“Man Of La Mancha” Comes “Home”

Audiences — and the Westport Country Playhouse itself — are excited about the coming production of “Man of La Mancha.”

Since its debut in 1965, the Don Quixote-inspired play-within-a-play has become a theatrical icon. It won 5 Tony Awards, has been revived 4 times on Broadway, and was staged twice previously at the Playhouse.

Two Westporters are particularly excited about the Playhouse’s September 25-October 13 run: Melody James and Clay Singer.

James is the daughter of Hal James. The actor, and radio/TV producer, was between projects nearly 50 years ago when he and his wife Florence saw the then-fledgling musical at Goodspeed Opera House.

Inspired, they went backstage and asked how to get involved.

At the University of Chicago, James had taken a class on Cervantes and Don Quixote with professor Thornton Wilder. With his life experiences, and then seeing “La Mancha” in development, James thought the time was right to help bring it to Broadway.

In 1965 he had 3 children in college: Michael (involved in the Free Speech Movement at the University of California), Beau (at the New School) and Melody (at Carnegie Institute of Technology).

Producing a Broadway show is always risky. But James’ bet paid off.

With his wife’s help, he enlisted fellow Westporters as angels. One was Mal Beinfield.

An orthopedic surgeon by trade, and Staples High School’s football doctor by hobby, he had never been involved in theater. But he invested, loved the challenge, and said later it was one of the best things he’d ever done.

For years, an original Al Hirschfeld drawing of “Man of La Mancha” hung on Beinfield’s wall.

Despite his New York ties, James — who moved to Westport with Florence in 1949 — was deeply involved in Westport too.

Hal and Florence James

He produced Coleytown Capers, a mid-1950s elementary school fundraiser involving talented Westporters as skit and song writers, performers, even can-can dancers.

He also helped start the first Westport-Weston Arts Council, brought Odetta to Staples, organized teen dances at Longshore — and worked with Craig Matheson to found Staples Players.

Clay Singer

Which brings us to the second Westporter who is particularly excited about “Man of La Mancha” at the Playhouse: Clay Singer.

The 2013 Staples graduate — a former Player himself, and a graduate of Melody’s alma mater, now called Carnegie Mellon University — is part of the upcoming cast. He made his Playhouse debut last year, in “Romeo and Juliet.”

Melody James loves “Man of La Mancha” for its “profound inspiration.” She says her father loved the show because it “points the way to how we all survive and sustain.”

For her — and for Clay Singer too — the Westport Country Playhouse production is not an impossible dream.

(For tickets and more information, click here. The 3 p.m. Saturday, October 13 performance will be open-caption in Spanish, a nod to the many Hispanic cast and creative team members.)

4 responses to ““Man Of La Mancha” Comes “Home”

  1. This should be a great production. Amherst College Professor Ilan Stavans, an author on Miguel de Cervantes, will be guest speaker at Westport Country Playhouse’s Sunday Symposium on September 30, following the 3 p.m. performance of the musical “Man of La Mancha.”

  2. When, in the 1966-67 school year, I was pretty certain my draft deferment request to be allowed to finish the school year was going to be denied, I had told someone how I was hoping to get to see Man of LaMancha before I got drafted…sincerely don’t remember to whom I made that statement.

    What I DO remember was the arrival of two tickets—center aisle, of course—compliments of Hal James..who I did not know.

    To this day I cannot tell you who approached Hal James on my behalf. I never did meet Mr. James but, you can be sure I thanked him
    With unfettered gratitude…and he never offered to tell me who my angel had been.

    My draft deferment for the 66-67 school year was issued several weeks after I attended the show.

  3. One more Westport-related memory of “Man of La Mancha” from almost 50 years ago: our wonderful Staples Spanish teacher, Jeannette Atkins, took our class to see it on Broadway. I’m pretty sure we took the train into the city. Are trips like that still done these days?

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