Part I – Introduction and Synopsis
Wasserman/Leigh/Darion’s Man of La Mancha was one of the most successful musicals of the 1960s, with the original 1965 Broadway run remaining onstage for 2, 238 performances, making it the third-longest-running musical of the decade. The original Broadway run starred Richard Kiley as Quixote and Joan Diener as Aldonza/Dulcinea and nabbed six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Leading Actor, and Best Original Score. The musical has been revived on Broadway several times, with varying levels of success, and has been frequently adapted for foreign-language stages. Man of La Mancha was also adapted into a movie starring Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren in 1972, although the resulting film was somewhat uneven and received mixed reviews due to its fairly lackluster singing and its rather exaggerated sentimentality. The show’s music has remained popular, however, with “The Impossible Dream” in particular joining the ranks of beloved Broadway standards.
Man of La Mancha also arrived at a time of significant upheaval on Broadway (to say nothing of the country in general in the 1960s). Even though the mid-1960s produced several long-running evergreens of American musical theatre, including Hello Dolly, Funny Girl (which launched the career of Barbara Streisand), Fiddler on the Roof, and Cabaret, by the end of the decade Broadway was beginning to suffer a downturn. The number of new productions dropped off precipitously, and further the area around Times Square in New York City was becoming progressively rougher, presaging New York City’s budget crises in the 1970s. Perhaps most crucially, Broadway was no longer plugged into popular culture to the extent that it had been in the 1940s and 50s. Amidst the generational and social divisions of the 1960s, Broadway ultimately found itself squarely on the side of the squares. Showtunes could no longer count on the support of the wider entertainment industry in the era of rock music, and many promising singers, songwriters, directors, and showbiz professionals found that the grass was much greener on the side of the fence that included movies, TV, and pop music. However, in 1968 the revolutionary sentiments and musical aesthetics of the time did find their way to Broadway in the surprising hit rock musical Hair, a work centered on a tribe of hippies who confront the audience with profanity, nudity, drug use, and songs that bluntly tackle racism, poverty, the draft, and the Vietnam War. Although Hair was not particularly welcomed by the Broadway establishment at the time, it did indicate that pop, soul, and rock music could have a place on Broadway, a mantle taken up in the 1970s by Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and The Wiz.
As we will see, Man of La Mancha straddles the past and future of Broadway at this particular moment of history. In many respects, it is a traditionally plot-driven “book musical” in the vein of “Golden Age” classics of the 1940s and 50s. The unrelentingly optimistic tone of Man of La Mancha also seems in some ways to be an escapist throwback, given the historical context of the mid-1960s. At the same time, however, Wasserman’s dramatic conceit of having the author Cervantes enact episodes of his novel as he awaits judgment by the Spanish Inquisition is strikingly postmodern. Further, the flamenco-influenced musical soundscape crafted by composer Mitch Leigh and orchestrator Carlyle W. Hall represents a move away from standard orchestral accompaniment and perhaps helped nudge open the door for contemporary styles of popular music in the years to follow.
The musical begins with the author and actor Miguel Cervantes and his manservant having been jailed by the Spanish Inquisition after foreclosing on a monastery (in the 1972 film they are arrested for parodying the Inquisition in a stage play). The rest of the prisoners attack them and set up a mock trial in which Cervantes will hand over all of his possessions if he is found guilty. Cervantes agrees to the terms, with the exception of a valuable manuscript that he wants to keep. He asks to be allowed to offer a defense in the form of a play acted out by himself and the other prisoners. When the “judge” (a prisoner known as “The Governor”) agrees, Cervantes retrieves a makeup kit and quickly transforms himself into Alonso Quijana, an elderly gentleman whose love of chivalric romance books has driven him to believe that he is a knight-errant who needs to go forth in search of adventure. Quijana dubs himself Don Quixote de la Mancha and sets off with his “squire” Sancho Panza, and “Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote)” introduces the pair.
As they ride, Quixote warns Sancho that they are in constant danger of being attacked by his nemesis, The Enchanter. He then spies a windmill and attacks it, thinking it is a giant, and his thrown from his horse. Quixote reasons that he has been defeated because he has not been properly dubbed a knight, and the two ride off to a rundown roadside inn (which Quixote thinks is a castle).
Back in the prison, Cervantes convinces several other prisoners to take on the roles of Aldonza, a serving wench and prostitute, and a group of muleteers. The Governor plays the innkeeper. In Aldonza’s first number, “It’s All the Same,” she parries the advances of the muleteers, although ultimately accepts the offer of their leader, Pedro. (Some might rather hear one of the cast recordings rather than Sophia Loren’s relatively untutored singing, but I feel like her performance really conveys the character’s contempt for the muleteers.)
When Quixote and Sancho enter, the innkeeper plays along with Quixote’s fantasies, but when Quixote sees Aldonza, he fancies her as the lady Dulcinea, to whom he has sworn his loyalty. His ode to her, “Dulcinea,” is at first confusing for Aldonza, and she ultimately gets rather annoyed with the attention, particularly after the muleteers take up the tune and begin mocking her with it.
The action then shifts to Quixote’s niece, Antonia, and his housekeeper, who are seeking counsel from a local priest in “I’m Only Thinking of Him.” Both Antonia and the housekeeper are at pains to deny any self-serving motives regarding their concern about Quixote, but Antonia fears that his madness will cause embarrassment and possibly affect her upcoming marriage. The housekeeper seems to fear Quixote himself, as she is worried that she may become the object of a knightly “quest” and will have to “grimly guard [her] honor.” The priest of course sees through all this, and the number ends with a trio in which the priest sarcastically affirms the purity of their motives as the women sing countermelodies on the word “woe.” We are also introduced to Antonia’s fiancé, Dr. Sanson Carrasco, played by a rather cynical prisoner named “The Duke.” Carrasco is annoyed at the fact that his new family contains a madman, but the priest ultimately convinces him that curing Quixote would be an impressive demonstration of his medical skill, so they head off in search of the old knight.
When the play returns to the inn, Sancho is delivering a letter from Don Quixote to Aldonza in which he asks for her favor and a token. Aldonza obliges by tossing Sancho and old dishrag, which Quixote takes for a silken scarf. Aldonza then asks Sancho what he sees in Quixote and why he follows him, and Sancho is only able to come up with “I Really Like Him.” After Sancho leaves, Aldonza muses on Quixote’s behavior in “What Does He Want of Me,” a lilting ballad in 7/8 time. It is perhaps a testament to Leigh’s skills as a composer that I would feel comfortable describing a piece in septuple meter as “lilting.” Indeed, it’s not even apparent at first that the song is in an odd meter, as opposed to, say, “Everything’s Alright” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, which wears its 5/4 meter (and it’s indebtedness to Dave Brubeck) on its sleeve. Given that 7/8 often seems to have a sort of a “limp” to it, one might theorize that the way Leigh downplays the meter shows Aldonza’s connection to Quixote beginning to heal her brokenness a little bit. Yet when she returns to the courtyard, the muleteers taunt her again with the song “Little Bird, Little Bird.”
Carrasco and the priest arrive at the inn, but find themselves unable to get through to Quixote, who becomes distracted when he sees a barber wearing his basin on his head to ward off the heat. Quixote is convinced that the basin is the Golden Helmet of Mambrino, an article of armor that renders the wearer invulnerable and which figures heavily in medieval chansons de geste. Quixote takes the basin over the barber’s protests. As Dr. Carrasco and the priest leave, the priest muses over whether curing Quixote is really worth the trouble in “To Each his Dulcinea.”
Quixote then asks the innkeeper to dub him knight, and as a part of his knighting, Quixote stands an overnight vigil in the courtyard over his armor. While he is there, Aldonza crosses the courtyard and confronts him enroute to her appointment with Pedro, the leader of the muleteers. Quixote answers her questions with the show’s most popular number, “The Impossible Dream.” Pedro enters, angry at being kept waiting, and slaps Aldonza, at which point Don Quixote takes them all on with the help of Aldonza and Sancho. Quixote ultimately prevails through a good bit of luck, but the innkeeper tells Quixote that he must leave because of the disturbance. Don Quixote agrees but then reminds the innkeeper of his promise to knight him, and finally, the innkeeper dubs him the “Knight of the Woeful Countenance.” Following this, Quixote convinces Aldonza to assist him in tending to the wounds of the muleteers (according to the laws of chivalry), at which point she is beaten and abducted by the muleteers while Quixote contemplates his victory in his room. Quixote reprises “The Impossible Dream” here, with a sense of biting irony as he is unaware of what has befallen Aldonza.
At this point, the drama is interrupted when the Inquisition arrives to drag off a prisoner, bringing the reality of the situation crashing back down. The Duke then berates Cervantes for not seeing life as it is and living in a world of fantasy, and Cervantes counters with an impassioned defense of idealism, finishing with the famous line, “Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!” Incidentally, this particular quote is regularly attributed to Cervantes himself, but does not seem to be derived from the original Don Quixote (as far as I can find, although I’m far from a Cervantes scholar). The line instead seems to be an original part of the Man of La Mancha libretto, which is a reminder of the old Benjamin Franklin quote that you can’t always believe everything you read on the Internet.
When the Don Quixote play resumes, Quixote and Sancho have left the inn and are ultimately set upon by a band of gypsies who steal their belongings, including Quixote’s horse Rocinante and Sancho’s donkey. After they return to the inn and are allowed back by the innkeeper, Aldonza returns bearing the bruises of her ordeal. Quixote swears to avenge her, but she grows angry with him and tells him of the brutal circumstances of her life before condemning him for tormenting her with visions of a life beyond her means in “Aldonza.” The flamenco influence of the score is particularly evident in this number’s distinctive hemiola rhythms (also clearly heard in “I, Don Quixote”) and use of idiomatic guitar techniques like rasgueado strumming.
At this point, Quixote’s mortal enemy, the Enchanter, arrives as the “Knight of the Mirrors.” During their combat, the knight’s attendants swing mirrored shields in order to blind Quixote with the glare of the sun. The knight taunts Quixote and forces him to see himself in the mirror as the world sees him, as a deluded fool. As Quixote collapses in tears, the knight removes his helmet and reveals that he is in fact Dr. Carrasco and that this was his plan to cure Quixote of his madness.
Cervantes then announces that this is the end of his play thus far, much to the prisoners’ dissatisfaction. As they get ready to burn Cervantes’ manuscript, he asks to present one final scene. This last scene takes place in Alonso Quijana’s bedroom where he lies comatose attended by Sancho, Antonia, the priest, the housekeeper, and Dr. Carrasco. When Quijana awakens, he reveals that he has been cured and now only remembers his knightly adventures as a dream. He also realizes that he is dying and asks the priest to make out a will, but Aldonza forces her way into the room as he begins. She has come because she can no longer tolerate life as Aldonza and needs to be Dulcinea again. Quijana does not recognize her at first, but his memory is jogged when she sings “Dulcinea” and tries to help him remember the words of “The Impossible Dream.” He suddenly remembers and calls for his armor and sword, but as he reprises “Man of La Mancha” he cries out and falls over dead. However, Aldonza states that even though this man is dead, Don Quixote is not, reiterates that her name is “Dulcinea” and implores Sancho to still believe. Indeed, one might say that she has been “Quixotized,” in a sense.
At this point, the Inquisition returns for Cervantes and the other prisoners return his manuscript, which is revealed to be the novel Don Quixote de La Mancha. The prisoners then reprise “The Impossible Dream” as Cervantes and his servant are led off to their trial.
Materials created by Ross Hagen.