COVER STORY: So big

Making a stage musical of ‘Giant,’ Edna Ferber’s iconic novel of Texas, has been a mammoth undertaking, but a powerhouse team resolved to bring this premiere to the Dallas Theater Center

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MAJOR PROPS | After almost five years, all the elements of the musical adaptation of ‘Giant’ have come together, from the final orchestrations of composer Michael John LaChiusa, pictured, to the massive set, dominated by a huge water tower. (Photos courtesy Karen Almond)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Let’s get this out of the way up-front: Giant is the gayest Hollywood film of all time.

No really, think about it: Rock Hudson, Sal Mineo and James Dean (all oiled up and rolling around), with Liz Taylor playing beard to all of them while Mercedes McCambridge lurks in the background? Gay, gay, gay, gay, gay. Why, it’s a wonder no one has made a musical about it already.

And now, they have. And you can thank the gays. Again.

“I never thought about that,” says Michael John LaChiusa, composer and moving force behind the new stage adaptation of Giant, which began previews at the Wyly Theatre this week. “There’s no getting around it. There were lots of butt shots in it. And they were damned sexy.”

Everyone can agree on that. Indeed, for Texans gay and straight, Giant — the film — has always been a unifying experience. Covering more than 30 years in the lives of old-school wildcatters, it has fame, fortune and failure; love, requited and un–; boom and bust; death and intrigue; big parties, sweeping landscapes and drunken oilmen.

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OUT OF HER COMFORT ZONE | Dee Hoty is playing the character least like herself in ‘Giant’ ... and she likes the challenge.

There’s even a gusher scene that forever created the myth of the “big strike.” That’s a lot to be proud of. Giant was Dallas before anyone heard of J.R. Ewing.
The movie, at least.

Today, the book doesn’t enjoy anything near the reputation of the film, even though author Edna Ferber was one of the most popular novelists of her day. Like Booth Tarkington and Pearl Buck, audiences and critics acclaimed Ferber’s work in the first half of the last century, but her works simply haven’t endured as literature. Though maybe they should have.

“I intentionally did not read the book [before seeing a reading of Giant] so I could go in without any preconceived notions,” says Michael Greif, the Tony-nominated director helming the massive new production. “After that, and the real excitement about moving forward with the show, I finally read the novel. It was an unbelievable treat — just a great read.”

In fact, in adapting the story to the stage, LaChiusa and librettist Sybille Pearson made the decision to follow the book, not the movie. That’s a daring move for a million-dollar-plus musical set to make its official world premiere in Texas.

“It’s a remarkable book that captures the beauty and sometimes cruelty of this great state,” says LaChiusa about that decision. “It spoke to me — the story of a marriage over the course of 25 years, and the oil [culture] and Mexican immigrants and who owned the land. I realize the iconic nature of the movie, but if people are gonna come to see the show and expect 10,000 heads of cattle [onstage], they aren’t gonna get that.”

Which itself raised an issue: How do you take a book (or a movie) with a name like Giant, renowned for its scope and ambition, and put it within the confines of a stage?

Certainly its length — at least initially — echoed its title. When LaChiusa first accepted the commission more than three years ago, the production originally mounted in Northern Virginia clocked in at close to five hours — even Hamlet has more down time.

“We’ve shortened it vastly,” LaChiusa says. “When I first dove into it, we went in without any restrictions. After that, we thought we wanted it to have a future life — a four-and-a-half hour musical with two intermissions appeals only to a certain audience who have time to invest in that.”

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TWO GENERATIONS | ‘Giant’ is so sweeping, Dallas native Miguel Cervantes plays two characters — a man and his own son — in the musical. (Photo courtesy Karen Almond)

It now runs closer to three hours (a 90-minute first act and 75-minute second act, plus just one 20-minute intermission), but LaChiusa doesn’t think it has suffered any loss.

Rather, he says it has been streamlined in terms of story and music. “It still maintains its epic nature and the sprawl is still intact,” he promises.

For actor Miguel Cervantes, in fact — who plays Angel (the Sal Mineo role for the film) and his father — the changes over the course of the nearly five years he has been associated with Giant have felt organic.

“Five or ten of us have been with it from the beginning and we just look at each other thinking, ‘Wow, it’s incredible how this thing has changed,’” he says.  “But I have the same lines basically since the beginning — well, there was another verse in some of the songs but my arc has stayed pretty much the same.”

