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The Playwright, the Lyricist, and the Songwriter

By Rachelle Hughes
From Insights, 2002

 

Man of La Mancha, as it is seen on the stage, is the result of a long, twisting, and sometimes bumpy adventure. Playwright Dale Wasserman first wrote Man of La Mancha as the ninety-minute television drama, I, Don Quixote, that won considerable acclaim and many awards. Personally dissatisfied with his first written tribute to Don Quixote and its author Miguel Cervantes, Wasserman revamped Man of La Mancha for the theatre. The new version never reached production stage, and Wasserman remained dissatisfied with his work.

It was not until Wasserman joined forces with lyricist Joe Darion and songwriter Mitch Leigh that it became, as Wasserman said, "a kind of theatre that was, at least within the boundaries of our experience, without precedent" (Dale Wasserman, Man of La Mancha: Preface [New York: Random House, 1966], viii). And so the three men, not unlike Don Quixote, ventured on a quest that was in some ways an impossible dream. Despite an initially cool response to Man of La Mancha from producers and backers, the playwright, the lyricist, and the songwriter persevered. They were finally rewarded when audience after audience gave their resounding approval. In Wasserman, Darion, and Leigh we find three men who throughout their theatre and musical careers have continued to reach for the stars, always guided by their own quixotic dream.

Dale Wasserman

Dale Wasserman was born in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. As to when, he claims to not know exactly. His formal education ended after one year of high school. He now holds three honorary doctorates from three universities. A self-proclaimed "show biz hobo" and "secretly lazy man" (he has written over seventy works for television, approximately two dozen plays and musicals and seventeen feature films), Wasserman entered the world of pro theatre at age nineteen. He has worn almost every theatre hat from lighting designer to producer and director. His theatre career took a sharp, permanent turn when he walked out on a Broadway musical he was directing with the feeling he "couldn't possibly write worse than the stuff [he] was directing" (Dale Wasserman Biography. www.dalewasserman.com: [Rodin International, April 12, 2001] 1).

His abrupt career change to writer has seen success in every performance venue. His theatre credits include, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, How I Saved the Whole Damn World, and his recent work, A Walk in the Sky. Television and feature film credits include The Power and the Glory, Circle of Death, Perchance to Dream, Cleopatra, and Aboard the Flying Swan. He has received over forty-five awards including Emmys, Tonys, Ellys, and Robys. Yet, he rarely attends award ceremonies or opening nights. One theatre critic has even questioned his existence.

He did, however, show up to accept an honorary doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, not because he had the chance to address an audience of 25,000, but because "a scant quarter mile from where I was being doctored I had hopped my first freight at twelve years of age. Irony should not be wasted," he said. (DaleWasserman Biography, www.dalewasserman.com [Rodin International, April 12, 2001] 1).

Wasserman may avoid the limelight but there are a few clues to his inner psyche, and nowhere are they more apparent than in his work, Man of La Mancha. "I wrote Man of La Mancha because I believed in it. It is my most personal play," he said in an interview (Dale Wasserman Biography, www.dalewasserman.com [Rodin International, April 12, 2001] 1).

Wassserman decided to write Man of La Mancha because he felt drawn to the author of the original novel, Don Quixote. Miguel de Cervantes led a life that Wasserman calls a "catalogue of catastrophe." Yet he managed to produce one of the most beautiful stories ever told. We can take a line from Wasserman's own play to explain why he wanted, even needed to pay tribute to Cervantes.

The Duke asks: Why are you poets so fascinated with madmen?

Cervantes replies: I suppose . . . We have much in common.

Duke: You both turn your backs on life.

Cervantes: We both select from life what pleases us (60).

Wasserman continues to add his talent to the stage. The 2000- 2001 season saw five new plays: Beggar's Holiday, Western Star, How I Saved the Whole Damn World, An Enchanted Land, and A Walk in the Sky. His two most popular plays, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Man of La Mancha, have made him the most produced American playwright worldwide. Still he continues to put pen to paper. Perhaps, Wasserman would echo his own Don Quixote on why he continues to work so hard. "I hope to add some measure of grace to the world. . . . Whether I win or lose does not matter, only that I follow the quest" (49).

Joe Darion

Joe Darion left a legacy of musicals, cantatas, pop songs, operas, librettos, and masses when he died in June 2001 at eighty-four. His lyrics for "To Dream the Impossible Dream" in Man of La Mancha won Darion the 1965 66 Tony award for best lyrics of the Broadway season. Other popular songs that he was the lyricist for, such as "Ricochet," "Midnight Train," and "Changing Partners," sold records in the tens of millions. His opera based on the characters Archy and Mehitabel was turned into the Broadway Musical Shinbone Alley. On the more serious side, his work with composer Ezra Laderman includes the oratorio operas Galileo and And David Wept and the cantatas A Handful of Souls and The Questions of Abraham. He has received a variety of awards including the Drama Critics Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Gabriel Award, the Ohio State Award, and the International Broadcasting Award.

Like his Man of La Mancha colleagues, his talent reached into every aspect of written music. In the past eighty-four years he has touched all of us with his poetry. He too could take a line from Don Quixote and his own lyrics to describe his life: "My destiny calls and I go; And the wild winds of fortune will carry me onward, Oh whithersoever they go" (12).

Mitch Leigh

Pianist, Arthur Rubenstein has said of Mitch Leigh, "He's the most brilliant composer writing for music today." Leigh earned his bachelor's degree in music from Yale in 1951 and his master's in music in 1952, studying with Paul Hindemith. Since then he has worked as a composer, a producer, a director, and a businessmen. He is the only living composer whose work was included in the Metropolitan Opera's Centennial Celebration. Among Leigh's awards are the Drama Critic's Circle Award, the Contemporary Classics Award from the Songwriter's Hall of Fame for "To Dream the Impossible Dream," and the first Yale Arts Award for Outstanding Achievement in Musical Composition.

In 1957 Leigh formed Music Makers, Inc., a radio and television commercial production house, where as creative director, he won every major award within the advertising industry. His most recent honor came in September 2001, when Yale University named their new School of Music building after him and his wife, Abby.


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