What are John Weidman, Richard Maltby, Jr., and David Shire consumed with as they put the finishing touches on their new musical? The unrelenting drive for perfection. The pursuit of something intangible that, when achieved, has a transformative power. It’s no wonder, then, that they have spent the last several years immersed in the worlds of the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart, and Charles Lindbergh, pioneers of aviation whose obsession with flight is the subject of the new musical Take Flight, which will receive its American premiere at McCarter in May 2010.
Take Flight is not so much about flight itself as it is an investigation into the nature of ambition, exploration, and artistry. What does it take to achieve the impossible, and what are the costs of trying? “There is something deep, profoundly American about the story,” reflects lyricist Richard Maltby. “These people did what they did, they existed where they existed as part of the fabric of this country that takes pride in invention, that encourages individual thinking no matter how demented, and that has led to an explosion of ideas and everything that follows.”
The three stories that make up Take Flight are inspired by and based on historical fact, but Maltby, Shire, and Weidman have added their own sense of imagination and theatricality. David Shire’s rich score and Richard Maltby, Jr.’s character-driven lyrics capture the ethereal qualities of flight, the single-mindedness of youth, and the emotional costs of a dream deferred. John Weidman’s book artfully melds fact and fiction as he interweaves the stories of these intrepid aviators.
“What you have to do, I think, is a certain amount of research, absorb a significant amount of essential fact material, both about the lives of the characters and the context in which they operated, but also about other people’s opinions about who they were and what motivated them,” Weidman explains. “But at a certain point you stop. A musical is not a documentary. That’s not what people go to the theater for or why people write for the theater. So at a certain point you stop and then, having absorbed this information, you invent the characters as if you were creating them afresh.” Maltby adds, “Our first agent always said that ‘There’s real truth and there’s stage truth and they’re not necessarily the same thing.’”
Perhaps most striking is the shared experience of authors and subject. The act of creating a musical is arduous, daunting, and, at its best, exhilarating. “But it is always the thrill of it—the excitement to do something that’s never been done and try to express something that’s never been expressed in the theater,” says Maltby. “When you do that, then you’re in the unknown. And that’s where the excitement is.”
It seems fitting, in this economic and political moment, to reflect on the power and determination of the Wright brothers, Amelia Earhart, and Charles Lindbergh, each of whom were faced with overwhelming obstacles, and each of whom surpassed those to leave an indelible mark on the nature of American innovation. We are thrilled that McCarter will launch this astounding and important new piece of American musical theater.