Michael John LaChiusa Takes a Giant Step, Musicalizing an Iconic Tale

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26 Oct 2012

Brian d'Arcy James, Kate Baldwin and P.J. Griffith
Brian d'Arcy James, Kate Baldwin and P.J. Griffith
Photo by Joseph Moran

The sprawl of Edna Ferber's "Giant" — the character-rich novel of cattle, oil and race, best known as a movie — gets a Texas-sized musical makeover by Michael John LaChiusa, Sybille Pearson and Michael Greif.

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I spent June of 1955 tugging at my daddy's pant leg, trying to get him to take me to Marfa, Texas. From Dallas, it was a scant nine-hour drive down the scorching asphalt to sun-baked Southwest Texas, where director George Stevens had assembled Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean to film "Giant."

Alas, we never got out of the driveway, but the urgency of that fantasy is with me still. So, too, is the commotion that was caused when the film landed in theatres 20 months later and local denizens rushed forth to embrace it.

Given this drum roll, is it any wonder that Composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa looked around him last January at the Dallas Theatre Center, on the eve of launching his musical version of said "Giant," and realized that he was "in the belly of the beast"?



The eyes of Texas were indeed upon him, and he squirmed. "People hold that movie very near and dear, so I was quite nervous," he confesses, "but once I started talking to folks I relaxed. They understood, as Texans, when they were being critiqued as well as when they were being cherished."

"Giant" never took baby steps. The 1956 movie weighed in at 201 minutes; the 1952 Edna Ferber best seller it's based on ran 416 pages. When it world-premiered as a musical in 2009 at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, it tipped the scales at four hours — an hour more than will open Nov. 13 at the Public Theater in Manhattan.

Director Michael Greif, a specialist at musicals on family angst (Next to Normal) and alienated youth (Rent), thought the Dallas gig was great: "They recognized they were given a deeply considered version. You are playing to people who knew the material extremely well and cared deeply about it."

Surprisingly, LaChiusa and adapter Sybille Pearson came to Giant through the literary Route — via Julie Gilbert, Ferber's biographer and great-niece, who pitched the musical.

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