By ANYA RUDNICK, Director of Education and Outreach
“To Dream the Impossible Dream/To fight the unbeatable foe/To bear with unbearable sorrow/To run where the brave dare not go” sings Cervantes/Don Quixote, the hero of Dale Wasserman’s tour de force musical, MAN OF LA MANCHA. He continues, “This is my quest/To follow that star/No matter how hopeless/ No matter how far.” And so we are offered a glimpse into the mind of a man who dares to dream and who chooses to use the power of imagination to overcome struggle and adversity. This stunning production is brought to life by a trip of women- Director Allison Narver, Music Director Cynthia Kortman Westphal and Choreographer Maria Torres. I asked them each to reflect on the experiences of bringing this musical to The 5th Avenue stage.
WHAT DRAWS EACH OF YOU TO MAN OF LA MANCHA?
ALLISON NARVER (AN): When David [Armstrong, Executive Producer and Artistic Director at the 5th] and Bill [Berry, Associate Artistic Director] asked me to direct Man of La Mancha I was thrilled. I adore the show and was dying to get my hands on this epic, funny, muscular, stubborn and gorgeous piece. It’s rare that as a director you get to work on a piece that is comic opera, a testament to the power of imagination and a powerful meditation on injustice and oppression. The musical was a deeply political piece upon its first inception. I want to honor that spirit. This feels especially urgent right now as our world reels from ethnic, religious and political turmoil. But as much as anything I love this play because it’s absurd, subversive, daring, epic and silly. My love for this show continues to grow the more I work on it. I am humbled to work with this design team, with Maria and Cynthia, and without a doubt the most extraordinary cast I could ever have in my wildest dreams imagined.
CYNTHIA KORTMAN WESTPHAL (CKW): I’ve always wanted to do this musical simply because I think it has a stunningly beautiful score and a timeless story.
MARIA TORRES (MT): It is a contemporary interpretation of the classic, which allows us to take this original story of hope and make it relevant today.
AT ITS ESSENCE, THIS STORY IS A CELEBRATION OF THE POWER OF IMAGINATION. HOW DO YOU HOPE TO CONVEY THIS ON STAGE?
AN: In my opinion, great theater always releases the power of imagination in its audience. This entire piece is about the power of bold acts of imagination. It does not matter whether the character of Don Quixote is a burlesque of chivalry, or whether the hero is a madman or an actor. What matters is that he is indelibly set free in our imaginations and discovers for us a new quality about the human spirit. The prisoners in the play are ultimately captivated by Cervantes’ act of make-believe. Once engaged in that kind of imaginative play, they are swept up in the act of creating the story together. I hope to tell a good enough story that our audiences can engage fully with our play, just as the prisoners have.
CKW: Yes, it’s about the power of imagination, but I think even more, it’s about the power that we all have to find beauty and meaning in the face of adversity and struggle.
WHAT IS UNIQUE ABOUT THIS 5TH AVENUE PRODUCTION OF A MUCH-BELOVED SHOW?
AN: When re-reading it and listening to the music again, I was struck by how relevant this show is to events in the world today. Much like the show, people around the world are held in detainment camps or prisons, arrested, and convicted without the benefit of a trial. Man of La Mancha has always been set during the Spanish Inquisition, a time when heretics were imprisoned without tests of any kind, were locked up in prisons, tortured and condemned. The resonance of this play made me want to create a contemporary setting—a place that could be a refugee detainment camp or some kind of political prison. Often when people are dislocated and moved to detainment/refugee camps, music-making, singing or dancing start very quickly. To me this is one of the most powerful symbols of what it means to make art in the face of grim brutality. The beauty of the human voice declares itself despite the bleakness that surrounds it.
CKW: This production is led by three strong women! In our field, it is still highly unusual to have a female director, choreographer and music director working together. Practically unheard of! This show has always been about Don Quixote, but I hope that we also tell more of Aldonza’s story. Yes, this is the story of the man of La Mancha, but in the end, I really see Aldonza as the one who has taken the biggest journey and made the most dramatic transformation.
MT: The production is set in a present day world with modern influences. My vision for the choreography is to reinvent a unique language of movement that is true to the alternate world being re-imagined.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE THE AUDIENCE WALKS AWAY WITH AT THE END OF THE SHOW?
AN: More than anything, I want the audiences to walk away feeling that dividing the world into “us” and “them” is no longer viable. To me, the power of the piece is the capacity to stare into the face of a cruel, oppressive force; choosing to create instead of destroy; to make a joke instead of suffering quietly; to make art in the face of brutality; and to stubbornly choose idealistic action in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. My “impossible dream” is that when we see images of people in deep pain or distress, we remember that it is only circumstance that separates us. We are one world and at times, the act of storytelling or creativity can lift us to approach the world with more courage and compassion. If people walk away enchanted by the beauty of the score, the power of the story and the magnificence of the actors onstage I will have done my job. And most importantly, despite the weighty themes above, the play is really funny and I hope people laugh a lot.
MT: I would love for the audience to be uplifted and inspired by the production and to walk away with an even greater appreciation for art and life.
CKW: What is powerful about the song “The Impossible Dream” is that it truly acknowledges that we cannot attain perfection in this life. And if utopia in this life cannot be achieved, what is the point? Some people would choose to not even try. But some—and this is what I hope for ALL of us—would continue to choose love over hate, hope over despair, courage over fear. I hope that audiences see, hear and feel that what Don Quixote called “The Quest” is our best defense against hate and despair and fear. I hope the audience walks away with hope in their hearts!