Where do plays and musicals come from? While many productions are original works, you may be surprised to learn that playwrights and producers often seek inspiration from popular books and novels. For example, The Golden-Age classics South Pacific and Gypsy are based on James Michener's first novel, Tales of the South Pacific and Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoir, Gypsy: A Musical Fable. The long-running smash hits The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables each find their source material in French novels by Gaston Leroux and Victor Hugo, respectively. Even the perennial sell-out Wicked is based on Gregory Maguire's novel, which is, of course, based on L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz...which was also later turned into a musical. (Oy vey...it’s like musical book-ception…).
From page to stage, books are great source material for theatre. It makes sense. Books provide rich characterization, gripping plots, and well-constructed drama. One of the great works in the American literary cannon is no exception. This April, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath turns 75. The celebrated novel about Depression-era America has a rich legacy that includes film, stage, and even opera.
The Smithsonian Associates will celebrate this legacy with “Steinbeck On Stage: The Grapes of Wrath at 75.” Join us on Thursday, April 24 to discover how this timeless tale has reached beyond the page. The event will feature writer-director Frank Galati who created the original 1988 stage version.
Galati will be joined by actress Lois Smith, who created the role of Ma Joad at Steppenwolf, and Michael Donald Edwards, artistic director of Florida’s Asolo Repertory Theatre, who directs a production of the Galati play this spring. Additionally, Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw will discuss how The Grapes of Wrath’s powerful portraits of human perseverance found their theatrical reflections. Elda Rotor, editorial director of Penguin Classics, serves as moderator. Excerpts from Galati’s adaptation will be screened, and several of Shillinglaw’s Steinbeck-related books will be on sale for signing.
In anticipation of the upcoming Smithsonian Associates program, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to chat with Mr. Galati about his experience creating the stage play The Grapes of Wrath. NOTE: This interview contains some spoilers regarding the both the novel and the play’s plot.
Q: What drew you to Steinbeck’s work and inspired you to put this book on stage?
A: Well, I first read The Grapes of Wrath when I was a kid. I was probably in high school. I know it’s part of the curriculum in some schools, but it was not in mine. My parents had a copy of the novel, and I just picked it up and read it.
It made a very profound impression upon me. It was a kind of scorching experience. I knew nothing of the world of the Okies or the dust bowl or the depression. I was overwhelmed by the story of the Joads. I was particularly devastated by the ending, as I think everyone was who has read the novel.
In 1986, I was invited to join the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. By that time I had finished my PhD at Northwestern. I was on the faculty there teaching literature, and I had a lot of experience adapting works of fiction for the stage as a classroom exercise.
When they had invited me to join Steppenwolf, Gary Sinise, who was the artistic director, said you should think about [creating] something that would be right for a company of actors of this scale and talent. And I said, “well what about The Grapes of Wrath?” He thought it was a great idea since they had just done a successful production of Of Mice and Men. Mrs. Steinbeck knew of the theatre company and had seen our work, so she agreed to give us permission to do a stage adaptation.
Q: What was your process for translating the book from page to stage?
A: It’s a complex process. It involves trying to find the play, which is hiding inside the novel. I guess I felt that if I focused on the Joad family and tried to stay close to them and their story, it would be possible to see what could be jettisoned from the novel, leaving us with a play that would unfold over two and a half hours on the stage.
Q: Did you consider or view other adaptations and performances, such as the 1940 film, as you approached your own adaptation? Why or why not?
A: I was particularly keen on staying faithful to the book because the movie departs significantly from the novel, especially at the end. The film has a sentimental, patriotic, and rather happy ending. Rose of Sharon does not lose her baby, and she does not give her breastmilk to a starving man.
That final tableau was very controversial in the novel. Steinbeck’s publishers initially refused to publish the manuscript if he kept the ending. Steinbeck refused to change it, so I was determined that we were going to do the story as Steinbeck had written it. I wasn’t going to make the kind of changes that were made for the film.
Q: How did you work with designers to bring the world of the play off of the page and up onto the stage?
