Back in the mid-1960s, Mitch Leigh was a little-known jazz musician who was making ends meet by writing music for commercials and radio shows.
"Then someone came to him with this idea of a musical based on 'Don Quixote' and he said, 'That sounds like fun,' " Robert Austin said. "Little did he know that it would have a profound effect on American theater."
The show, of course, was "Man of La Mancha." It premiered on Broadway in 1965. Leigh's music, including that for the song "The Impossible Dream," helped make it a classic.
It's next up from Manatee Players, who will present the show beginning today at Stone Hall at the Manatee Performing Arts Center.
Austin will take the title role, which is actually three roles in one.
"Man of La Mancha" is a play within a play, and begins with Cervantes, the author of "Don Quixote," imprisoned during the Spanish Inquisition (which he really was). Fellow prisoners attack him, and threaten to take all his possessions if he is found guilty in a mock trial. His defense consists of a play he has written. He takes the role of Quijana, who believes he is a knight.
"You have an actor playing one character who plays a second character who imagines he is Don Quixote," said director Bob Trisolini. "So it's a trilogy of characters."
The show has been popping up more often in theater around the country lately. It had gone through a period when it was seldom staged, but ever since an acclaimed 2002 Broadway revival it's been gaining momentum again in local and regional theaters. FreeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg staged a popular and critically praised production of the play in 2011.
For Austin, "Man of La Mancha" and its title character are something special.
"I love this man," he said. "I love Cervantes and I love Quixote."
He has played the role four or five times before, all over the country. He now lives in Sarasota, and came to Manatee Players when he started reading theater critics' accounts the caliber of work the company did. His only other role at the Manatee Performing Arts Center was in "Young Frankenstein" earlier this season. What he wanted, even more than to work with Manatee Players, was to get a chance to play Quixote again.
Composer Mitch Leigh, who died Monday, never had another big hit on Broadway. Neither did his lyricist, Joe Darion, nor Dale Wasserman, who wrote the book. But their single hit from a half-century ago will ensure their that they have a legacy in American theater that will last for many more decades."All this from a guy who was essentially a jingle writer," Austin said.
Details: March 20-April 6, Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave, W., Bradenton. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $26-$36. Information: 941-748-5875, www.manateeplayers.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.