Could Shakespeare Theatre Company’s hit production of “Man of La Mancha” be a stepping stone for a 50th-anniversary Broadway revival? That speculation was fueled Saturday when Martha Nelly Wasserman, who holds the rights to the musical, stopped by the theater to greet the cast and creative team.
Wasserman, the widow of “La Mancha” book author Dale Wasserman, spent the day in Penn Quarter, lunching with director Alan Paul, taking in the matinee and joining the cast for a champagne toast. In a wide-ranging post-show speech, she praised leading lady Amber Iman, trash-talked Rodgers and Hammerstein, and announced she was “looking for stars” to take the show back to Broadway.
The former actress, who once doubled for Natalie Wood, began by praising Paul’s direction (although possibly credit should have gone to choreographer Marcos Santana): “Alan did something very smart. He had the prisoners dance continuously while they sing. He created movement,” she said.
Wasserman hailed Iman’s performance as Aldonza, the tavern barmaid revered by Don Quixote, and her “big, beautiful voice.” (But she pulled Iman aside later, offering advice on how to more gravely deliver the line, “I was spawned in a ditch.”)
Clearly, the musical has no better global cheerleader.
“There is no other show like it, and I don’t say that because my husband wrote it,” Wasserman said. “I see all the shows. What is ‘Oklahoma’? It is two guys fighting over who will take a girl to lunch. ‘My Fair Lady’? So what? A girl wants to learn English.”
“‘Man of La Mancha,’ ” she said, “is the only musical that is about the audience.” She then quoted the show’s fairly immortal lyrics from “The Impossible Dream”: “To bear with unbearable sorrow / To run where the brave dare not go,” etc.
“Every single night, the audience has just stood up because they recognize something in this piece, something magical,” Wasserman said.
That’s certainly how Washington audiences have responded to the musical, which was extended through Sunday and is drawing enthusiastic crowds, even at matinees. Whether “La Mancha” can draw the same support on Broadway is debatable, but Wasserman is trying to give a 50th-
anniversary production a go. (Playbill.com does not list “Man of La Mancha” as scheduled for the 2015-2016 season.)
The musical originally opened Nov. 22, 1965, and ran for nearly six years. The last of four revivals earned Brian Stokes Mitchell a Tony nomination in 2003.
“It will play on Broadway again,” Wasserman said. “We are trying to get stars.”
As the school year winds down, it is worth noting that it has been a rather depressing two semesters for documentary theater on area college campuses. Last fall, the University of Maryland brought in director Ping Chong to create a play inspired by the Ferguson unrest, and in February produced “The Good Kids,” a new dramatic debate about sex and consent. Also in February, American University playwright and professor Caleen Sinnette Jennings presented a performance piece that took a prescient look at racial tensions.
During a March U.S. tour that stopped at Georgetown University, Serbia’s DAH Teatar performed “The Quivering of the Rose,” a play about losing loved ones to ethnic and political conflict.
This week, George Washington University got into the social justice act by devoting two nights to “Seven,” a documentary play about the fight for women’s rights around the world.
The performances were produced with Vital Voices Global Partnership, a Washington-based nonprofit group that has taken a script written by seven playwrights and shepherded productions in more than 30 countries since 2006.
Swedish theater artist Hedda Krausz Sjögren has served as casting director and narrator for many of the productions. In each city, she recruits community leaders and celebrities to portray women from seven countries who have overcome rape, discrimination and poverty and become champions for women’s rights. Playwrights who collected stories include actress/activist Anna Deavere Smith and Carol K. Mack, who wove the dialogue into a somewhat cohesive play.
Men often play female parts, and for the GWU production, Sjögren recruited Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to read the words of Northern Irish activist Inez McCormack; John Podesta, chairman of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign, to portray Afghan refugee Farida Azizi; and Swedish ambassador Bjorn Lyrvall to play Marina Pisklakova-Parker, a Russian domestic-violence counselor. Other readers included Susan Stamberg of NPR and Army Col. Litonya Wilson, who works on sexual-assault issues for the Defense Department.
How’d they do? Very well, under the direction of GWU theater professor Leslie Jacobson. The event was captured on film by Bonnie Nelson Schwartz, a longtime Washington theater and film producer who is making a documentary about the play. “This is a play that has to be taken to a broader audience through the power of media,” Schwartz said.
Two D.C. artistic directors will head west next year at the request of San Diego’s venerable Old Globe Theatre — not for good, but to direct two plays that debuted here.
In January, Shakespeare Theatre’s Michael Kahn will reprise “The Metromaniacs,” an obscure French comedy adapted by David Ives that proved popular earlier this year. In May 2016, Arena Stage’s Molly Smith will direct “Camp David,” Lawrence Wright’s somewhat dry depiction of President Jimmy Carter’s attempts to broker a peace accord between Israel and Egypt.
“My audience is going to see two extremely fine productions, and my theater is going to continue helping with the development of these new works,” said Barry Edelstein, the Old Globe’s artistic director. The goal for “Camp David” is Broadway, he said, and Wright will continue to finesse the script. Edelstein considers Kahn a friend and mentor and has long wanted to bring him to the West Coast.
“There’s great stuff coming out of Washington,” Edelstein said. “Everyone knows the theater scene there is burgeoning. The decision to do these two productions, however, has to do with merits of these two plays.”
The Old Globe announced its 2015-16 season last week.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.