Theatre yesterday and today



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In a column yesterday, I emphasized the first half of Richard Kiley’s career pre-Man of La Mancha, prior to the role with which he would forever be identified. Roles, to be more precise, as the musical required him to play both the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes and his most famous creation, Don Quixote, who himself is really Alonso Quixano, a nobleman touched in the head. Between 1965 and 1977, Kiley gave more than 2,000 performances in La Mancha, all while continuing to create new stage work, distinguish himself in film and television, and become a prolific and in-demand narrator of documentaries. Here’s part two of my appreciation in today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”

“Man of La Mancha was a production nobody wanted, booked into a theatre nobody else would have, and ignored by everyone except the public.”

This from no better an authority than Dale Wasserman, the author of the book to the musical, which in spite of mixed reviews won five Tony Awards including Best Musical. That’s a whole other story for a whole other column, and instead, I want to stick with the great Richard Kiley, and specifically my days as a teenager when I was obsessed with musical theatre and how this show’s cast recording totally mesmerized me.

With music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, Man of La Mancha was one of the earliest albums in my collection (although it might have been my parents’ copy which I purloined for my own). I had never quite heard a sound like Richard Kiley’s, especially evocative since he performs the score in a character voice; a variation of his own rich baritone. After years of listening to it on my turntable, I finally saw the original production in the summer of 1969, then in its fourth year on Broadway. I was twelve years old and Kiley was long gone, but didn’t hinder my appreciation one bit. By the time it closed in 1971, I had seen it three more times, including its final 2,328th performance (yes, always from up in the cheap seats). Singing “The Impossible Dream” from behind my closed bedroom door back then meant my family had to endure my “march into hell for a heavenly cause” countless times.

Ray Middleton and Richard Kiley in Man of La Mancha (1965).

The song (also known as “The Quest”) did more to create the ethos surrounding Man of La Mancha than almost anything else. Naturally it was used in its advertising, as well as print ads, and was covered by nearly all the major artists of the day from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra. Show music was still so popular in the 1960s that Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Hello, Dolly!” won the Grammy as Song of the Year, with two other Broadway standards, “People” (Funny Girl) and “Who Can I Turn To?” (The Roar of the Greasepaint) also nominated. The Beatles, and their hit song “A Hard Day’s Night,” didn’t stand a chance in this category.

As the actor who introduced it, Kiley was consistently asked to sing “The Impossible Dream” for PBS fund drives and the like. Game for a good cause, he would often carp how difficult it was to perform in a tuxedo, as he needed the staff to hold onto, as well as the character, in order to give it his best interpretation. Here he is performing it in 1971 at the 25th Tony Awards, which had every great star return and represent from every Best Musical winner. Kiley’s phrasing, intonation and sheer vocal prowess are thrilling (merely standing there). For me, I will always get chills just from the way he sings the word “glorious.”

It's important to note that for Kiley, Cervantes/Quixote was no albatross around his neck. Like Yul Brynner as the King and Carol Channing as Dolly, he too got a great deal out of returning to the role he created and audiences were grateful (and make no mistake about it, he made a great deal of money with it as well). Some actors have no desire to revisit the roles which made them famous, such as Robert Preston's refusals — despite lucrative opportunities to do so — to play Harold Hill in The Music Man in the 1960s or '70s. Will Lin-Manuel Miranda return as Hamilton in 2030 or 2040? It's an interesting question.

Fortunately, I did get to see Kiley in Man of La Mancha on a Saturday afternoon in August of 1972. I was fifteen that summer and when it was announced that Kiley, along with three of his original co-stars, would play the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, I bought my ticket (it quickly sold out its four-month limited engagement). And for once, I did something that I had never done before: I splurged. Because Lincoln Center did eight shows a year at its two theatres (the Beaumont and its downstairs Forum, now the Mitzi Newhouse), I knew the box office guys well. When I would show up for student rush ($2 bucks), Frankie or Eddie would always give me a great seat. But I couldn’t take my chances this time. I needed to see Kiley and company close up. So with their help, they handed me a fifth row center seat. Oh yeah, it set me back $8.50 (!), but looking back on it, it was sort of worth it. From the review I wrote upon returning home to my house in Great Neck, I was effusive in my praise: “Better acting I have never seen.”