Standing in the corner of a dark theater, Joe listens as melancholy, majestic music rises from the orchestra pit to soar high above the spotlights.
Joe has been hired to write lyrics for a musical play about Don Quixote. The first lyricist – the famous poet W.H. Auden – has been fired because his lyrics were downbeat, defeated and bitter. Joe Darion is his replacement, alone and unqualified, a nobody standing in the darkness with his back against the wall.
“This music cries out for lyrics that speak of a yearning so deep that a man might rise above himself!” Joe stares into the darkness beyond the spotlights hoping to catch a glimpse of those lyrics.
The music continues, as wistful and sweet as the hope for a better tomorrow.
Joe closes his eyes and sees stars where the spotlights had been. His eyes are wet. “And to think the composer was a Madison Avenue jingle writer whose only claim to fame was the television ditty, ‘Nobody Doesn’t Like Sara Lee.’ The man has risen above himself.”
“The playwright has risen above himself, too. But he stood on the shoulders of a giant.”
Joe recognizes the play as a clever reframing of the work of John Steinbeck who won the Nobel Prize in Literature two years ago and is now in failing health. “Certainly Wasserman will acknowledge his debt to Steinbeck.”
“Certainly he will.”
Twelve years ago Steinbeck spoke of his admiration for Miguel de Cervantes – the author of Don Quixote – in his prologue to East of Eden, a retelling of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. But in Steinbeck’s tale the boys weren’t the sons of Eve in the garden of Eden. They were twin sons of a reluctant prostitute.
Nine years ago Steinbeck’s musical play, Pipe Dream, set a new record for advance ticket sales on Broadway. Steinbeck sent inscribed copies of Don Quixote to the play’s producers with notes explaining it was “required reading” for the project. And Steinbeck’s would-be Dulcinea, Suzy, was once again a reluctant prostitute.
Seven years ago Steinbeck began a novel called Don Keehan, the Marshall of Manchon, whose Quixote was a California farmer who had watched one-too-many westerns on television. And again his Dulcinea, Sugar Mae, was a reluctant prostitute.
“In the original version of Don Quixote, Dulcinea is a village girl with nothing special about her. Quixote sees her only from a distance. They never meet. And she is not a prostitute.”
So Wasserman’s portrayal of Dulcinea as a reluctant prostitute can’t have been inspired by the original story of 1605.
It was obviously inspired by Steinbeck.
“Certainly Wasserman will acknowledge him. Certainly.”
This musical, Man of La Mancha, is a revision of the non-musical play Wasserman wrote 2 years after John Steinbeck had written his third Quixote-inspired story featuring an inexplicable, reluctant prostitute. That first, non-musical play of Wasserman’s was called, I, Don Quixote. Joe has a copy in his back pocket.
Joe wipes his cheek, “But none of this helps me solve my problem.”
“Steinbeck rocked the world with East of Eden, a story that echoed the Bible. Hemingway rocked the world with The Old Man and the Sea, a story that echoed the crucifixion of Christ.” Joe would like to rock the world, too. He pulls his dog-eared script of Wasserman’s first play from his back pocket and angles it to the light.
“Somewhere in here is a scene where Quixote talks about God and Dulcinea.”
He finds it.
DR. CARRASCO: There are no giants. No kings under enchantment. No castles. No chivalry. No knights. There have been no knights for three hundred years.
DON QUIXOTE (indifferently): So say you.
DR. CARRASCO: These are facts.
DON QUIXOTE: Facts are the enemy of truth!
DR. CARRASCO: Would you deny reality?
DON QUIXOTE (coolly): Which… mine or yours?
DR. CARRASCO: There is only one!
DON QUIXOTE (smiles calmly): I think reality is in the eye of the beholder. (DR. CARRASCO opens his mouth to answer but Quixote interrupts:) No, my friend , it is useless to argue. Give me my way and let the devil take those who have no more use for imagination than a rooster for his wings. (DR. CARRASCO turns away, angry.)
PADRE (fascinated): Why do you do this?
DON QUIXOTE: In the service of God…and my lady.
PADRE: I have some knowledge of God… but this other?
DON QUIXOTE: My lady Dulcinea.
DR. CARRASCO (pouncing): So there’s a woman!
DON QUIXOTE: A lady! (Softening.) Her beauty is more than human. Her quality? Perfection. She is the very meaning of woman…and all meaning woman has to man.
PADRE (with a sad smile): To each his Dulcinea.
DR. CARRASCO (studies Quixote a moment, then in a businesslike tone): Come, Padre. It’s a long way home.
PADRE (hesitates a moment): Go with God. (Follows DR. CARRASCO, pauses to look back.) There is either the wisest madman or the maddest wise man in the world.
“The maddest wise man… The maddest wise man… The maddest wise man…”
Ever looking upward, the wise men followed a star far beyond the borders of their country into realms beyond imagination.
Joe looks once more into the darkness above the spotlights, hoping to see the lyrics hiding in the darkness of that music. He closes his eyes and hears Quixote in his mind.
“This is my Quest; to follow that star,
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far,
To fight for the right
Without question or pause,
To be willing to march into hell
For a heavenly cause!”
“And I know, if I’ll only be true
To this glorious Quest,
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest.”
“And the world will be better for this,
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach the unreachable stars!”
Man of La Mancha ran for a total of 2,328 performances and won five Tony Awards. Joe won the Tony for Best Lyricist, the jingle writer won for Best Composer and Man of La Mancha won for Best Musical.
Joe’s song, commonly known as The Impossible Dream, has been recorded by more than 80 major recording artists and is one of the most beloved songs in the Great American Songbook.
Sometimes it pays to lift your eyes upward.
Roy H. Williams
Here’s another mystery for you. Why has every photograph of Joe Darion been expunged from the Internet? Do an image search for Joe and you’ll find that all of the images – without exception – are actually of Mitch Leigh, the jingle writer, or of someone who sang a Joe Darion song. Even the stories that give a photo credit for “photo of Joe Darion” have had those photos removed. Hmmm….
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