Given that this show happens to be not only my favorite musical, but my favorite work of art in any medium, I’m not entirely sure I’m capable of assessing its merits with any degree of objectivity, but I intend to do my best. It helps that the work really is a sublime masterpiece by any standard, so my views regarding it aren’t that biased.
The thing that most people don’t seem to understand about this piece is that it isn’t intended to be a straightforward adaptation of Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote. It uses several of the characters and concepts from the novel, but the structure, tone and message are entirely different. Don Quixote was a series of rambling adventures with a largely comedic tone and a rather depressing ultimate end. Man of La Mancha is a tight, focused drama full of serious and high-minded ideals and philosophy, and it climaxes in triumphant ecstasy despite the outwardly tragic circumstances of its ending. Moreover, the show’s focus is ultimately just as much on its fictionalized version of Cervantes as on the character of Don Quixote himself. Admittedly, many of the themes expressed in Man of La Mancha are also present to some degree in Don Quixote, particularly in the more subdued and intellectual Book Two, but they are much more subtly presented there, given that they are buried under layers of raucous comedy.
But it is exactly these changes that make Man of La Mancha succeed where most stage or film adaptations of Don Quixote have failed. Cervantes’ picaresque structure just doesn’t lend itself to being condensed into a form short enough to be suitable for visual media, so the only way to successfully adapt the material is to entirely abandon the original structure.
More straightforward musical adaptations of the novel had been attempted before, most famously a lightweight Operatic version by Jules Massenet, but none of these had ever come remotely close to equaling their illustrious subject matter. It’s worth noting that the one that came the closest, Georg Philip Telemann’s mini-Opera Don Quixote at the Wedding of Camacho, used an approach not terribly different from Man of La Mancha’s…isolating a single incident from the book as its subject, rather than trying to condense the whole story into a single Opera.
Man of La Mancha, on the other hand, has not only succeeded in becoming one of the most beloved and successful musicals in the world, but it has actually managed in some respects to eclipse its source material’s image in popular culture, to the point where most laymen seem to think ‘to dream the impossible dream’ is a quote from the novel (for those who don’t know, it’s a line originally coined by the show’s librettist and later incorporated into the famous song).
What makes Man of La Mancha unique among musicals is that it is first and foremost a play. While its music and lyrics are certainly some of the most distinguished in the Musical Theater canon, it’s worth noting that the show’s primary author is almost always regarded to be its librettist, Dale Wasserman. This is almost unheard-of for a musical, but then Wasserman originally wrote the piece as a play. It had been staged on television under the title I, Don Quixote, with famed Broadway actor Lee J. Cobb in the lead. This original draft was flawed and cluttered compared to the more focused second draft that became the Musical’s book, but the gold that would become Man of La Mancha was already there, and even then audiences were deeply affected by it. Mitch Leigh, the Musical’s eventual composer, certainly seems to have reacted that way to the play, for his first words when he met Wasserman were reportedly the words familiar to every star-struck, worshipful fanboy: “You are God!”
The score was based heavily on Flamenco sounds, which was technically anachronistic, given that Flamenco did not really exist yet in Cervantes’ lifetime, but proved to be a better choice than the Renaissance-era music of the actual period, which in Spain mostly involved bagpipes. The show’s best-known numbers are the grandiose, Classical-influenced anthems and ballads given to the legit-voiced leading characters, which are the direct predecessor of the sounds heard such later quasi-Operatic musicals as Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. These include the thrilling title-song (which shares its melody with the bitterly caustic cry of anguish “Aldonza”), the moving ballads “Dulcinea”, “What Does He Want of Me?”, and “To Each His Dulcinea”, and, above all else, the monumentally inspiring number known as “The Quest”, better known outside the show as “The Impossible Dream”. Some of the younger and more ignorant listeners out there think of this only as a dull Easy-Listening ballad, and I will admit that the popular versions’ persistent habit of playing it at half its original tempo doesn’t help with that perception. But the profoundly inspirational power of the lyrics is evident even in the slower versions, so that does not really provide a credible excuse for such lazy and shallow listening.
The show’s four comedy numbers are not quite on the sublime level of the lyrical and dramatic passages, but they serve their purpose well within the context of the show. Sancho Panza, the character who delivers two of these numbers, was originally played by Yiddish comedian Irving Jacobson. This was partly because of another Mitch Leigh musical, the disastrous Chinese-Yiddish cultural collision Chu Chem, which was playing in the same theater at the time and shared some cast members with La Mancha, including Jacobson. But on another level, it was actually a massive stroke of inspiration. If you think about it, Sancho Panza’s folksy, ruefully optimistic, survivalist sense of humor in the original novel is a surprisingly apt match for the sensibilities the Yiddish comedy tradition was based on. Sancho’s two solos in the show, “I Really Like Him” and “A Little Gossip”, are sad-clown comedy numbers, ultimately meant to be more touching than humorous, and their Yiddish-comedy sound and feel strikes exactly the right note for the character. In any case, Jacobson, while by no means a great singer, was the sweetest and most heartbreaking Sancho of all time.
The show as a whole has a near-religious inspirational power comparable to that found in Carousel…despite its lack of overtly religious elements, it almost plays more like a kind of secular church service than a conventional musical. Given all this, it seems almost bizarre that the show has a surprisingly large number of detractors…more, in fact, than any hit Broadway show from before the Lloyd-Webber era other than The Sound of Music. This is ultimately because this is a show espousing an intensely idealistic philosophy that advocates denial of reality in favor of a noble madness. What makes this an issue is that most musicals that espouse a philosophy don’t actually require you to fully accept that philosophy in order to enjoy them (for example, one can easily appreciate Les Miserables without being a Christian despite its overt religious content). This show, however, requires you to believe in its ideals in order to be moved by it, and if someone is too cynical or rational to accept this philosophy, they will not only fail to appreciate its greatness, but in many cases seem to develop a passionate hatred for it for challenging the security of their worldview. Even so, I’d argue that this only proves what a deep chord this musical strikes even in those who reject it.