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'Giant' Takes A Little Step Towards Dallas

by Jerome Weeks 14 Jan 2011 10:48 AM

A musical adaptation of ‘Giant’ is eventually coming Dallas — before heading to Broadway. But which version of ‘Giant’?


The New York Times’ Arts Beat blog has an update on the musical version of Edna Ferber’s novel, Giant — which is going to be a co-production between the Dallas Theater Center and New York’s Public Theatre. The show — with music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa of The Wild Party fame — already had its world premiere at Arlington,Virginia’s Signature Theatre in 2009. At the time, the show clocked in around three hours.

That, unfortunately, is understandable. Have you actually read the book? Texas lit scholar Don Graham has called it one of the ‘talkiest’ darned novels around.The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley has said reading it for a second time (he’d encountered it as a teenager) was “a painful, if not outright excruciating, experience.”

But the Public Theatre’s artistic director Oskar Eustis says the new workshop version has cut about an hour off that running time. So when is it coming to Dallas? “Next winter.” And when will it make it to Broadway? Maybe 2012.

But here’s something to consider. When the novel came out in 1952, Texans almost universally, absolutely hated it. Ferber, a New York stage writer and sometime-member of the Algonquin Round Table, wrote it as a scathing satire of Texas’ nouveau oil riche, the state’s racism and its brawny vulgarity. All of them big, easy (and, let’s admit, juicily justifiable) targets.

But Ferber, a flat-footed and heavy-handed prose stylist, rarely lets anything pass in her story without obvious sarcastic comment. This is Ferber’s introduction of Luz (played in the film by Mercedes McCambridge), the older sister of Bick (Rock Hudson): She’s “a bitch and a  holy terror and kind of crazy, too.” Okayyyy. That’s not laying it on too thick. (See Bryan Burrough’s account of the novel’s inception and its statewide reception in his history, The Big Rich.)

A complete turnaround happened when the famous George Stevens film version appeared four years later. It pretty much was hailed and welcomed as Texas’ very own Gone With the Wind — and has since become a part of American pop mythology. The story, after all, is about the passing of the cattle economy and the rise of Big Oil, and Texans eagerly saw themselves in it (you be Elizabeth Taylor, I’ll be James Dean).

Yardley, again: “It would be difficult to find more telling proof of the old saw that good books make bad movies and bad books make good ones. . . . Rarely, has a novel taken on such completely new life on screen as does Giant. The movie is so much better than the book as to seem an almost entirely different piece of work.”

True. But it’s also true that Hollywood softened (or simply ditched) a lot of Ferber’s satiric edge, particularly about the state’s treatment of Mexicans. It’s possible to watch the movie and never see it necessarily as a satire at all.

Soo … I’m curious to see how the musical version plays out. But the only reason Ferber’s novel is remembered at all today is the film. And when it comes to softening satire, Hollywood learned everything it needed to know from Broadway.

A tip o’ the hat to Unfair Park.