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.