Not Quite Cloud Nine
A half-hour before the opening-night curtain rises on Dale Wasserman's new show, the man himself is nowhere to be found. The producer of the show and several of Wasserman's biggest fans are scouring the lobby of tiny Stagebrush Theatre, hoping to wish him well and congratulate him on his celebrated body of work.
The search party passes by Wasserman's wife, Martha, who is explaining to a pair of theatergoers that her husband never, ever attends opening-night performances of his own shows. "Well, just tell him how much we enjoyed it!" one of them exclaims -- an odd request, since the show has yet to begin.
"I can't stand opening nights," Wasserman tells me the next day. "I've never been to one of mine. They're too stressful. I have a vision of the way the show ought to look, and of course it never looks that way in reality. I get around to seeing my shows eventually, and to making changes to them. But opening nights are very untypical of how a show will look; they never represent a normal performance."
Wasserman has missed some pretty spectacular opening nights. His best-known work includes Man of La Mancha, reportedly the most-produced musical in the history of American theater; and the stage and film adaptations of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. At 85 (Wasserman was adopted and doesn't know his actual birthday; his age, according to old friend Nick Salerno, who's producing A Walk in the Sky, "is approximate."), he's lived long enough to hear himself referred to as a "legend" and to be handed various honorariums (including four honorary doctorates) and dozens of awards. (He's not sure exactly how many, because he never attends awards ceremonies, either.)
Scottsdale is an unlikely place for the debut of a show by a world-renowned playwright, unless that world-renowned playwright lives near the theater and is looking for a convenient place to stage his new musical play. Stagebrush was glad to accommodate Wasserman, and is hoping to pump up its subscriber list with this prestigious entry, which the theater is billing as a "world première."
"That's such a pretentious phrase," Wasserman says. "I asked Stagebrush not to use it, and they used it anyway. World première. I don't even know what that means."
Musicals don't première, according to Wasserman; they develop. "I've experimented with this show two or three different times," he explains, "and I've never been completely happy with it. This time I'm close, but it's still not quite there yet."
Like Man of La Mancha, A Walk in the Sky began as an original television play. Elisha and the Long Knives debuted on CBS' Playhouse 90 in 1957, with Lee Marvin and Robert Preston in the leads. Wasserman rewrote the show as a musical, Shakespeare and the Indians, which played hundreds of performances in New York and on the road. That version featured singer Bobby Bridger, the great-grandnephew of famous American mountain man Jim Bridger, an illiterate who could quote Shakespeare at length. Jim Bridger's life was the inspiration for Wasserman's original script.
In each version of the script, the story is set in the wilderness of the Rockies, circa 1820. A trio of fur trappers meets a young boy whose parents have been killed in a wagon train massacre. The only other survivors are a missionary and his wife, who compete with the mountain men for custody of the boy. The men, who are illiterate, want to keep the boy because he can read to them from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, a "storybook" they happen to have a copy of. The woman wants to take the boy with her because she can't have children of her own.
This grim premise is cast as a lighthearted romp through rocky terrain. Wasserman's none-too-rugged frontier is populated by mountain men who sing songs about "wimmen" and teach kids to whistle, and Native Americans who crack jokes and perform acrobatic ballet numbers. At this juncture, A Walk in the Sky plays like a well-oiled workshop production, which is probably what Wasserman was angling for all along.
"I wanted to have another go at it," he says of the show, "to see what it would look like if I could finally combine the unusual elements of the story to my liking. Now was a convenient time for me, and I found Stagebrush a convenient theater."
Wasserman also found Stagebrush unequipped to accommodate a Broadway legend. "I'd be a hypocrite if I said mounting this show was harmonious and easy," he says. "I found it very difficult to work with the theater, to put up with their numerous rules and regulations. We got along, but there is a profound difference between professional and amateur theater, and those twain never do meet."
Wasserman was equally unimpressed with our local acting talent. "I was told that casting the show would be easy, that there was a great pool of actors here," he says with a sigh. "I never saw evidence of it. I found a great pool of non-actors. The roles I have written are character roles, which call for well-trained actors. Professional actors have discipline; they work to be just as good as they can be. With amateurs it's a game, it's fun, and God bless them. But the two are incompatible."
The incompatibility of amateur and professional players isn't so apparent in this production. Thanks in part to director Michael Lancy's precise guidance, the ensemble shines. Several of the theater's resident players -- particularly Jeremie J. McCubbin and Chris Eriksen as a couple of melodious mountain men -- keep pace with the trio of Equity performers (Heidi Ewart, Gene Ganssle and Michael Patrick Collins).
For all the rewriting, redesigning and recasting that have marked this show, Wasserman has yet to elevate A Walk in the Sky. The smart story is marred by a heroine (movingly portrayed and beautifully sung here by Ewart) who isn't fully formed. In this version, she's given little to do in Act One, and is later transformed from a curmudgeon into a softhearted saint in the time it takes her to sing a single ballad.
Wasserman knows the show needs some tweaking. "I plan to take a hard look at it and do some more revising," he says. "Then it will have to be recast with all professional actors. These roles were done nicely by these people, but the characters I've written demand an all-professional cast, and I'll have to take the play somewhere where I can do that."
Meanwhile, across town, Phoenix Theatre is preparing to kick off its new season with Man of La Mancha, a production in which Wasserman has had a hand. The company plans to honor Wasserman with a special citation at their 80th anniversary celebration this week, and is also organizing an October celebration of his work.
Dale Wasserman, a habitual no-show at awards ceremonies, plans to attend that one. "I really will show up for this one," he says. "I told them I would, so I guess I better."
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the Phoenix art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.