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First-ever theatrical adaptation of Gone with the Wind about to premiere in Winnipeg

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One of the world's best known love stories is about to make its premiere at Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

RMTC's production of Gone with the Wind, a first of its kind, will take audiences into the story of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler in 1861 Georgia during the American Civil War.

Media were given a sneak peek at the new production Tuesday.

Gone With the Wind was an instant bestseller on its release in 1936, while the movie version became the highest grossing film of all time shortly after its 1939 release.

With a world happily infected with Scarlett fever, how hard could it be to cash in with a splashy stage adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's Civil War epic?

The Oscar-winning movie's producer, David O. Selznick, was the first to recognize the potential riches of a touring stage production and optioned the rights in 1943.

It took him almost a decade to close a deal -- in 1952, he vowed a musical titled Scarlett O'Hara would be on stage within two years. But fiddle-de-dee, nothing came of it. Another flurry of activity occurred in 1961, but Selznick died in 1965, having shelled out over $100,000 to the Mitchell estate -- all for nothing.

North American audiences are still awaiting the first homegrown stage version of GWTW.

So the eyes of the world's Windies -- the nickname of fanatical GWTW enthusiasts -- will fall on Winnipeg when Niki Landau's adaptation has its world première at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

"The image I get is of making the first footprints in the snow," Landau said from her Toronto home this week. "I see a snowy field where nobody has put their footprints and we will be the first."

That trail-blazing does come with some trepidation. The last attempt at a definitive, or at least successful, GWTW opened in London in 2008. Surly critics torched the $9.5-million production like a platoon of Sherman's soldiers razing Atlanta. Despite being directed by leading British director Trevor Nunn (Cats, Les Misérables) and penned by a novice songwriter, this ambitious adaptation was gone in only 79 performances, making it one of the biggest flops in West End history.

Almost all other attempts to dramatize Mitchell's page-turner about an unconquerable southern belle were carried out in foreign languages. The first was a lavish Tokyo production, which presented a four-hour instalment in 1966 and a four-hour conclusion the following year.

Another Japanese production, this time a musical called Scarlett, opened in 1970 before being overhauled into English for audiences in London, where it ran in 1972 for 397 performances, despite tepid reviews. It continued on to the U.S. for brief stints in Los Angeles, San Francisco and several other cities, including Atlanta. Meanwhile, versions popped up in Greece, France and Romania, and there was an all-female production in Japan.

In the U.S., GWTW is such a cultural touchstone that no serious American playwright/composer will touch it.

"I think fear of failure is the most likely answer," says John Wiley, Jr., editor of the GWTW quarterly The Scarlett Letter and co-author of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind.

"Gone With the Wind is such a part of American pop culture, producers (and the money folks) are probably just fearful of taking a chance. A Broadway production would not be a cheap undertaking to mount. Also, of course, because Gone With the Wind is still under copyright here, I imagine the price for rights is quite high."

GWTW is not under any copyright restriction in Canada, so when Landau innocently suggested to a RMTC staff member in 2008 that it was a book whose time had come for a stage adaptation, artistic director Steven Schipper commissioned her to write it.

It was a favourite book of Landau's, but when re-reading in 2009, she was surprised at how current it felt, convincing her it was time for a reappraisal.

"When I read it again, it was less about the romance and so much more about the collapse of Southern society and the economy," says Landau, 40, who coincidentally portrayed a young Atlanta woman obsessed with GWTW in The Last Night of Ballyhoo at the MTC Warehouse in 2000.

At the time the world economy had crashed, and Landau and her husband were feeling it. Their savings took a huge hit in the market collapse and they lost much of their financial security.

"That's when I felt I had something to say about Gone With the Wind," says Landau, who returned to Winnipeg for the first full run-throughs this weekend. "I thought it was about the cost of surviving. For Margaret Mitchell, it was about what kind of people survive (the Civil War) and which ones don't."

At the outset of re-imagining GWTW for the stage, she listed all the iconic scenes that had to be in her adaptation. It was quite a list and reflected the fact it had never been presented in less than 31/2 hours. Then the question became how to frame them.

"One of the major choices I made was deciding this is not a story about the Civil War, isn't a story about Rhett and Scarlett, even though he is critically important," she says. "It's really Scarlett's story. Once you make that decision, then you follow her and it's very rare you are not with her."

Landau concentrated on what the trauma of the war had done to the ever-resilient Scarlett -- why she never feels like she has enough money and suffers recurring nightmares about an indefinable threat. The writer saw the parallels with family members who had lived through the Great Depression and had many of the same worries, bad dreams and predilection for carrying food around in their pockets.

"I thought it was time for a re-interpretation," she says. "Every generation thinks Gone With the Wind was written for them. Margaret Mitchell thought she was writing for people in the 1920s."

The story of a nation cut in two by war -- its conquered cities reduced to rubble and its humbled elite left hungry -- never loses its relevance, as reflected in the book's sales of 30 million. It still sells about 50,000 copies annually and is a cultural phenomenon in countries as unlikely as totalitarian North Korea.

"So many people can relate to the theme of survival," says Wiley, over the telephone from Richmond, Va., the one-time capital of the Confederate States of America. "Margaret Mitchell got a lot of letters, especially after World War II, from people who lived through the bombing of London and thought if Scarlett O'Hara could survive, so could they. It just inspires people."

Wiley is coming to Winnipeg for the opening- and second-night performances (as well as to speak at McNally Robinson Booksellers at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday) and will write a review for The Scarlett Letter and its 450 subscribers. A female Windy from Texas is also headed here for the show.

"January in Winnipeg is causing a few people to pause," says Wiley, whose collection of 10,000 pieces of GWTW memorabilia includes a signed first edition, the original printing plate of the dust jacket of the book and over 800 editions of the novel, with the latest being from Ethiopia.

"But it's the first in North America and I'm looking forward to it. I have great hopes for it."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca


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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2013 G1

History

Updated on Saturday, January 5, 2013 at 12:17 PM CST: replaces photo, changes headline, adds fact box

January 8, 2013 at 3:38 PM: Re-topped and added new video.

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