Spain is a long way from South Melbourne. There's not even a hint of Old
Castile in this City Rd warehouse. But as rehearsals begin for Man of La
Mancha, the star of the show is already dreaming impossible dreams.
Anthony Warlow has grown a goatee, shaved his head, and soaked himself
in Cervantes. In the windmills of his mind, he is Don Quixote.
"It all started with Anthony," producer John Frost says.
"We were on a plane after doing The Secret Garden and we got
into that 'Name your favourite musical' game."
Warlow chose La Mancha. So did Frost. Six years
later, they are powering a new $5 million production of Dale Wasserman's legendary show.
"We got first choices right down the line," Frost says on day one.
And he doesn't just mean Warlow, Caroline O'Connor (Aldonza) or Tony
Taylor (Sancho). Frost has also snared a seasoned Australian crew plus two
talented Americans: director Susan H. Schulman and choreographer Michael Lichtefeld.
Both collaborated on a critically acclaimed Man of La Mancha in
Canada. We're getting a newly minted version, built from the ground up.
So begins the quest for a hit musical ...
The song peals out of rehearsal room one, all rough and rackety,
which is how the musical director wants it.
"Keep it coarse," Guy Noble pleads. "You're not the Vienna Boys
Warlow supplies the contrast, gently caressing the song with his
Next door, the director is scrutinising sketches of the set, which
depict a grim world of catacombs and drawbridges.
"It's dark, sure, but in the midst of all this bleakness pops a man
of the theatre with a trunk filled with props and costumes. Stuff to make-believe,"
The first 1960s Man of La Mancha was played in a small theatre
on a bare stage.
"That was its beauty," Frost recalls. "You were taken on this
journey into the imagination and you created the scenery in your own mind. You
dreamed the dream."
Schulman's version is bigger, richer, and more suited to the
"Susan's preparation is meticulous," says actor Peter Carroll (the
Governor/Innkeeper). "And because she's done the show before, and the overall
shape is known, she's letting us click into that and make it our own as we go along."
Is that typical of Broadway directors?
"No. Others like Hal Prince couldn't care less about the
actors' process yet create the most magnificent playground to work in."
Five days into rehearsal Schulman has the cast work non-stop through
"This play is all actor-generated," she explains.
Were they ready for it?
"Absolutely. You have to feel out a company and see how fast it
can work. This company can work very fast."
Twenty-four hours ago she was dressed to the nines singing the national
anthem at the Grand Prix. Now, sporting black leggings, Caroline O'Connor is
tearing around the rehearsal room: arms splayed, eyes blazing.
"Extraordinary," says an admiring Peter Carroll. "Aldonza is
always danced as well as sung, but this one's up on tables."
In another corner, O'Connor's bodice-hugging scarlet skirt is being
"The way we've treated all the costumes is almost cinematic," says
costume designer Kristian Fredrikson, head of a 10-strong team. "They've been
made brand new, then broken down."
Schulman slips in and approves outfits for a monk and an exotic dancer.
"I always think I could have done better," Fredrikson says
wistfully. "But hopefully, there are at least two costumes that will be great."
Every two-bit cabaret singer tackles The Impossible
Dream. Then you hear Anthony Warlow do it.
"Everyone gets a bit choked up," Noble says. "Given its proper
context, and sung with such passion, the song is very moving. You walk a little
Noble recalls something the late conductor Brian Stacey told
him. "Working with Anthony, he once said, is like driving a Rolls Royce. Sheer
class. Brian was right."
Schulman got to know Warlow during The Secret Garden (which she
directed) and 'discovered' O'Connor in a West End production of Mack and Mabel.
"The risk-taking of Australian actors is what I love," the Broadway
director says. "They have a frontier kind of spirit."
The cast needs all its energy and focus to power through Act
2. Afterwards, Carroll concedes: "Susan is very demanding, but also very
For Noble, the process is like "building up a huge pavlova. We're
halfway up the meringue, and it's tasting good!"
John Frost has his fingers crossed.
"The third week of rehearsals always makes me nervy," he
says. It's usually the week when the a ... falls out."
Not this time.
The Adelaide-built set is on its way. Racks of costumes are
filling empty dressing rooms. And Noble is starting to settle the score with his
"It needs to sound like Spain," he says, "so there'll be lots of
woodwind, percussion and guitar."
Mid-week, you can feel the comedy and pathos mingling. Warlow
leds gravity to the quixotic Don. O'Connor fizzes with flamenco fire. And
the chorus makes Dulcinea sound downright bawdy.
Frost is in Sydney with his eye on the big picture, overseeing
marketing and ticketing ("Bookings are sailing along"). He'll be back for a
"I need to keep a grip on things," he says. "There have been
times with other shows when I've sat there thinking, "They've got this wrong. This
character's not right'. But I don't think that's going to happen here."