I am, as mentioned repeatedly to the point that you most likely want to stick knitting needles in your eyes, and please don’t, aw, your lovely eyes!, a musical theater geek. Like, to the point where, given the choice between hot sex with say, oh, I don’t know, Jason Bateman, and seeing Assassins on Broadway, I’d probably go with John Wilkes Booth. (Sorry, Jason Bateman. Call me!)
But I’m really lacking in canonical musical theater knowledge. My musical theater knowledge goes from probably the 80’s to now, but not the current-current stuff, because if it’s not on tour or the rights aren’t available for community theater productions, I probably don’t know it. I can’t afford trips to New York to see the new shows, as much as I’d like to see them, and I don’t hear a lot of music from new musicals on the radio or anything. I mean, who does? Do you live somewhere where Broadway showtunes are on the radio regularly? If so, where do live, and do you have a guest room? It has to have a really firm mattress, though. So if you have a guest room with one of those soft mattresses, forget it. I’m not racking up my back just to listen to Broadway showtunes on the radio. Oh, ALSO, were you all aware that in Texas, you can buy ALCOHOL in DRUGSTORES? NO, that has nothing to do with what we were discussing. You must be new here. That’s how I do things. ANYWAY, I learned this weekend that when you go to the drugstore in Texas, you can buy a bottle of wine. Is this not the most genius thing you have ever heard? Because sometimes a person might want Kleenex, nailpolish, cat food, antidepressants, and also a box of wine. And in Texas, THAT IS POSSIBLE. My mind, she is blown.
Anyway, my musical theater education really started in college. I went to an amazing school, and theater was very popular there. There was a drama department, but there were also community theaters on campus, so there were, at any given time, probably 4-7 shows going on, and I got to see some amazing productions over my five years there. (NO, I wasn’t there for five years because I was a failure. Bite your tongue! I did some graduate work. I’ll have you know I graduated with a double major in four years, thank you very much.) They did mostly contemporary shows, though, and therefore I am lacking in older show knowledge. And honestly, older shows kind of make me tired, because they’re not about issues I can relate to, and mostly seem kind of sexist, and there’s a lot of longing and wooing and “will they or won’t they” and no one ever has down-and-dirty sex on the stage like in Spring Awakening – YOWZA was that amazingly hot – or cusses a lot, and man do I like a good cuss in a musical – or kills a number of presidents, like in Assassins. LISTEN! Assassins is the best musical ever written. I will totally armwrestle you, and win, if you argue with me about this. It’s a whole MUSICAL about presidential ASSASSINS. What more do you want? Nothing more, if you know what’s good for you.
OH! Oh. I am remiss if I don’t mention that I know, and love, Guys and Dolls, even though it is old. Because a., my old-time movie boyfriend Marlon Brando was in the movie, and b., the song “Sue Me” makes me so irrationally happy I want to dance. DANCE! Also, there is a LOT of amazing music in that musical, even though some of the plot is very, very stupid. That whole thing where they go to dinner in Cuba is INSANE-MAKING.
This is a lot of lead-up to the fact that, when it was announced that Man of La Mancha was coming to my area this year (not once, but twice, actually, once at the super-duper-swanky theater downtown where they bring in professional actors and again, later in the season, at one of my favorite community theaters), I was really jazzed, because I had not seen the show, had not read the book (despite owning it for years – it just seems so daunting!) and only knew one of the songs (“The Impossible Dream” – any musical theater buff knows that song, whether you’re up on the show itself or not.)
It’s not often I go into a show anymore with very little prior knowledge. Sometimes that’s nice, and makes me feel special and important and super-fancy. Sometimes that’s sad, because I feel like maybe I’m missing out on seeing it all through shiny-fresh eyes.
