Playing Man Of La Mancha – Guitar
Music: Mitch Leigh
Lyrics: Joe Darion
Book: Dale Wasserman
In this article I examine what makes Man Of La Mancha so distinctive, reflect on its enduring popularity and highlight its significance for guitarists. I describe my experiences playing the show, the equipment I use, and the playing technique required by the guitar score. I also comment briefly on the guitar book itself; my detailed commentary on the guitar book can be found in a separate article.
AN ODD MUSICAL…
Man Of La Mancha is an oddity. One of the most popular musicals of all time, it was groundbreaking when it opened in 1965, and over 50 years later remains unique and unusual in many ways, despite the ever-increasing diversity of musical styles and production values in musical theatre.
Based on the 1959 TV play “I, Don Quixote” (which in turn was based loosely on Miguel De Cervantes’ 17th century novel Don Quixote), the show opened in November 1965 and ran for five years, winning five Tony awards in 1966. It has since had four Broadway revivals (most recently in 2002), two national tours and been adapted into a 1972 film. It has been produced in more than two dozen foreign languages, and about 50 cast recordings have been made.
The show opens with Cervantes imprisoned in a dungeon, awaiting trial by the Spanish Inquisition. Accused of being “a good man, a bad poet and an idealist”, he is subjected to a mock trail by his fellow prisoners. He defends himself in the form of a play, which is the tale of Don Quixote. Cervantes, his manservant and their fellow prisoners assume the roles of the characters in this play-within-a-play.
In addition to its “nested” structure, and taking liberties with both Cervantes’ history and his famous novel, the show has several other unusual features. It is long, yet intended to be performed in one act; it uses a lot of slightly archaic English. Rather than being plot-driven, it is deeply reflective in nature, examining a man’s soul and asking what it means to live a worthwhile life. The central character of the show is not a dashing, young hero, but an eccentric and infirm old man; the central relationship is not a clichéd romance, but the selfless, platonic love of aging Don Quixote for the younger serving girl Aldonza. Sets are usually spartan by Broadway standards. Despite, or because of all these unusual features, it is engrossing, and has been adored by audiences for over 50 years.
Further detailed examination of the show risks straying too far from the focus of this article, which is the role played in it by the guitar. For a thorough perspective, I recommend the analysis by Scott Miller in his 2004 article “New Line Theatre”, on the New Line Theatre website.
AN OUTSTANDING SCORE…
In addition to its distinctiveness and thought-provoking subject matter, the wonderful score is a key factor in Man Of La Mancha’s success and continued popularity. After 10 minutes of scene-setting dialog, the first hour of the show delivers an almost non-stop run of memorable tunes, culminating at the half-way point in “The Impossible Dream”. This immortal standard has becomes a favorite of crooners down the ages, notably Andy Williams. There are hundreds of recordings of the song. Other genres have got in on the act too. My personal favorites are Ken Boothe’s 1974 reggae version and a 2009 punk rock version by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. At the surreal end of the scale are a spoken version by Liberace and a truncated version by John Cleese and The Muppets.
After “The Impossible Dream”, the second half of the show has relatively few new songs, relying instead on multiple reprises of the most memorable numbers (“The Impossible Dream” appears no less than seven times in the show). Nevertheless, this is undoubtedly one of the finest scores in Broadway history. In the context of musical theatre guitar, it is also pioneering.
A UNIQUE ORCHESTRATION, AND A FIRST FOR THE GUITAR IN MUSICAL THEATRE
Prior to 1965, the guitar on Broadway was largely a background instrument, an anonymous part of the rhythm section, comping the big showtunes. In a bold and novel move, Man of La Mancha placed the guitar front and center for the first time. It dispensed with the entire string section of a traditional Broadway ensemble, replacing it with two Spanish guitars to give the show its distinctive flamenco rhythmic idiom. A guitarist was also a featured part of the ensemble cast, playing solo in three numbers and emphasizing the central importance of the guitar’s sound to the show. For these reasons, Man of La Mancha is a landmark musical for the guitar, and one that every guitarist should try to play. It remains unique – there has been nothing else quite like it since 1965 – which is another good reason to play it if the opportunity arises.
PLAYING THE SHOW
I have played two productions of Man of La Mancha, for Seattle Musical Theatre in 2014, and Second Story Repertory in 2019. In both cases I was the only guitarist. The 2014 production asked me to play the Stage Guitar parts from the stage, which involved a costume, makeup, additional rehearsals with the cast and a lot of scuttling to and from the stage. In 2019 I was able to stay in the pit and focus exclusively on the music, which I found to be a more satisfying experience. The music is a joy to play, and it’s nice to be able to just immerse yourself in it.
The Second Story Repertory production took place in a small, intimate theatre, and the set design filled the space; the “dungeon floor” was painted right up to the second row of seats, so that the audience really felt they were “in the dungeon” with the prisoners. The production was also imaginatively and beautifully lit, had a terrific cast and an excellent ensemble led by Music Director Kim Douglass, which I was very happy to be a part of. By the end of the run, I felt like I had improved my understanding of the guitar book and the show.
MASTERING THE GUITAR BOOK
Although Man Of La Mancha is scored for two Spanish Guitars, all of the parts are contained in one 40-page book titled “Guitars I-II”. Most numbers have only one guitar part, the idea being that the two guitars play in unison to fill out the sound, since there are no other stringed instruments (apart from the upright bass).
