchester Broadway Theater (WBT) in Elmsford. It will play at the dinner theater through May 1. (For tickets and info: 914-592-2222; BroadwayTheatre.com)
When the original production opened, I was a teen, but it made a lifelong impression on me when my dad took me to see it. Seeing it again a few days ago at WBT took me back to my childhood experience in more ways than one.
First is the similarity of WBT’s physical space to the original venue, both using a thrust stage, surrounded on three sides by the audience. That works especially well for this show, which opens and closes with a long staircase opening from above, descending into a prison cell where the story unfolds.
That pulls you closer to the interplay on stage, creating a connection to the characters and action that was absent when I saw this same show in revivals in a conventional theater with a proscenium stage.
The second spark of nostalgia I felt is how the show once again arrives in the midst of a nation riven by political forces of opposing ideologies and dreams. After all, this is the musical—lyrics by Joe Darien, music by Mitch Leigh, book by Dale Wasserman—that gave us “The Impossible Dream.”
“To dream the impossible dream,
To fight the unbeatable foe.”
For supporters of Donald Trump, the foe is the establishment. For Bernie Sanders’ partisans, the foe is corporate America and the tiny cabal of corporatists who control the nation’s wealth. For the Hillary Clinton crowd, the foe, perhaps, is male chauvinism, as she tries to become the country’s first female president, as Barack Obama became our first black commander-in-chief.
In the ‘60s, with America’s heart pierced by an assassin’s bullet, its soul was up for grabs, fought over violently between disenfranchised youth who were anti-war and a rigid authoritarian infrastructure that equated protest with patriotism betrayed.
For the post-Kennedy generation (“To bear with unbearable sorrow…”), numbing its pain with drugs as it floated toward the decade-ending Woodstock, the impossible dream was living in a land of peace and love—natural narcotics, if you will—thus paying homage to the fallen president’s legacy of ambitious idealism. (“To love, pure and chaste from afar.”)
The show’s tapestry of songs evoke the romanticism of the Kennedy era. It’s in the service of reminding us that, lacking a noble effort to “reach the unreachable star,” we lose our sense of purpose and our pursuit of perfection.
“This is my quest, to follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far…” Kennedy’s singular quest was to reach the moon, and he did, if posthumously, six years after his death.
The WBT production is in experienced hands with director and choreographer David Wasson at the helm. He was in several revivals of the show in the 1970s and 20 years after that, filling just about every male role.
Paul Schoeffler brings both playfulness and gravitas to his twin portrayal of author and character, as well as a strong and pleasing voice. He and the cast are backed by a live, six-piece orchestra, which is a standard fixture at WBT.
“And the world will be better for this, that one man, scorned and covered with scars, still strove, with his last ounce of courage…”
Those words might apply to all the presidential candidates as they head into the final stretch, toward their respective nominating conventions this summer. Whether the U.S.—let alone the world—will be better for it will rest squarely on the shoulders of the last man—or woman—standing.
After it’s all over but the shouting, only one will reach the unreachable star.
For the rest of us, our dreams either will seem more possible, or impossible, at least for another four years.
Media and marketing specialist Bruce Apar, also known as Bruce the Blog, is chief content officer of Pinpoint Marketing & Design, a certified Google Partner agency. Follow Bruce the Blog or Hudson Valley WXYZ on social media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-275-6887.