Steinbeck Sings

The 1990 Steppenwolf Theatre production of The Grapes of Wrath, adapted for the stage by Frank Galati, was one of the most deeply moving shows I've ever seen on Broadway. It won the Tony Award for Best Play and garnered rave reviews, including a "must see" notice from Frank Rich of The New York Times. Yet Grapes ran less than six months, presumably because audiences were wary that this play based on John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about desperately poor "Okies" seeking work in California in the 1930s would be "depressing." (Well, umm, it is about the Great Depression...)

It's generally true that straight plays with very sad stories tend not to have long runs on Broadway, if they're produced at all; but on the other hand, many sob-inducing musicals have been embraced by audiences. And, heaven knows, opera has a great tradition of immortal works with tremendously sad plots. So Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie were wise in choosing to adapt The Grapes of Wrath for the operatic stage.

A beautiful 2007 recording of the world premiere production at Minnesota Opera is available through PS Classics, and now Grapes is set to have its NYC premiere in a two-act concert version at Carnegie Hall on Monday, March 22, featuring The Collegiate Chorale and an amazing cast mixing such legit-voiced musical theater stars as Victoria Clark, Christine Ebersole, and Steven Pasquale with opera notables Nathan Gunn, Elizabeth Futral, Anthony Dean Griffey, et al. Ted Sperling will conduct the performance. And if all that's not enough to mark this as a red-letter event, the concert will be narrated by Jane Fonda -- whose father, Henry Fonda, played Tom Joad in John Ford's classic 1940 film version of The Grapes of Wrath. I recently spoke with Gordon about this new American opera, which has already had successful productions in four different cities.

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BROADWAYSTARS: How did you hit on the idea for an opera based on The Grapes of Wrath?

RICKY IAN GORDON: Most of my ideas are my own, but in this case, I was approached by Minnesota Opera in 1998. At first, I quaked at the idea because of the book's iconic stature, and also because of the size of the project. I had to go to L.A. for a job, so I took the book with me; I read it on the way there and on the way back, and I had an overwhelming feeling that whether this was a scary thing to say yes to or not, if I said no I might as well just hang up my composer's hat. It's such a breathtaking story, the characters are so vividly drawn, and the structure of the book is so profoundly operatic.

STARS: How did Michael Korie come aboard as librettist?

GORDON: Michael and I had been working on an ill-fated musical, and I felt he was a genius. I asked him to read The Grapes of Wrath with an eye towards an opera, and he saw immediately that it had a three-act structure. Then he went away to the MacDowell Colony and wrote Act I of the libretto in a very short time. We met at this house, and it was clear to me from the first few lines that he knew just how to musicalize the story; he somehow took the whole prologue of the book, about the birth of the Dust Bowl, and turned it into a prologue for the opera. The way he wrote it, the opera would start with a stage full of green corn, and you would heard the sounds of a light rain. The opening song would be called "The Last Time There Was Rain." It's a bucolic vision of the past, and it's right out of Steinbeck.

STARS: Did you begin writing the music almost immediately?

GORDON: Yes. I wasn't supposed to start until Michael had finished the libretto, but as soon as I read the first act, I started hearing the music and I had to begin. It took about three and a half years to write the score. We had a very fortuitous premiere in Minnesota. I think we were all scared, because The Grapes of Wrath is a lot of people's favorite book. There a huge potential to push the buttons of people who feel very possessive of it. But we got amazing reviews for a new work, and the opera went on to subsequent productions in Utah, Pittsburgh, and Houston. It has a life now.

STARS: Tell me a little bit about the concert version that will be presented at Carnegie Hall.

GORDON: Ted Sperling and The Collegiate Chorale approached me about doing the whole opera in a concert reading at the hall, but I didn't think that was a good idea. For one thing, any work of theater -- especially one of this length -- hinges largely upon the staging. I have full faith in the score, but I thought that it would be a lot to ask of an audience to hear the entire piece in concert. Meanwhile, I had prepared a choral suite from the opera for the Los Angeles Master Chorale to sing at Disney Hall. But I said, "Why don't we do something new?" We decided to do not the whole opera, not the choral suite, but an edited version of the score that features The Collegiate Chorale and a killer roster of soloists, with most of the recitatives cut and a narrator reading sections of the novel. We started looking around for a narrator, and suddenly it came to us: Jane Fonda, because of her father. Jane said yes, all of the soloists we wanted said yes, and it all fell into place.

STARS: Do you think we might ever see The Grapes of Wrath at the Met or New York City Opera?

GORDON: I have a fantasy of the Met doing it. After the premiere in Minnesota, I got a note of congratulations from Peter Gelb at the Met. I guess they had sent a spy to come and hear it. And then I got a commission from the Met as part of their new commissioning program; Michael and I are writing an opera based on the story of Adèle Hugo, Victor Hugo's daughter. I've joked with Peter, "Oh, come on, do Grapes and our new opera! Do them both!" One thing that would be great about Grapes at the Met is that it's a very big work. But because of the way it's written, it can be done either as a full-out operatic production or the way we're going to do it at Carnegie Hall, with a cast that will highlight its musical theater aspects.

STARS: The film is a masterpiece, and Galati's stage adaptation was superlative, even if it didn't run very long on Broadway. Did the structure of the film or the play help you and Michael in your adaptation?

GORDON: No, and I'll tell you why: Right from the beginning, we wanted to do something different than the play or the movie. First of all, the most devastating moment in the book is the last image of Rosasharn nursing the starving man, and that's not in the movie. Also, what both the play and the movie avoid -- understandably, in some ways -- is that, in the book, the story of the Joads alternates with chapters that are a sort of Steinbeckian documentary about what was happening in the United States at that time. The book is structured almost as a social history of the country as seen through the Joads. We decided to use those in-between chapters and set them as huge choral numbers.

STARS: Did you see the Steppenwolf production?

GORDON: Yes. I actually saw it with Frank Galati. He took me to see it because we were planning on doing a piece based on the writings of Jean Cocteau. I never wrote more than one aria for that, because the Cocteau estate was notorious and was charging way too much money for the rights. But I did get to see The Grapes of Wrath. I was very moved by it, and some of those portrayals -- Lois Smith, Sally Murphy, and some of the others -- were so indelible that I saw them in my head while I was writing the opera.

STARS: Do you feel that this heartbreaking, based-in-truth story is more palatable as an opera than as an evening of non-musical theater?

GORDON: I was worried about that, but I'll tell you: When we opened in Minnesota, we were sold out for every performance and people were scalping tickets for $500 each. It was an incredible experience. I think opera audiences are more used to big, sad, epic stories. I still feel like a theater composer when I write an opera, but the difference is that you get to play with all the guns. In opera, you can do really big stuff and people will come!
- Michael Portantiere, Broadway Stars, March 15, 2010