Mark Twain, Tolstoy, and Tupac. All are untouchable; the idea of adapting their work into Broadway musicals would seem to be (at best) hubristic and (at worst) irredeemably loony. Luckily, that didn’t stop Big River composer Roger Miller back in the early ’80s—nor has it stopped his contemporaries: Dave Malloy and Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812), Michael John LaChiusa (Giant, The Wild Party), or Daryl Waters (Holler If Ya Hear Me). Malloy, Chavkin, LaChiusa, and Waters came to Encores! Unscripted for a conversation about the landmine-strewn art of translating great works onto the stage. As Big River prepares to bow February 8 at City Center, composer Michael Friedman gets the scoop on adapting epochal work for the stage.
Michael Friedman: What draws you to material? What attracts you to a source?
Michael John LaChiusa: I think it’s character. The characters have to sing, and have to have something to sing about. That’s what makes our musicals musicals: the characters are opening up their souls about something that they couldn’t say out loud. That’s what I look for in any adaptation. In the case of [Edna Ferber’s novel] Giant, the Texas history and the oil and the racism was all background. What attracted me to the piece was how two opposites came together in a marriage that went on for 25 years. And both those characters have something to sing about.
Rachel Chavkin: For me, it’s the same way that a literary critic would write an essay about something that they want to cast. There’s just an obsession of interpretation: a feeling that I need others to see what I see in [the source material], and maybe an anxiety that something could be missed. Like, Did you get this? Did you get why this gesture was so beautiful? [Dave and I are working on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad,] and in the case of Prince Hal, I wanted to share why I have had a crush on this boy since I was in college, and why I have also wanted to throttle him. That’s why I began writing text alongside the Shakespeare—because Shakespeare wasn’t angry enough at Hal for me.
MJL: Also, we do enjoy working with dead sources.
Dave Malloy: Oh, yeah. (laughs) Brilliant and dead.
I guess that would be the real answer to the question What drew you to this material? “My prime collaborator cannot collaborate and will do whatever I say.”
DM: It’s so true. Rachel and I are also working on Moby Dick, which might be over several nights.
MJL: Do it on a ship, too, maybe.
DM: Oh, yeah. We’ve been talking about the idea of a durational thing; the audience would become the ship. They’d eat meals together and drink grog together, all of those things.
It’s good to know you guys remain unambitious. But with almost all of these shows, [we’re adapting material] that made people say, “You can’t possibly do that.” We like to prove people wrong. Daryl, I’m really interested in your work on Holler If Ya Hear Me, which was sonically one of the most astonishing experiences I’ve ever had in a theatre. It was like watching an album transformed into a theatrical space.
Daryl Waters: My biggest challenge was finding ways to theatricalize [Tupac Shakur’s] music. The loops are fine, the groove is fine, but at a certain point there are things you can do to help the drama—like key changes. I also added melodies to some of his lyrics, so it became a lot more “musical” to people.
How did the permissions work? Were you given free reign [by Tupac’s estate]?
DW: I was given free reign until I wasn’t.
That’s the title of a book. I Was Given Free Reign Until I Wasn’t: A Life in the Theater.
WATCH THE ENTIRE CONVERSATION HERE:
The next Encores! Unscripted event, Love for Sale: The History of Sex in Musicals, is on February 27.