Her dad, of course, was Henry Fonda, who was the first—and the definitive—Tom Joad in this celebrated Americana saga about an uprooted Okie "fam'bly" migrating to the greener pastures of California during The Great Drought of '38. And, sure enough, just as Tom Joad had promised in the movie, he was there. A friend, in fact, suggested to her that "he had to be up there, looking down," and she nodded in agreement. "By the weekend, when we rehearsed," she confided. "I was bawling."
Seventy years and one week after John Ford's Oscar-winning movie premiered and 20 years to the day when Frank Galati's Tony-winning play bowed on Broadway, "The Grapes of Wrath" emerged an opera at Carnegie Hall, reinvented by composer Ricky Ian Gordon, gorgeously orchestrated by him and Bruce Coughlin, conducted by Ted Sperling and directed (in five days flat!) by Eric Simonson.
This opera, which has a libretto by Michael Korie (the Tony-nominated lyricist of Grey Gardens), was commissioned by the Minnesota Opera and co-produced with Utah Symphony and Opera. In 2007, it world-premiered in St. Louis, MN, and was reprised in Salt Lake City in three acts and four hours (Carnegie Hall's "concert version" had one less of each). Pittsburgh Opera did a revised edition in 2008.
The enthusiastic Carnegie embrace didn't surprise Gordon. "Opening night in Minnesota, there was mayhem," he remembered. "It was, like, 'Wow! I think we did something.' Tonight was so satisfying because we had such a short time to put it up."
The Steinbeck yarn has been a borderline obsession for him for years, he admitted: "It took two years to get the rights and then four years to write—it's, like, practically my whole adult life. It was only the book—not the movie and not the play—that spoke to me because we wanted to use 'the in-between chapters,' and that's what our chorus is. Our chorus is the voice of Steinbeck, and then we tell the story of the Joads because that's what we could do differently than the other adaptations. In the other adaptations, they tell the story of the Joads, but we knew, because we were doing a grand opera with a grand chorus, we wanted to use the voice of Steinbeck."
The Met's Nathan Gunn, a game and fearless performer, had the unenviable job of playing the slow-to-ignite firebrand, Tom Joad—and doing it a few feet away from Fonda's daughter. "I tried not to think too much of that. But she came up at the beginning of rehearsals today, and said, 'We gotta get a picture. You're my dad.'"
It helped that he came with his own role model. "My grandfather grew up a child of the Depression. His mother died when he was very young, and his father was a bootlegger, and he spent his life working two or three jobs in order to make enough money to keep the family together in some way. He was a guy who worked for the railroad and was a Golden Glove boxer, so I knew what that generation was like."
In the role of the indomitable Ma Joad (a part that got Jane Darwell the Oscar and Lois Smith a Tony nomination), the younger Victoria Clark came with flint and fury and won a house ovation. "I don't know how I could be much older and do it, but I can really get through it at this point," she said. "It is a great, great role, you know."
Christine Ebersole brought star power and good humor to a bit role that was one of the film's highspots—Mae, a heart-of-gold waitress wrapped in brass, who took pity on the Joads and was rewarded by her sentimental, over-tipping truck-driver trade.
"It's just a fun song—kinda comic relief, compared to the rest of the story," she said. This is not her Carnegie debut, she'll have you know. "It's my opera debut."
Was Korie intimidated by the material? "Totally," he confessed. "It took me a long time. I blew all my deadlines." Then, there was the added intimidation of having his words read by Jane Fonda. "She was the idea of my own agent, Patrick Herold."
Director Simonson was happy to have the validation of a Fonda on board, and that fact of it was slowly starting to sink in. "She and I have the same agent, and I heard that she was going to do it through my agent, but I never believe those things," he confessed, adding with Simonsonesque wryness, "Apparently, it was true."
The opera goes the extra inning the play did with material from the novel that was considered too shocking for the 1940 screen: Rose of Sharon's child is a stillborn and placed in a cardboard box for burial in a nearby river where he will be found rotting, a testament to the hard times; then, the milk in the new mother's breasts is used to save a dying man—an act of desperate people pulling together to survive.
The "Baby Moses" burial is elaborated on in the opera, and the deliberate drowning of another Joad—Tom's slow-witted brother, Noah—was wholly created for this medium. "The burial scene was done very simply in the play," Simonson said, "and Noah's suicide doesn't exist in the book or the play. He just walks down the river and disappears. It was an invention Michael Korie came up with to have him die."
These two scenes, providing heavy-duty work from a couple of subsidiary characters, turned out to be the most ecstatically cheered of the evening.
"It was a one-night-only thing, and [producer] Ed Barnes did an amazing job of putting it together," exclaimed Dana Ivey. "We were all very lucky to be here."