My prior knowledge of Man of La Mancha was that the main character is Don Quixote, and his sidekick is Sancho Panza, but he isn’t really Don Quixote, he’s mentally ill or something and just thinks he is; that he is in love with a barmaid named Aldonza who he calls Dulcinea; that he tilts at windmills at some point in the action (I love how that sounds, “tilting at windmills”) and that at some point he would be singing “The Impossible Dream.” OH! And also? Sam on Quantum Leap leapt into an actor’s body who was playing Don Quixote once. I used to be so in love with Sam Beckett. SO IN LOVE. I still kind of am. Sigh. That’s it. Awesome. Very little prior knowledge.
So, a little background. First, I’m super-poor? And the production was swanky, so kind of pricey? But cheaper if you got the less-good seats, and cheaper STILL if you went on a weekday. So I went on a Thursday night and got mid-range seats, even though it was totally Community and Parks and Rec night. I know, right? I TOLD you. Very little trumps a musical. Even Jason Bateman and his adorable freckle-faced adorableness. So Thursday was COLD. I mean, cooooold. I know. It’s November, Amy, suck it the hell up because Ned Stark was right and winter, it is coming! And it’s going to get colder! But I haven’t assimilated to the cold weather yet. My body still thinks it’s summer, apparently, and when it hits the cold weather is all no no no no BACK INSIDE YOU YAHOO.
So I got to the theater and walked inside and it was nice and warm and toasty in the lobby and that was nice. But when I got to my seat, it was SO COLD. Because LISTEN! There was an AIR CONDITIONING VENT over my seat. Which was going FULL BLAST. What the hell? In mid-November? That seems like an odd HVAC choice, right? There was a little old rich lady sitting next to me and she was huddled under her coat and had a scarf all wrapped around her and was all shivering and that was not ok. I mean, seriously, hostile environment, THEATER. And I mentioned casually, “Hey! Kind of cold!” and she chattered out, “They promised they’d turn it off once the show starts.” So I said, very loudly, because I am an obnoxious asshole, “I’d think they’d TURN OFF THE AIR CONDITIONING SO WE DON’T DIE OF HYPOTHERMIA sooner than 7:30, don’t you?” and, not long after that, because I am VERY SCARY, the air conditioning went off. I know! I am MADE OF MAGIC. And also loud complaints.
So! Here is my barely-any-prior-knowledge review of Man of La Mancha.
First, before I start being nitpicky, it was kind of amazing and brilliant. I’m sure most of you know the story, but in case you don’t and want to – well, I suppose you could Google it, or Wikipedia it, or something, or I could just recap it. OH HEAVY SIGH FINE. Miguel de Cervantes and his manservant have been thrown into prison during the Spanish Inquisition. The other prisoners put them on “trial”, and, in his defense, de Cervantes launches into the tale of Alonso Quijana, a slightly mad man who wants, more than anything, to be a knight – so he thinks he is a knight. He travels the countryside with his manservant, Sancho Panza. Windmills are giants. An inn is a castle. A serving wench of ill-repute is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. But his family wants him to come home, because he is embarrassing them. And all while de Cervantes is telling the story, the guards are taking prisoners away for questioning.
It is WONDERFUL. Seriously amazing. The music is well-written and sweeping and grand and sometimes fun and sometimes serious; the story is wonderful; the actors and set and staging and musicians were right on. I got a grin on my face the minute de Cervantes was willing to lay down his life to protect a book he’d written (listen, I would do the same thing) and I alternately laughed and cried and muttered under my breath for the next two hours. It was really a magical night of theater.
But here’s the thing. I had no idea this wasn’t going to be a light romp. Because they do this show in HIGH SCHOOLS. CHILDREN do this show. CHILDREN! I mean, I know kids are a lot more savvy about how the world is full of badness and ick nowadays, but ok, here, here were the sadnesses and upsettingnesses, and I’m OLD, you guys!
- So Quijana is mentally ill, or maybe just delusional. He wants things to be more beautiful and more chivalrous and such, so he either imagines that they are and lives in his delusion, or he really, really sees them that way. It’s never really clear. Either way, his scheming family (who have a song that was just brilliant, sung in a confessional, “I’m Only Thinking of Him”) set this trap for him so that he has to face his delusion and see the world as it really is. SO UPSETTING. He wasn’t HURTING anyone. I know, I know. Fictional characters! Whatever. It was PAINFUL. It wasn’t like he was attacking people with no cause on streetcorners. The only people he attacked were accosting a woman, and the only inanimate object he attacked was a windmill. Seeing the look in his eyes – and in his friend’s eyes – when his grand delusion was gone was heartbreaking. First, is this fun for kids to play? Second, do they even get that?
- Are you aware that at the beginning of Act Two there’s like a seven-minute rape and abduction scene? No? I WASN’T EITHER. And even MORE fun, they made it into this menacing ballet of rape, where these four men have Aldonza alone and are stopping her at every escape point and are toying with her and throwing her around and on the ground and grinding on her. It was EXCRUCIATING. Then she comes back, all disheveled and bruised from being tied up and raped for days and days, and sings this heartbreaking song about just wanting to be left alone, that Don Quixote gave her hope, and that’s what got her in that predicament to begin with, and SERIOUSLY YOU ARE LETTING CHILDREN PERFORM THIS? I was wrecked. I was muttering along, “Yep, that’s what happens! I should have seen this shit coming! This is pissing me off SO BADLY!” And probably the very nice rich lady next to me no longer thought I was made of magic but of MENTAL ILLNESS.
- Then! THEN. OK, I’m spoiler alerting you, just in case you haven’t seen a 46 year old musical – DON QUIXOTE DIES. No! I’m totally not kidding. He gets his mind back, but Sancho and Aldonza show up and reprise “The Impossible Dream” so he’ll remember that he’s Don Quixote and that is more magical and he lived more fully in his delusion than in his real life, and then he gets up for one more triumphant number AND DROPS DEAD. No! Seriously. SERIOUSLY. It was the WORST. I was sitting there in the audience muttering, “That’s a funny joke. No, he doesn’t DIE. He doesn’t DIE, die.” I sounded like the kid in The Princess Bride, “You’re TELLING it wrong, Grandpa!” But nope! Dead. Dead, dead, dead.
- Then, to make things even MORE exciting, de Cervantes and his servant are hauled away to be Spanish Inquisitioned (because, you know, no one expects that – ba-dum-bum) and the other prisoners sing them on their way. END OF SHOW. Um, did a lot of people SURVIVE the Spanish Inquisition? Yes, I KNOW it’s not REALLY de Cervantes, it’s a character BASED on de Cervantes, and he lived until 1616 (ten days before Shakespeare died! Thanks, Wikipedia!) BUT THIS WAS SO DEPRESSING. I saw the Monty Python sketch, you guys. The Spanish Inquisition looked VERY TRAUMATIC.
So, you’d think, based on this, I hated it. But you know what? It’s honestly one of my favorite musicals now. What? I KNOW. Do you know why? Because I LOVE dark and twisty. LOVE IT. You could give me a day in the sunshine and I’d laugh you in the face because dark and twisty’s where it’s at, baby. Aldonza’s character – and her redemption at the end, when she decides she’s not going to be a victim anymore? YES. THANK YOU. LOVED. The music was amazing, the story so layered I wanted to eat it like a delicious cake, and I left totally satisfied with the entire evening of theater.
What’s next? I suppose I need to see something like, what, South Pacific? That always seemed foolish to me, and maybe vaguely racist. Carousel? I have been interested in that, because have you HEARD Mandy Patinkin sing “Soliloquy”? Utterly brilliant. Although the story seems to be about domestic abuse. Why is there a whole musical about domestic abuse? What else am I missing in my constant quest to know ALL THE THINGS about ALL THE MUSICALS? Well, all the ones that don’t suck, anyway?