Written By: Michael John LaChiusa
When Julie Gilbert, the grand niece of the novelist, Edna Ferber (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Showboat, Saratoga Trunk among many others,) came to me over a decade ago with the suggestion that I adapt her aunt’s iconic, best-selling book, “Giant” for the musical stage, I was both flattered and terrified. I was familiar with the epic novel, as well as with the classic film starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean---but the very thought of trying to harness twenty-five years of Texan history, cattle ranching, oil drilling, racial disharmony, not to mention the anatomy of a marriage of opposites, was alarming. Impossible, I thought, and told Julie as much. But Julie is as stubborn as she is kind. A few years later, she came back to me and asked if I still might entertain the idea. I’d placed the novel on the “impossible” bookshelf that I reserve for musical ideas that I have no notion as to how to make happen, so, out of respect to Julie I figured it behooved me to re-read it. As it so often happens, something that fails to capture my imagination one day may suddenly trigger a different reaction in me a day later, sometimes a year or several years later. That’s life, I suppose; people change, with experience, on a daily, even hourly basis. A book you read when you are a teenager might have an entirely different meaning for you when you’re middle-aged; that book or even a movie or symphony or painting doesn’t change---you do, emotionally and psychologically, and you might find new meaning in the work. Re-reading Ferber’s novel, I heard music for the first time. Bick Benedict, scion of Reata, the largest cattle ranch in Texas, and his passionate, roller-coaster marriage to Leslie Lynnton, a Virginian-raised debutante, struck me as something I needed to sing about. What looked impossible seemed (possibly) possible.
It was at the same time that The Shen Family Foundation provided the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia with a grant of monies that would provide three composers, including myself, financial support for four years to develop new musicals. Each musical would be fully produced by the theatre company. It was an “anything goes” grant: no restrictions. I was free to choose any project I wished, of any size and length. While reconsidering the novel Giant, I knew I was looking at something unusual (at least by contemporary musical standards) in structure: a three-act evening, possibly even a three-evening event, epic and vast, with a large company of actors and musicians. Big, like Texas. When I proposed the idea to Eric Shaeffer, the intrepid artistic director of the Signature Theatre, he didn’t blink. “Go for it,” he said.
But I couldn’t do it alone. I enjoy writing my own libretti, as well as lyrics and music, but it’s lonely going it alone. Collaborating with another writer, especially one you respect and who shares your taste and goals---and who can challenge you---that’s the ideal situation. I found an ideal collaborator in Sybille Pearson, who I asked to join me on this wild adventure. Sybille, pragmatic and smart, was well aware of the difficulties of what we were about to do, but she embraced the project with every ounce of her being. She came up with a structure that could rein in the many pages of plot, exposition, and character, allowing me to try to create the aural equivalent of Texas. We knew we weren’t going to have ten thousand heads of cattle on stage, or a hundred gushing oil wells. The challenge for me was how to turn Texas into music: the dust, the smell of oil, the heat, the prick of a cactus, the amazing blue of the Texan sky---what does that sound like? And most importantly, how do the souls of these heartbreaking, complex, beautiful (and, sometimes, very ugly) characters sing?
Sybille and I presented a first read-through of the show, warts and all, in 2007. We had arrived at a three-act structure, with two intermissions. That reading lasted five-and-a-half hours! Using one of my favorite musicals, Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella”, as a model, we began to scale back, rewrite and cut unnecessary and redundant song and dialogue. When we opened at the Signature Theatre in 2009, we had reduced the show to four-and-a-half hours; three acts, including two intermissions. Of course, we were concerned that audiences might not go on the ride with us for the entirety of the evening. We needn’t have been worried. The audience at the Signature Theatre accepted the epic nature of the show and it wasn’t rare to hear a patron say on his or her way out, “I didn’t want it to end.”
We set our sights on bringing the show to New York. Knowing that we wouldn’t have the luxury that was afforded us in Arlington, (especially where union rules and costs were concerned,) Sybille and I took on the challenge offered us by our director, Michael Greif, to turn our three-act version into a two-act, one intermission, three-hour show. It was a daunting challenge: what could we, should we cut to fit this new model? Michael’s reasoning was sound, though: we would always have our four-and-a–half hour, three-act version so why not create a shorter version that might be more accessible to more people. After all, to invest four-and-a-half hours in watching a musical is not something everyone has the time for, nor can afford. But would this compromise our original concept and goal of creating an epic? It was Ted Shen, whose foundation commissioned the original version, to whom I turned for advice. He thoughtfully weighed the idea and offered the example of “Porgy and Bess, “ George Gershwin’s classic opera. There is the full-length version, and a shorter version of “Porgy and Bess”, so why not have the same with Giant?
After several workshops and an out-of-tryout in, yes, Texas, at the Dallas Theatre Center, we were ready with our two-act version, which then began a limited run (later extended) at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, in New York City, October 26, 2012. A lot of material from the original Arlington production had been trimmed or cut entirely; and there were several new numbers as well. My concerns that the three-hour version might compromise the integrity of the original were unwarranted.Still, I’m partial to the original three-act version. I love its epic proportions, the sweep and breadth (and breath) of it. I like that we can spend more time with our characters, and more time experiencing time itself, if that makes any sense. Sybille and I, for this version licensed by Rodgers and Hammerstein Music Library, have chosen the New York premiere version, but it’s our intention to include several addenda for those theatre companies brave enough to take on the longer version. I’m still looking forward to seeing a two- or three-night version---one act per night. Why not? “Giant“ is, if nothing else, a musical about the endless possibilities of our country, as well as our dreams and desires. Dream big, I say. What might seem impossible just may be possible.