Dream the Impossible!

[The following feature was written for the current Arvada Center program guide, artscentric.]

It all started with Miguel de Cervantes, who wrote what is generally considered the first European novel, Don Quixote, in 1605, after having been thrown in prison at least twice by the Inquisition.

(Left to right) Ben Dicke as Sancho Panza and William Michals as Don Quixote
(L to R) Ben Dicke as Sancho Panza
and William Michals as Don Quixote
Photo: P. Switzer ©2013
As the musical recounts in its own metaphorical way, Cervantes is locked up with murderers and thieves and must defend his life, which he does by distracting this rough lot, convincing them that reality is other than they have come to understand it.

For his trial, Cervantes asks his fellow inmates to perform a play about Don Quixote. These two interwoven stories—Cervantes' real life imprisonment and the fictional Quixote in La Mancha—are contrasted in a way that makes Man of La Mancha a theatrical hybrid, as director Rod Lansberry explains:

"The musical part is the 'play within the play,' but when Cervantes is in the prison, there is no music. So, it's only when he becomes Quixote that Man of La Mancha becomes a musical."

Jennifer DeDominici as Dulcinea
Jennifer DeDominici as Dulcinea
Photo: P. Switzer ©2013
The most famous song in the score for Man of La Mancha is, of course, "The Impossible Dream (The Quest)," which has been done by so many artists that it has become a challenge to keep it fresh in the context of the musical.

"Everybody in the past 40 years has sung it at one point or another," says Lansberry. "So, one of my goals is to get away from that. It's not just a pretty song; it's got to come from somewhere. The emotional truth of the moment is important. It's what Quixote believes; it's what his goals are."

Given the rough life that Cervantes experienced, it's no wonder that he was driven to create a separate reality. Being an idealist passionately devoted to creating a better world puts Cervantes with some heady company—prophets, saints, and avatars come to mind—but this writer was a horse of a different color.

(Left to right) Markus Warren as Dr. Sanson Carrasco and Mark Rubald as Governor
(L to R) Markus Warren as Dr. Sanson Carrasco
and Mark Rubald as Governor
Photo: P. Switzer ©2013
Despite his reputation as a novelist, Cervantes was, first and foremost, a playwright; though only two of his scripts survive. It seems the Inquisition was very thorough in burning copies of about two dozen plays. We can only imagine the thoroughness with which Cervantes must has excoriated those who sought, with an iron fist, to suppress his sharp critiques.

Perhaps because the first part of Don Quixote gained widespread popularity so quickly, and was followed 10 years later with an even more polished conclusion, and because Don Quixote is ostensibly a satire on chivalry, it survived and thrived outside the reach of the Church, which certainly considered it a threat. Mario Vargas Llosa, Peruvian novelist and 2010 Nobel laureate in literature, explains:

"I don't think there is a great fiction that is not an essential contradiction of the world as it is. ... This is the great contribution of the novel to human progress. You know, the Inquisition forbade the novel for 300 years in Latin America. I think they understood very well the seditious consequence that fiction can have on the human psyche."

William Michals as Don Quixote
William Michals as Don Quixote
Photo: P. Switzer ©2013
In a sense, then, the success of Man of La Mancha is "The Impossible Dream" realized, as Cervantes' biting satire continues to charm audiences. The original 1965 Broadway production ran for 2,328 performances and won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Since then, it's been revived four times on Broadway and produced countless times around the world, becoming one of the most enduring works of musical theatre.

As it turns out, Cervantes gets the last laugh and then some.

The Arvada Center's production of Man of La Mancha runs through April 14th. For more information: 720-898-7200 or

Bob Bows


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