Cervantes, a Dallas native who has worked in New York for about a decade, was not familiar at all with Giant — the book or the film — until the first audition for a workshop of Giant before it opened in Virginia (he was not in that actual production due to another commitment). It wasn’t until last week, however, that he’s heard the music with full orchestra, which will no doubt really impact his perception.

“Michael John has always talked about what an enormous part the music has to play,” Cervantes says. “You can’t put this huge sweeping land onstage so you have to do it through the music, and I’ve never really heard it! I can only imagine how it’s gonna change then.”

That’s one thing everyone seems to be in agreement on.

“The difference between a stage musical and a movie is that in theater, the [movie] close up is the song,” LaChiusa says. “The song provides the internal life of what the characters are expressing.”

In the case of Giant, though, it has to convey the vastness of Texas itself as well.

“Through the score, I can evoke that sky and the plains as well as the internal life of those people,” LaChiusa says.

“I think the grandeur is taken care of a lot by the incredible score,” adds Greif. He knows something about incredible scores: He directed the original Broadway productions of Rent and Next to Normal. LaChiusa “has written a spectacularly epic score that is about enormous emotions and expressions. It really takes care of that.”

As a director, it was when Greif started working with the designers that he knew he’d need to bring sweep as well. A huge water tower makes up a major set piece, and backdrops convey the breadth of the land. But ultimately, it’s the music that sells it.

“As an audience, we understand the epic nature and the importance of the land not from a visual depiction of it but through the characters’ perspective: The size of that struggle and the size is appropriate to that epic scale. This really feels like a great classic American musical — it really is in that canon,” says Greif.

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THE ORIGINAL J.R. EWING? | Broadway veteran Aaron Lazar plays Bick, a budding land baron and oil tycoon, in DTC’s ‘Giant’ musical, which is in previews until its world premiere official opening Jan. 27. (Photos courtesy Karen Almond)

But will Dallas audiences be convinced about the story’s essential Texas character? It’s a concern for many involved.

“I’ve always known we were coming here to open this,” says Aaron Lazar, a Broadway veteran who plays Bick (the Rock Hudson role). “When I did Light in the Piazza, I knew that if Italians come and see the show and don’t think I am Italian I’m not doing my job. So there was certainly an awareness on my part that we step it up and tell this amazing Texas story.”

Although they only got to town after the new year, Lazar says many of the cast have already sought out “a real Texas experience while we’re here.”

It’s the music, though, upon which the success of the show will likely hinge.

“Michael John is a genius and I don’t throw that word around lightly,” says Lazar. “There are very few people who can do what he does and this score is one of his absolute best. I’m so excited for him.”

LaChiusa himself is understandably more trepidatious.

“I can definitely say I’m nervous because it is such a story Texans take to heart. And I’m prepared to face that trial by fire from audience and the likes of you,” he jokes.
Still, he’s had plenty of time to prepare over these many years. But significantly, it all comes down to opening night.

The Giant Dallas audiences will see is very different from the one that started three years ago, but also different from what it was just three months ago. The process of mounting a show always poses its own challenges.

“Because we have actors and staging, those are all creative people who add their own element to the stew,” LaChiusa says. “If you can tell something with a gesture or bit of lighting, we can take away [a line or a lyric] or change the key to fit an actor’s voice better. You tailor the show for those things.”

Especially when you have actors of the caliber of Dee Hoty, a three-time Tony Award nominee at home in the American Southwest: She originated Betty Blake in The Will Rogers Follies and had the lead in the ill-received The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. She was especially aware that Texas audiences would be looking for authenticity.

“Because of this iconic movie, I wanted to look at [Giant] but didn’t want to look at it too soon. The first thing I did was read the book, which was pretty spectacular. I got a sense for how huge it all really was. My character [played by Mercedes McCambridge in the film] is kind of an enigma: She’s the boss, but she’s not. She’s older and a maternal figure, but not [Bick’s] mother. It’s probably the most different role I’ve ever played from me — she is so contained. I am not in my comfort zone for this one,” she says.

Time for worrying is pretty much over now. After about a week of previews, the official opening night is Jan. 27, and everyone will see how the years of work have paid off, and if the scrappy Wyly Theatre can convey the hugeness of Giant. But LaChiusa is sure of at least one thing that will leave bigger than it started: Him.

“You have such good barbecue here,” he says. “I’m gonna gain like 10 pounds.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 20, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas