Promotional poster for 5th Avenue Theatre's Paint Your Wagon.
Promotional poster for 5th Avenue Theatre’s Paint Your Wagon.

Every day, the American Dream continues to be explored, pursued, and questioned in American daily life, as well as on its theatre stages. The 5th Avenue Theatre joins in this exploration with a new adaptation of Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner’s classic tale of the California Gold Rush, Paint Your Wagon.

The book for this new adaptation has been developed by writer Jon Marans.  “David Armstrong, the Artistic Director of The 5th Avenue Theatre, approached me about the project, asking me if I would be interested in writing a new book for Paint Your Wagon,” Marans said. “Of course I jumped at the chance.”

Marans’s adaptation moves away from the original show’s focus on white men. “My new version is hopefully closer to the true story, where the world converged on California, all races and ethnicities, where suddenly all of these disparate men were thrown together, forced to work together or at least interact in this exciting but dangerous world,” he said. “And how it changed all of them.

One of Marans’s goals for this new version is to focus on the individuality of the characters, including three characters of Asian American heritage. “I didn’t want an official chorus,” he said. “Instead, I wanted every single cast member in Paint Your Wagon to be a specific character with their own specific wants.”

But that has been a tall order. “It’s a cast of 23 with some doubling of roles, making it about 28 total characters,” Marans said. “That’s a lot of people for me to dream up, but of course that’s the fun part.”

This goal also entails some compromise. “With a cast this size, I obviously have to continually hone things down to the core dramatic story, which strictly involves ten people,” he said. “It’s a tricky balancing act to include everyone in the story while not letting it slow the story down.

In addition to broadening the narrative and character representations of the prior stage show, this production also augments the music heard by previous theatre audiences. “One of the other tricky parts to writing a brand new book to a pre-existing show is that you only have a limited number of songs at your disposal to tell your new story,” Marans explained. “But we were lucky: we had some extra songs available to us.”

Those songs became key in Marans’s adaptation process. “We found a song that wasn’t in the original version, but had been added during the first national tour,” he said. “We also were able to use two songs that had been written especially for the movie which were also quite helpful in our storytelling.

Most of the creative process for this new adaptation, after Marans wrote an outline for Act One, has been team-oriented. “From then on, it was all about collaboration,” Marans said, “working with David Armstrong, the director, Ian Eisendrath, the music supervisor, and Josh Rhodes, the choreographer, to continue to keep our story focused on this new, tougher, hopefully more truthful version of the California gold rush.”

Marans particularly emphasizes his partnership with Armstrong during his creation of a new book for Paint Your Wagon. “Besides David having a strong sense of dramatic story-telling, he also has an astounding knowledge of that time period, which was so helpful in clarifying this new ‘make-your-own-rules’ California world,” Marans said.

This writer-director collaboration has extended to the show’s staging. “David is also beautifully collaborative and welcomes thoughts on how I might have seen a scene or a moment,” Marans said. “And since I’m also a director and acting coach, I usually have at least some very preliminary concepts or thoughts in mind.”

Through this process, Marans also learned a lot about the original score and its role in the show. “The music needed to have the same toughness and edge as the new book,” Marans said. “And that’s where Ian brilliantly came in to find a new musical vocabulary to tell our new story.”

Marans believes this is complemented by the casting and direction of the performers. “And Josh Rhodes, our choreographer, has given the dancing a thrilling strength and muscularity and danger—which needs to hang over this show at all times,” he said.

Among this team of creatives, Marans has maintained an integral role in the rehearsal process—something not always common for writers. “I’ve been there every minute!” he said. “It’s just me, since sadly the brilliant Lerner and Loewe are no longer alive, so it’s important that I’m around.”

Staying present in the rehearsal room is standard for Marans. “That’s just sort of who I am in all the shows I work on, wanting to be around as much as possible to continually make sure that the story is clear and that I’m being truthful and digging as deeply as possible into my characters,” he said.

Marans believes this helps make his writing stronger. “Of course what’s exciting is what I originally saw in my head vs. what David and Ian and Josh ultimately put on the stage, as each of them excels my expectations,” he said, “and makes me then look at a scene or moment to see how I can improve and strengthen what I’ve already written.

Despite his enthusiasm for this new show, Marans is cautious about the future of this version of Paint Your Wagon. “My goal is to make this Paint Your Wagon as dynamic and dramatically involving and exciting and hopefully thought-provoking as possible,” he said. “And then the audience reaction will tell us what the future holds for this adaptation.

Paint Your Wagon will run from June 2 to 25, at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Avenue, Seattle. For more information, visit https://www.5thavenue.org/show/paint-your-wagon.

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