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Looking for veins of truth

Special to The Times

LIKE most of the people I know in Los Angeles, I came to California having been born in another place.

In nearly 25 years here, I hadn’t given that factoid much thought -- until a conversation nine months ago set me on a course of discovery that, in a way, would become my own private Gold Rush.

Gil Cates, the producing director of the Geffen Playhouse, asked if I’d be interested in writing a new book for Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s 1951 Broadway musical, “Paint Your Wagon,” for the Geffen’s upcoming season.

Being fairly well-versed in Broadway musical history, I was embarrassed that my only familiarity with the show was that whenever the title came up in conversation, one of two questions would follow: “Great score, but isn’t the book a mess?” or “Isn’t that the movie where Clint Eastwood sings?”

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(“Yes,” and, “Yes, if you call that singing.”)

The story of “Paint Your Wagon,” even in Lerner’s sprawling original book, was potentially rich, the story of a father and daughter during the boom and bust of the California Gold Rush. However, gold fever hit its peak a century before the Broadway production; the Geffen production would be half a century again later. To craft a compelling and entertaining new version of the show, I needed to discover where the story of the gold rush intersects with the stories of our audience. Would we care about the gold rush today? And if so, why?

One thing I did know was that man’s love of gold hadn’t diminished; from the most ancient times, it’s been one of the more predictable of human natures. To most of the world, gold represents wealth, security, potency and status. To some, gold even suggests immortality, as expressed in gold-covered Buddhas, Pharaohs’ sarcophagi and the halos in Christian iconic art.

The 1848 California gold discovery came at a time when people were testing the boundaries of true American liberty. Intoxicated by the potential of upward mobility, is it any wonder these grandchildren of the soldiers of the Revolution were drawn west to secure wealth and immortality?

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Interestingly, not everyone in America was immediately excited by the promise of gold in California. The native Miwok people expressed little interest in the stuff and were often exploited for their gold-producing labor by white miners. A continent away, as the ink was drying on the treaty ceding California to the United States from Mexico, President Millard Fillmore’s administration was warning the public that gold finds were only rumors and unlikely to be true.

But the mere rumor of gold was all the rest of the country and the rest of the world needed to hear. Plows were dropped, shops locked up, homesteads abandoned to head to what the Chinese-born gold diggers called “Gam Saan” (golden mountain). The invasion defined California’s emerging identity: multicultural, fervently optimistic, territorial and aggressive.

Across our nascent state’s canyons and slopes, whoops of newfound prosperity wafted through sun-soaked haze. But as it became evident that the promise of easy wealth had been overstated, jealousies and tribalism that had been subsumed by hard work during fat times resurfaced. Joyous whooping became the ugly hiss of ethnic and racial tension. The joyful and the hateful sounds played -- and still play -- as the soundtrack of California’s self-invention.

Surely this is a story that is still relevant today.

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Forty-niner Nathan Chase could have been speaking for any of us nonnatives when he wrote in the crude spelling of the naive frontier that he came to California “for no other reason than to procure a litl property by the swet of my brow that I mite not be a dog for other people any longer.”

You don’t find huge numbers moving to Idaho or Belgium to do that.

Crowds arrive here daily in the belief that wealth and the freedom it brings will be found somewhere on that great elbow of unstable rock jutting into the Pacific between Oregon and Mexico. The pursuit levels all of the incoming traffic: the day-laborer hustling work on the corner and this week’s blond on the cover of People magazine; the Thai fry-cook and the health supplements mogul; the displaced steelworker’s kid and the Austrian bodybuilder turned governor.

Once the cry of discovery shot through the rural calm at Sutter’s Mill, California would never again be about the past as, say, New England and the Deep South are. California is about the future. Through a kind of natural selection, optimists and dreamers are the ones who settle here, folks who just know their expectations will never be met back home.

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Maybe that’s why I, like so many Californians, know so little about our state’s history: Our eyes are always focused ahead at what’s to come rather than looking back at the past.

I was excited to discover that restless, forward-looking drive beautifully captured in the Lerner and Loewe songs from “Paint Your Wagon.” “Where’m I goin’? I don’t know,” the gold-seekers sing, “But who gives a damn, I’m on my way!” It’s just so American to believe that pushing forward is our birthright, that it’s going to be better where we’re going than where we are.

The score is indeed wonderful. But Lerner’s original libretto was more like early California: full of richness but disorganized and at odds with itself.

“We” were all there on the page: Latinos, indigenous peoples, Europeans, Easterners, Asians, African Americans and colonials. However, even though musicals, especially in 1951, employ character archetypes by necessity to draw audiences into the narrative quickly, most of the characterizations had, with age, become stereotypes.

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I spent this past summer in what I referred to as my own personal Gold Rush, delving into the experiences of the ‘49ers. What I had always assumed was a mud-caked orgy of unrepentant greed revealed itself to be much, much more. When I finally crawled out from under my heap of books, journals, songs and images, I could see the distinct line leading from the glint in the mud of the American Fork River in 1848 to the glint of the setting sun off westbound windshields on the interstates this afternoon. Yesterday’s payment to a Panamanian pack-mule driver is today’s hopeful payoff to a border-crossing coyote. Nathan Chase’s hand reaches from Old California to write in my notebook; we both got tired of being “a dog for other people” and came west.

Polishing the nugget

So I’m a gold-seeker too -- the small hometown and the big cities I’d lived in didn’t push me out so much as California pulled me in. I have a personal stake in the lives of the characters in this new “Paint Your Wagon” because the story they represent is my own. But I’m not alone here; it’s the story of the audience too.

With this epiphany I returned, finally, to the work that started me on my journey. In keeping Lerner’s setting and a few of the principal characters, (I cut the cast down from Broadway’s 55 to 17) and by mining into what I felt was the essence of our national character, I was able to tell a larger, more resonant story than the original could.

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This is a gritty, relevant “Paint Your Wagon.” Now those wonderful songs are set in a context that allows them to speak directly to our hearts, our own lives. We know what finding gold means to the people in the play because we know what finding our own gold here has meant to us.

Of course, we also know what it means to not find the gold. Modern-day fortune seekers learn what their Gold Rush predecessors eventually did: There’s not enough gold for everyone’s dreams to be completely fulfilled.

But the pursuit, the journey, is the principal business of our lives. Our national activity is activity itself. Boom or bust, we do love pushing ahead, on into the future.

And we just know it’s going to be splendid.

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David Rambo is a playwright based in Los Angeles and a writer on the CBS-TV show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

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‘Paint Your Wagon’

Where: Geffen Playhouse at the Brentwood Theatre

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When: Opens Dec. 2. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays;

2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Jan. 9

Price: $42-$64

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Contact: (310) 208-5454


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