A: Kevin Rigdon was the resident designer at Steppenwolf in the 80s. We had done other shows together, so we had a very close collaboration. He created sets that were extremely simple. It was basically an open space like the inside of a barn, open to the sky at the back. We knew that we had to have the vehicle that the Joads travel in, so we built a car. Our car was pushed and pulled by the actors on the stage, and it seemed to serve fine. We were able to travel thousands of miles just by going from one side of the stage to the other. Erin Quigley was the costume designer. It was a very happy collaboration for all of us. We were all, including the cast, elevated beyond our own abilities because the novel itself was such a profound and important story to tell.
The Grapes of Wrath - 1990 Tony Awards
Q: I know you mentioned wanting to keep the ending intact. How did you choose what else to depict on the stage and what to omit?
A: The novel is 30 chapters, and the chapters alternate between the story of the Joads and what Steinbeck called “the general chapters” meant to evoke the landscape, atmosphere, and culture of the time. There actually were 15 chapters that were not focused on the Joads, so I decided when I needed to use some of that landscape material, I would try to turn those portions of the text into song. There was a lot of music in the production. The novel has 15 chapters about the Joads, so that was an easy choice to make in terms of what to cut. The very first performance of the show was over 4 hours long, so I had to begin cutting it once we were in performance. Sometimes that involved cutting entire scenes, characters, and individual lines to make it move more swiftly.
Q: You also mentioned you had read it on your own and that it had a profound impact on you. What was your point of view of the material and your take on the story? How did that color your adaptation?
A: It’s kind of hard to answer that because the novel is what it is. I don’t think trying to make it conform to some kind of interpretation in the head of the adapter or director would be a very smart idea. What I wanted to do was be as absolutely faithful to the novel as I could be. In fact, every single word in the play is Steinbeck’s. I have added nothing except stage directions. That was my interpretive point of view—to stay faithful to novel.
Q: How did you negotiate the every shifting identity of being both writer and director?
A: I wasn’t going to be the director at first. Sinese was going to direct it, but then he made a big career move and went out to California, much like the Joads. The new artistic director, said, “Well Frank, now that Gary has gone out to Los Angeles, you should direct it.” I found that working on the adaptation became easier for me when I knew that I was going to direct it. I could imagine stage imagery while I was crafting the adaptation. It’s a process I am very familiar with because I’ve directed a lot of my own adaptations over the years. It was very comfortable, and I had a clear idea of how I wanted to stage it as I was writing the adaptation.
Q: The Grapes of Wrath takes place during the depression, and you staged it for a late 1980s audience, which was certainly a much different economic period. Could you speak to the timelessness of show and novel?
A: I live in Sarasota, Florida, and this is a very affluent community, but on the front page of the Sarasota Herald Tribune there are stories about the homeless almost every day. The homeless are here, everywhere: the underfed, starving children who don’t have enough food to eat; people who can’t find work; people who are disenfranchised and marginalized. These are people who are looked down upon by the rest of society, and especially by some politicians and wealthy CEOS. [These people] have only an interest in making more money and no interest in providing help for those who are the neediest.
When the show opened on Broadway in 1988, Frank Rich, the drama critic of The New York Times talked about having to come to the theatre and step over people who were sleeping on the sidewalks. Those people are still sleeping on the sidewalks, and homelessness is still a huge problem. The Joads are homeless migrant workers who have been pushed off the land by big money. The only bright spot in the whole novel is the government camp where they were able to clean themselves, sleep in a bed, and enjoy some food. This novel was tremendously moving and important to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor. They felt it really depicted the plight of the underdog in American society. No matter how affluent or cyber-sophisticated we are, no matter how much of a superpower we think we’ve become, we still have left millions of people out of the equation. That’s why it’s so timeless.
Q:That was beautiful, thank you. One last question: are you working on any upcoming projects?
A:Yes, I am doing a stage adaptation of another Steinbeck novel—East of Eden. It will open the 2015-2016 theatre season at the Steppenwolf.
You can hear more from Galati and other members of the production at our upcoming event. Tickets to “Steinbeck On Stage: The Grapes of Wrath at 75” are $20 for members and $25 for general admission. The event will be held on Thursday, April 24, 2014 from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the Ring Auditorium at the Hirshhorn Museum. Tickets are available here.
Written by Courtney Guth, social media intern at The Smithsonian Associates.