Standing backstage nearly 40 years ago, Rick Grossman was making more than his premiere as Sancho Panza in “Man of La Mancha.”
He was continuing a family legacy, with an added layer of pressure — considering Irving Jacobson, his uncle and Broadway’s original Sancho Panza, was seated in the audience.
“When I called him up and I told him I was doing this, he said, ‘Well, when’s your opening night?’ and I told him and he goes, ‘Okay, come pick me up, I’ll go with you!’” Grossman recalled with a laugh, eight days before his debut with the Hampton Theatre Company and his sixth production of the musical.
“To this day — and this is many, many years ago — it’s very vivid how he was there,” Grossman continued. “What’s so interesting about now doing this production at the Hampton Theatre Company is the young lady who played the female lead of Aldonza in that production, that he came to on opening night, is now the musical director of this production that we’re doing.”
Not only does Amy Federico McGrath have ties to Grossman, but she was also the Sayville High School choral director for Matthew Conlon, who will now lead “Man of La Mancha” as Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote four decades later.
“You have these dream parts when you’re a young actor, and this was one of them,” Conlon said. “It’s the kind of part that’s like Shakespeare. It’s gigantic. It’s iconic. It’s 400 years old. It’s the Spanish version of Mark Twain, and I was all in. It was this, or nothing. This is what I wanted — and careful what you pray for.”
Opening Thursday, March 21, at the Quogue Community Hall, “Man of La Mancha” marks the first fully staged musical in the Hampton Theatre Company’s 34-year history, explained Diana Marbury, who is co-directing with Edward A. Brennan.
“Musicals are very intimidating, number one, and there’s so much more involved with musicians and the cost,” she said. “We avoided that because we’re a small theater company and we don’t have a lot of money behind us. We’ve always been a little shy of taking it on. It came down to, we should at least jump in and try it, because everybody keeps saying, ‘Why haven’t you ever done a musical?’
“We’ve just heard it for so long and we decided this was the time to try it,” she continued. “It’s such a universal play, and we thought this was where we might start something. It’s our ‘impossible dream.’”
Inspired by the 17th-century novel “Don Quixote,” the five-time Tony Award-winning musical is widely considered one of the most enduring pieces of musical theater in existence, with four major revivals on Broadway and countless productions across the globe since it opened in 1968.
“It’s so hopeful. It sees the world not as it is, but as it should be,” Marbury said of the musical. “In desperate times, a lot of people feel very defeated. We all want a better world. We’re living in a world with such darkness now, and it just seeks all the good and the innocent, and the quest for chivalry, which we’re missing so much in this day in age.
“My hope is the play will be received in the same hopeful way that it was intended, in its initiation,” she added. “I hope everybody comes out feeling good and ready to fight the good fight.”
Framed as a play within a play, “Man of La Mancha” centers on Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, who is entertaining a group of prisoners awaiting a hearing by dramatizing his novel, “Don Quixote” — Cervantes himself playing Quixote with his manservant as Sancho.
“There’s a haughty, cocky idealism to Quixote that’s a little different than Cervantes,” Conlon explained. “He is the scared prisoner in the dungeon who, in life, was a tax collector and an accountant, and he was captured by pirates and held in slavery for five years. He had a lot of life experience, and he was a defiant figure. He kicked up the dust. And Quixote is certainly more modeled after the chivalric ideals of courage and generosity and courtesy and duty. It’s very much driven by the Round Table and King Arthur — but the Spanish versions of that.”
When Conlon heard of Hampton Theatre’s plans to stage the musical, he did not skip one day of practice, he said. He knew he had to be ready.
“I had my eye on the prize,” Conlon said. “For me, I always get a little nervous, anxious, about opening any show, but this is a new level of that because of the added thing of singing.”
The weight behind “Man of La Mancha” isn’t lost on Grossman, either, despite hundreds of performances as Sancho, including a seat on the National Broadway Tour in 2014 — following in the footsteps of his uncle.
“It was wonderful to see what he achieved on Broadway, but it never changed him. He was still the sweet, wonderful man he always was, right up until he left us,” Grossman said. “He never tried to tell me, ‘Do it this way,’ or ‘Do it that way.’ He said, ‘Make it your own.’
“It’s hard not to channel him every time I put on that costume and walk onto that stage as Sancho,” he continued. “I’ve walked out on stage and performed the role of Sancho coming up to 250 times. And I’m grateful that I feel I’m bringing him with me on each journey.”
Hampton Theatre Company will premiere its first-ever musical, “Man of La Mancha,” on Thursday, March 21, at 7 p.m. at Quogue Community Hall, located at 125 Jessup Avenue in Quogue. Additional performances will be held on Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., through April 7. An additional matinee will be offered on Saturday, April 6.
The cast includes: Matthew Conlon, Jessica Howard, Rick Grossman, Anthony Arpino, Kyle Breitenbach, Andrew Gasparini, Michael Sean Jones, James M. Lotito Jr., Joe Mankowski, Alyssa Marino, Nora Moutrane, and Elora Von Rosch. Diana Marbury and Edward A. Brennan direct. Amy Federico McGrath musically directs. Set design is by Sean Marbury, lighting design by Sebastian Paczynski and costumes by Teresa Lebrun.
Tickets are $40, $35 for seniors, $30 for under age 35 and $20 for students under age 21. For more information, call (866) 811-4111 or visit hamptontheatre.org.