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Dallas Theater Center's 'Giant' Has Some History

by Jerome Weeks 27 Jan 2012 6:00 AM

There’s sixty years of history behind Giant,, the big-budget musical opening at the Dallas Theater Center. When it came out, Edna Ferber’s novel angered many Texans. Four years later, the movie version became Warner Brothers’ biggest hit. It always helps if you make us look like Elizabeth Taylor or James Dean.


Kate Baldwin plays Leslie (center, left) and Aaron Lazar is Jordan “Bick” Benedict at a barbeque in the Dallas Theater Center’s Giant

Tonight the Dallas Theater Center premieres a big gamble – a big-budget musical adaptation of Giant, the Edna Ferber novel and classic Hollywood movie. Giant follows 25 years in the history of a Texas ranch as it turns into a Texas oil empire. KERA’s Jerome Weeks has this report.

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If you’re familiar with Giant, you most likely know the 1956 film, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson.

Elizabeth Taylor: “I came home at a quarter to eleven. And I read about Texas until five this morning.”

Rock Hudson: “Oh ma’am, that takes a heap of reading, Texas does.”

Giant follows a young Easterner in the 1920s who marries the heir of a ranching empire [sound of cattle] — and moves out West with him to the family property, a sizable expanse of dust and cattle and a Victorian mansion. Big changes eventually come after Jett Rink, a resentful young ranch hand, played by James Dean (in his last film role), drills for oil [sound of gusher] – and strikes it rich.

Filmed near Marfa, Giant earned 11 Oscar nominations, winning one for director George Stevens. If nothing else, the film introduced American audiences to the sheer scale of West Texas. To many Texans, Giant remains the iconic Texas saga — complete with fiesty wildcatter, handsome cattle baron and the proper Eastern woman who hopes to civilize them.

Edna Ferber’s original 1952 novel was a different story.

Graham: “It was denounced throughout the state. People were outraged at the book.”

Don Graham teaches Texas literature at UT-Austin and is the author of Cowboys and Cadillacs: How Hollywood Looks at Texas.  Many Texans objected to Ferber’s novel because her characters can be flashy, vulgar, ignorant or racist. Whatever accuracy there was came across as satiric and exaggerated.

Ferber was a New Yorker who thought Texas would make a good story – based partly on the famous King Ranch in south Texas and partly on oil man Glenn McCarthy, who made a splash in 1949 with the gaudy, chaotic opening of his Shamrock Hotel in Houston. America had discovered brash Texas millionaires. And as Bryan Burrough points out in The Big Rich, one reason Americans had become fascinated/worried by Texans: Conservative oil money from the state had started to flood presidential politics. In 1952, the biggest single donor to Eisenhower’s campaign was Texas oil man Roy Cullen.

Graham: “So from the end of World War II forwards, Big Oil was a huge story that held great national interest.”

Don Graham doesn’t think much of Ferber’s novel, but mostly because he thinks it’s a mess. He sees Ferber as the pioneer of the James Michener formula: She was more a journalist who researched the history of a place and then wrote a novel that more or less recounts that history with a few prop characters in the foreground to keep readers interested.

Even though she was one of the best-selling female writers in the first half of the 20th century, Ferber is not much read today. Her work rarely appears in literary anthologies; it’s not in Graham’s Lone Star Literature, for instance. She’s remembered mostly because of Hollywood films and Ferber’s stage work — Broadway adaptations like Show Boat and her own collaborations with George S. Kaufman such as The Royal Family.

Yet it’s the novel, Giant, not the movie, that has inspired the Dallas Theater Center’s musical. Ferber’s grand-niece persuaded composer Michael John LaChiusa (left) to read Ferber’s novel a second time.

LaChiusa: “And when I read the book, I realized how prescient she was, particularly in talking about oil and what oil would do to us as a nation if we were not careful. But I didn’t know how to get into it.”

Perhaps the old Hollywood adage — mediocre books make good films — applies to musicals. LaChiusa turned to  a fellow New York University teacher, Sybille Pearson, who had written the book for the musical, Baby. She found a way to organize the story around three different parties the characters throw — including one modeled on McCarthy’s Shamrock Hotel blowout. Mostly, Pearson was struck by the central story of Leslie and Bick. As ranching fades, he must struggle with his own waning power, while she’s an independent-minded, book-reading woman who adapts to Texas — even as she objects to the way Texans mistreat women and Mexican-Americans. Those are the three threads that hold this story together: the generational saga of Leslie and Bick’s family, the transition from cattle to oil, and the changing treatment of Mexican immigrants.

Pearson: “I saw the movie years ago and when I decided to do the musical, I only wanted to do the book. I believe most people will come knowing the movie, so it’s a bit of a gamble that we’re staying with the book.”

After Giant debuted at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, Pearson and LaChiusa worked to shorten it to three hours at the Theater Center. It may be even shorter when it opens at New York’s Public Theater.

[music comes up and continues under] For La Chiusa, Giant is a huge canvas. He’s been celebrated by critics mostly for his smaller-scale shows like The Wild Party and Hello Again. Only his New Orleans musical Marie Christine compares to the size of Giant, which  has 23 actors and 15 musicians. Musically, Giant stretches from Mexican folk songs and country-western to Texas swing and even the early years of rock ‘n’ roll.

La Chiusa: “What’s beautiful about the movie and beautiful about the book are the descriptive elements of the big sky. It’s just amazing. So musically, when I have to go into it and write a score, I have to sort of find what that blue is. You know, how do you put 10,000 head of cattle on stage? What is that power like?”

Weeks: “So I have to ask, how do you do a gusher onstage?”

LaChiusa: “Watch it. We do.”

Pearson: “We do [laughs]”

LaChiusa: “We have a gusher onstage, yeah.”

[music finale]