Writing a New Book for ‘Paint Your Wagon’
Michael Waterston, Ordway 7/13/16
The Ordway’s 2016-2017 Musical Theater Season kicks off with Lerner & Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon, the sweeping saga of gold rush greed and the pursuit of the American Dream. The production is a collaboration between the Ordway and Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre.
Not content to simply dust off an old classic, the 5th Avenue Theatre reached out to Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer Jon Marans to create an updated book for the show that would highlight its iconic songs like, “They Call the Wind Maria,” and “I was Born Under a Wand’rin Star,” while breathing new life into the characters and the story of a mining town that strikes it rich, but struggles to hold things together as cultures from around the world collide in the Sacramento Valley.
We spoke with Jon Marans to learn more about the project and how the production wanted to approach a story set in one of America’s defining eras.
Tell us how the project came about, and the decision to create a new book.
JON: It was really David Armstrong’s (Artistic Director at the 5th Avenue Theatre) brain child. Until now, other re-writes for Paint Your Wagon had really only sought to fix or tweak small pieces of the original. Unfortunately, the original was just about a bunch of white guys and one Latino (who was only somewhat accurately represented). So, for this new book, we set out to create a more inclusive narrative that explored a wider range of perspectives.
As you sat down to write this story, what did you find important to focus on?
JON: An underlying theme that I wanted to bring out of the new book is the yearning for a sense of home. The gold rush brought together a diverse group of people, who, for various reasons, felt adrift in the world. Yes, they wanted to find gold, but they were also in search of refuge and human connection.
I also wanted to focus on the individuality of each and every character in this story. That’s why this show doesn’t have an official chorus. Instead, I sought out to make sure that every single cast member in Paint Your Wagon is a specific character with their own specific wants. It can be a tricky balancing act to include everyone in the story without letting it slow the show down. But it gives a much better picture of the diverse personalities that traveled west and creates the more inclusive story we wanted to tell.
How did you approach the development of the story’s ethnic characters?
JON: Most of it was based on real-life accounts that we found in books, journals, and diaries from the time period. It wasn’t easy to make the journey across the country, or across the globe. Everyone who went out there had to be driven by something. Weak people didn’t venture across the plains, so the characters had to have goals and strong wills. They all had to have backbones.
Racial conflict was obviously very palpable during the era; not just toward African-Americans, but toward Asians and the Irish as well, so it was important for us to show a wider diversity amongst the characters in the story.
One of those characters, H. Ford, is loosely based on a real-life person, by the name of H. Ford Douglas, whose story we found in our research, who was a former barber and orator, civil war captain for the North (unheard of for African-Americans), and actually believed in the violent overthrow of the government if needed in order to abolish slavery. A complex character to say the least!
In order for the audience to care about what happens to these characters throughout the story, the audience has to care about them first. Which was difficult to do that with Guang-li and Ming-li because they don’t have any singing moments in the show, but we created a very emotional pull for these two brothers who clearly love one another, but have very different goals.
Did you do any research into the Gold Rush era to ensure accuracy & credibility?
JON: David sent me book after book after book. My house looks like a Gold Rush library now. We were able to pull even more information about the time period from interviews and diaries. One of the expressions that I came across which stuck out to me, and sums up the Gold Rush quite succinctly, was “Bright at breakfast, dead as a doornail by supper.”
It’s important to remember that Rushers weren’t poor or dumb. Greedy and desperate? Some of them, definitely, but it was expensive to travel across the country or across the ocean, so most rushers were often the second sons of upper and middle class families who didn’t stand to inherit anything. They ultimately saw this as their opportunity to make something of themselves.
It truly was a collision of cultures. People who didn’t know one another, and who didn’t speak the same language, were working very closely together in a place that wasn’t even a state yet. They were making up the rules and the laws as they went.
Paint Your Wagon is known for its iconic songs. Did you run into any issues writing a new book around them?
JON: Some of the songs had to be moved in order to fit within the new book, and in order for the new book to fit around the songs. The songs have a wonderful “storytelling” style, which presented an interesting challenge, because the dialogue and events that take place have to tie into the songs, otherwise they would feel out of place.
“They Call the Wind Maria,” for example, is about a man questioning himself and the world around him, so the story leading up to that had to play out in a way that would justify him singing it.
The show just finished its run in Seattle and is about to hit Minneapolis. Will it change/evolve in between?
JON: Yes! We’ll continue tweaking and improving the pieces that worked on paper, but didn’t translate to the stage. You learn new things with every performance, so it will only get better as we move forward!