How do you reimagine a classic? How do you immerse audiences in a tale as old as time? The answer, for Peter Rothstein, is remarkably simple: by getting to the heart of the story. This is the duty Rothstein has taken on as director of Man of La Mancha, premiering at the Asolo Repertory Theatre this May.  The Tony Award-winning musical, penned by Dale Wasserman in 1965, is one of the most celebrated works of musical theater, featuring four Broadway revivals and countless productions around the world. The story, which is inspired by Miguel de Cervantes and his 17th-century novel Don Quixote, staged as a play within a play performed by Cervantes and his fellow prisoners as they await trial with the Spanish Inquisition, and follows the idealistic journey of knight-errant Don Quixote.  “I hope that our production celebrates what Dale Wasserman originally intended, which was not a documentary of Cervantes’ life or necessarily a faithful telling of the epic novel but a story of its own,” says Rothstein. “We also wanted to acknowledge the historical importance of the original novel, which is the most translated book in the world next to the Bible. Don Quixote has been labeled as the first modern novel, so part of my charge has been to figure out how to give the production a contemporary urgency, that not only lets the story feel as modern as it was when it was written in the late 1600s but also reflects the international impact of the story as well.” 

Rothstein, who is no stranger to Man of La Mancha himself, having directed the musical in Minneapolis at Theatre Latté Da back in 2017, was able to gauge the scale of the story’s international impact by traveling outside the United States. “I spent quite a bit of time in Mexico because my husband’s from there and you can tell that Don Quixote is really still quite present in that culture–you see it on t-shirts, shoes, artwork–there’s even a museum, Museo Iconográfico del Quijote, devoted to Don Quixote that I was able to visit,” says Rothstein. “While the musical was written in English and premiered on Broadway, how do we nod towards the story’s Spanish origins and the cultural resonance that it still has today?”

Part of doing so is ushering in that contemporary urgency–Rothstein and the team at Asolo Rep wanted the story to feel as modern and relevant as possible, despite the musical’s original setting of late 16th-century Spain. While the team was faithful to the text, they did take some creative liberties to bring this classic into a contemporary light. “The play within the play definitely adheres to the original, but what we call the container, the space for it is modern. Wasserman refers to it as a place for those who wait and that the characters are waiting in this kind of powerless place,” says Rothstein. “So the design team and I really sat and questioned what kind of contemporary equivalent of that, where people are detained in a holding place and are in a state of limbo. As this novel has kind of transcended language and culture we wanted the inhabitants of this space to be international.”

Ultimately, for Rothstein, reinvigorating Man of La Mancha as a modern musical meant delving deeper into the heart of the story: the core thematic values that have resonated with audiences since its inception. “How do the oppressed exercise agency and power? You do that by dreaming of a better world that’s more equitable,” says Rothstein. “The story is also about trying to hang onto chivalry and not as the sometimes sexist connotations of the word but of what it actually means to be chivalrous and righteous and do good by your fellow countryman. We’re experiencing that in our country and world right now–where’s the place of mutual respect and kindness for others simply because they’re a human being on the planet at the same time? The piece is fighting for that.”