Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Everything’s bigger in Texas, y’all.

The first time an Edna Ferber novel was adapted into a musical the genre was changed forever with Kern & Hammerstein's Show Boat. The libretto marked a huge departure for Hammerstein, who had written many operettas up to that point. He found a way to tell the story onstage as a musical, while establishing a structure out of the sprawling scope of the original novel. His adaptation of the novel was a major stepping stone for the musical as a serious art form as it marked the first time that darker themes permeated the American musical with characters dealing with miscegenation, alcoholism, failed marriage, etc.

Lightning didn't strike twice, however, when Ferber's novel Saratoga Trunk became the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer-Morton da Costa musical Saratoga in 1959. Starring Howard Keel and Carol Lawrence, fresh from her success in West Side Story, the show received poor notices and closed after 80 performances.

Then there's Giant. The story is probably best remembered in its Oscar-winning film adaptation starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. It tells of Jordan Bick Benedict, a Texas cattle baron who brings his Virginia socialite to live on his ranch in Texas and their ongoing battle with jealous handyman turned oil tycoon Jett Rink over several generations. It's got everything you can think of: romance, drama, racial and sexual tensions, etc, all set against the sweeping backdrop of the Texas landscape.

Now fifty years following the failure of Saratoga on Broadway, a musical version of Giant, with a score by the Michael John LaChiusa, book by Sybille Pearson and the direction of Jonathan Butterall, receives its world premiere at the Signature Theatre today. The new work is the first presentation in the American Musical Voices Project sponsored by the Shen Family Foundation and stars Lewis Cleale, Betsy Morgan, Ashley Morgan, Judy Blazer and John Dossett. The show isn't shying away from its status as an epic: the show's website says it runs three and a half hours, divided into three acts (and is also where I got the title for this entry). According to a post on All That Chat, an email is going around letting ticketholders know that the running time is now approximately four hours, with two 15-minute intermissions. Curtain times are nightly at 7PM; matinees at 1PM. The post also says that the the lobby is offering a three course "Taste of Texas" meal. The first course, served preshow, is chowder and corncake. The next course is quesadilla with salsa at first intermission and a pecan tart is served at the second intermission. It may not be a marathon of The Norman Conquests, but it certainly seems like a full event.

It should be interesting to see how the new show is received. Larger scale musicals based on large-scale novels tend to vary in their success. Of course, there has been Show Boat, Les Miserables and Ragtime. But then again there has also been Here's Where I Belong (East of Eden), Ari (Exodus), Gantry (Elmer Gantry), Shogun - the Musical, Angel (Look Homeward Angel), the aforementioned Saratoga, and Jane Eyre. Plus there have been two versions of Gone with the Wind. Harold Rome's adaptation was a major success as Scarlett in Japan and a minor success under the original title in London. However, the American production flopped out of town. The second adaptation by Margaret Martin opened in London last year to blistering reviews and shuttered after 79 performances.

As a fan both the original novel and film adaptation of Giant, I'm looking forward to the reactions of both the audiences and critics and am almost nuts enough to consider traveling down to DC to see it.


Esther said...

I really like the movie "Giant." I've never read the book. So I'm very curious about this, too. But at four hours you have to wonder what its prospects are after this premiere.

Vance said...

I'm going to try to rush it this weekend (Ill be in DC to see my favorite epic musical Ragtime already), plus I've been enjoying almost everything at the Signature (yes, I was the ONE that liked Glory Days).

chelsea said...

One summer I went on an Edna Ferber kick and read Showboat, Giant, and Saratoga Trunk. I loved Giant and although they couldn't fit every little detail into the film, I thought the film adaptation was very true to the spirit of the novel. I'm looking forward to seeing the musical and how the story transfers from the book to the stage.

Kevin Daly said...

Vance and Chelsea - I look forward to hearing what you have to say about it. It sounds like a fascinating project.

Esther - Edna Ferber writes a great epic. I'm checking out the book again due to all the talk about it!

Vance - Enjoy "Ragtime"!

Vance said...

Okay, just saw it today and Ill hopefully have a review up this week, but while Ive read on the msg boards some people were bored and saying it's a mess, I thought it was BRILLIANT and the best new musical since Spring Awakening (and if you know me, that's saying a LOT, even though Giant could not be more different in every possible way). And Giant has no catchy songs or stuff, usually stuff I like, (I also saw See What I Wanna See nextdoor but was meh on it) but I LOVED it ALL here and the cast, direction, lights and sets were FANTASTIC. I'd sit through the 4 hours again in a heartbeat and it flew by.