The book is almost all rhythm notation – just headless notes defining flamenco-style rasgueado rhythms, with chord symbols. It resembles a drum part, and this is appropriate, because for much of the time the guitar rhythms closely or precisely match those of the snare drum part.
Most of the book requires rhythm playing in the distinctive flamenco “rasgueado” style, which involves rapidly and percussively strumming the strings with successive fingers, to produce specific rhythm patterns. The general idea is that each successive finger starts its strum after the previous finger has cleared the strings; you don’t just flail at the strings with multiple fingers. Upstrokes are played with the thumb nail, so that you’re always hitting the strings with the flat parts of the nails. The timing of finger movements is varied to generate different rhythm patterns. For an introduction to rasgueado I recommend the series of articles on nylonguitarist.com on Rasgueado Mastery; a search on YouTube will provide a lot of video tutorials.
There are hundreds of rasgueado patterns, some of which are complex and difficult to play. Man Of La Mancha uses only a few very simple patterns, so it’s not that difficult, provided you can play rasgueado in the first place. I recommend spending most of the available preparation time for the show getting the rasgueado rhythms right. After that it’s very easy to just read down the book. In summary: master the rasgueado rhythms and you will master the book.
In an additional twist, most of the rasgueado strumming is synchronized with the snare drum rhythm in the orchestration. It’s important to listen carefully to the snare drum to get the rhythm sounding tight and crisp. The resulting sound combines the flamenco idiom of the Spanish Guitar with the “military march” of the snare drum and gives the score an unusual texture, which reflects the idea of Don Quixote being a Spanish knight.
I provide a much more thorough review of the guitar book and the rasgueado and other styles required to play it my companion article, Man of La Mancha – Detailed Notes on the Guitar I-II Book.
My typical rig for Man Of La Mancha is fairly straightforward. In the pit I use a Takamine P3FCN nylon-string guitar, with the stock onboard preamplifier replaced by an 18-volt CT4-DX model, which has better clarity, a 4-band graphic EQ and two notch filters.
The Takamine is too modern in appearance to be used as the Stage Guitar. For this I use a Spanish-made Esteve guitar (R.Fernandez 40-4864 model) fitted with a K&K Pure Classic pickup and onboard K&K Pre-Phase Miniature Preamplifier. The whole system is hidden inside the guitar so that no electronic parts are visible outside the instrument. This guitar can be plugged into a radio pack, and transmitted to the house, much like the actors’ microphone signals.
The signal from the guitar runs through a Fishman Aura Spectrum preamplifier and an MXR M108 10-band graphic EQ for final tone-shaping to suit the theatre. I use an Ernie Ball VP JR 25k Volume Pedal, and a TC Electronics Hall OF Fame Reverb. The reverb is dialed in to get the feel of the dungeon in which the show is supposed to be set. I use a “Church” reverb, with a short pre-delay, a short decay and not too much wet signal in the mix – just enough to get a feel of a room with stone walls.
All of this is mounted on a Pedaltrain JR board, powered by a Cioks DC10 power supply mounted beneath the board (I cannot say enough good things about Cioks power supplies – they are outstanding). I use a GigRig Cinco-Cinco patch bay, also mounted beneath the board, so that all connections into and out of the board come into the same place on the right side.
The output from the pedal board runs to an AER Compact 60/3 acoustic guitar amplifier, and a signal is taken directly from the AER’s XLR output to the house. The amplifier acts as my personal monitor.
To summarize, the signal chain is as follows:
Guitar →Fishman Aura Spectrum preamplifier → MXR M108 graphic EQ → Ernie Ball VP JR 25k Volume Pedal → TC Electronics Hall Of Fame Reverb → AER Compact 60 Amplifier → House mix.
Accessories and Nail Care
I use a Kyser Classical Guitar capo extensively during the show. No other special equipment is needed, just the usual music stand, a light, a guitar stand and something to sit on.
Man Of La Mancha is played entirely using finger styles, mostly flamenco style rasgueado strumming patterns, as described above. Since rasgueado involves playing with the flat parts of the fingernails, they will wear thin and break over a long run of shows. To protect my nails I use Sally Hansen Advanced Hard As Nails, a polymer nail-hardener, applying two to three coats. After a day or two, this dries pretty hard and lasts about 5 days. I typically scrape it all off, file the nails and apply new a coating 24 to 36 hours before the first performance of each week.
Man of La Mancha was a landmark musical for the guitar, marking the first time the instrument was placed in a central and prominent role in a Broadway musical score. Played entirely on the Spanish guitar, it involves playing mostly flamenco-style rasgueado rhythms, making it different from any other musical theatre score. It’s a unique, interesting and beautiful score, and one that any musical theatre guitarist should jump at, if the opportunity arises to play it.
Man Of La Mancha Wikipedia entry
Man of La Mancha Internet Broadway Database entry
List of available cast albums (there are many…)
YouTube: 1965 Original Broadway Cast Recording (playlist)
YouTube: 2002 Broadway Revival Cast Recording (playlist)
Tams Witmark Man of La Mancha page (licensing information)
Scott Miller’s analysis “Inside Man of La Mancha” for New Line Theatre (St. Louis, MO)
New Line Theatre’s Man of La Mancha Page (good links to a variety of information)
Nylon Guitarist Rasgueado Mastery articles
Second Story Repertory Theatre