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THEATER SCENE : The Man Behind 'Man of La Mancha' Tells How It Started : Author tells quixotic tale of how he came to write a play that became a hit musical. It's being staged at two local theaters.


Two local companies are producing versions this year of the venerable musical "Man of La Mancha"--one ends July 23 in Camarillo; the other begins Sept. 16 in Thousand Oaks. Local actors might be distressed (which to audition for?) and local audiences might be confused (which to attend?).

But one man who should be pleased at the news of every new production is Dale Wasserman. The former Moorpark and Westlake Village resident wrote the show, and accrues royalties every time it is performed. "I rarely know where it's going to play," said Wasserman, who now lives in Arizona. "But to my knowledge, there must be between 80 to 100 productions a year."

Based on the life of Spanish novelist and playwright Miguel de Cervantes and his best-known literary creation, Don Quixote, the story, said Wasserman, "speaks across borders well, without any references to political situations--it's about as close to universal as one can get. I didn't know when I was writing it, of course; in fact, I never understood why it was so successful."

"Man of La Mancha" appeared in its original form, without songs, as a 1960 television drama, "I, Don Quixote." Lee J. Cobb starred as Don Quixote; Eli Wallach as Sancho Panza, and Colleen Dewhurst as Quixote's inspiration, the barmaid he calls Aldonza. Wasserman, who has authored a number of screenplays including "The Vikings," "Mr. Buddwing" and the unproduced first draft of the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton "Cleopatra," wrote "I, Don Quixote" while living in Spain, working on a film script.

"An article in the International Herald-Tribune said, erroneously, that I was in the country writing a new adaptation of 'Don Quixote.' As it happened, I'd never read the novel. I still haven't, all the way through. As a matter of fact, I don't really like the novel."

Still, he noticed that "there have been over 400 adaptations of 'Don Quixote,' and they've all failed. I began researching it, and the one thing that interested me was the character of Cervantes, not Don Quixote. He was a failed playwright and wandering actor who loved the theater, but the theater never loved him back.

" 'Man of La Mancha' is not a play about Don Quixote at all, but a play about Miguel de Cervantes, fusing him and his character. Then I went to Switzerland and spent three months writing the play as a television special."

There were pressures from producers wanting him to adapt his play for Broadway, Wasserman said. "When I had a little breathing room, I said 'Oh, let's do it.' It was very easy for me, because in play form it was already almost a musical."

The songs, written by Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh, were "all taken from what I called my 'aria speeches,' " Wasserman said. "One of the problem with being a book writer on a musical is that you write your heart out writing a speech, which a lyricist takes and you lose it as your own. I am a playwright; for me, music is a way of heightening emotions."

The show opened in Broadway in late 1965, becoming a major hit (over 2,300 performances) before playing to international acclaim. Wasserman expects to be in Thousand Oaks for the Santa Susana Repertory Company's September production, though he'll miss the current Camarillo Community Theater edition at the Camarillo Airport Theater (see calendar listings for further information).

But he'll be back: early next year, one of two new Wasserman theatrical projects, a musical called "Western Star," will have its premiere at the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera. (The second, a new adaptation of the 1947 John Latouche-Duke Ellington musical "Beggar's Holiday," is scheduled to open in Chicago later this year. A film script based on the life of Carthaginian general Hannibal and planned to star Denzel Washington, has been optioned by Zev Braun productions.)

Wasserman, whose other best-known play is his adaptation of Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," said he wrote "Western Star" not for Broadway but directly for community and regional theater companies.

"The theaters across the country are no longer getting material from Broadway because there is no material on Broadway," he said. "And the property that plays the mortgage (for community groups) is the musical. I thought I'd try something unconventional and write a musical for stock and amateur companies, and not give a damn whether it plays Broadway or not."

The inspiration for "Western Star" came, Wasserman explained, "from one of the books of the Bible; I'd hate to tell you which one, I rather the audience figured that out for themselves. I've written much about the American West--books, movies and things. The very American notion that there are always solutions lurking over the next horizon has always interested be because it's so delusional. If 'Oklahoma!' is authentic American folklore, than I'm a pixie.

"I had in mind a musical that would have the real pain and pleasure, the uniquely American mixture of tenderness and violence, of myth and harsh reality."

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