Eden Espinosa as Sadie Thompson in the world premiere musical Rain.
The Old Globe has created a new musical based on the short story, Rain, by Somerset Maugham.
Transferring the stark characters of Maugham’s story into a musical theater setting is a daunting task. Maugham’s characters do not discuss their feelings or hopes and dreams — these are all things that musical theater characters do with startling routine.
We understand Maugham’s characters based on what they do instead of what they say. He gives us nothing else to go on. The women in the story don’t even have first names. Songs tend to be about characters explaining their feelings such as the ubiquitous love or it’s opposite, hate. Maugham reduces character to action but a musical must expand the character in order to add music.
Maugham gives the reader almost unlimited access to create the characters in the reader’s own likeness. A musical does not have this luxury of exclusion, therefore the freedom of character interpretation present in Maugham’s story is replaced with the vision of the composer and director of the musical.
It’s a dangerous game because anyone who has read the short story has an idea of what these characters are and this idea is based on the reader himself. The characters can become so associated with the personality of the reader that any opposing interpretation feels like a personal attack.
The musical might almost be better served not mention Somerset Maugham at the outset. Call it the O Brother Where Art Though effect. That movie states in its opening credits that it is based on Homer’s Odyssey. Now I, and anyone else who has read Homer’s masterwork, has a specific expectation of character from the hero. George Clooney is no Odysseus.
The movie had enough merit on its own that it didn’t need to invoke the cachet of Homer to add a perceived value. The same could be said of Rain.
The question I’m probably overlooking here is how many people have read Rain?
Rain runs through May 1st at the Old Globe in Balboa Park.