Pop singers often talk about the thrill of hearing their own song on the radio for the first time. Writer Louise Erdrich felt a similar frisson last week on the way to a theater rehearsal.
As she steered her minivan through downtown Minneapolis, a city bus passed by with a huge display ad on its side trumpeting the world premiere of "The Master Butchers Singing Club." The play, which opens the Guthrie Theater's new season today, is based on Erdrich's acclaimed 2003 novel.
"It was a great, Carrie Bradshaw moment," Erdrich said later, referring to the famous opening sequence of HBO's "Sex and the City."
"Except we didn't follow it into a mud puddle," added Erdrich's daughter, Aza, who was riding along.
Erdrich's bestseller has leapt from page to stage under the creative team of playwright Marsha Norman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "'night, Mother" and a Tony for "The Secret Garden," and Broadway director Francesca Zambello ("The Little Mermaid").
By the standards of theater, where new plays may languish in development for years, "Master Butchers" came to be in a flash.
Two years ago, director Zambello was in town to stage "Little House on the Prairie" at the Guthrie. She became a regular at Birchbark Books, the Erdrich-owned store near where Zambello was staying.
"I would go in there and buy these birdcages that I sent to my friends," she said. "I asked the manager for [suggestions of] books by local authors."
Among Zambello's purchases was a copy of "Master Butchers," about Fidelis Waldvogel, a German sniper who leaves home at the end of World War I with a suitcase full of sausages. He settles on the North Dakota plains, where he eventually marries vaudeville performer Delphine, uniting the immigrant and American Indian worlds. (The work is based on Erdrich's own German and Indian forebears.)
Haunting the book are war and dislocation, with the 1890 massacre of hundreds of Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota looming large.
"When I first read the book, I actually saw it as a theater piece," Zambello said. "It has a sweeping arc of unconventional love stories, the mixing of cultures and the sense of community in a place where everyone feels like an outsider. It had a big kind of message."
Seeking a blessing
Zambello, also a noted opera director, took the idea for an adaptation to Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling. "He said that they had explored that before but it hadn't worked out," she recalled. "He was hesitant about it, so I said, 'Please, will you give me a little blessing?' He said, 'Sure.'"
She called Norman, who had adapted Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" for Broadway. The playwright was at first stumped.
"I loved the book and had no idea how to do it," said Norman. "I wandered around and thought of various possibilities. Then it hit me. Once the theatrical frame came, I wrote the thing in two months."
Norman tapped Step-and-a-Half, a survivor of Wounded Knee who has been walking the plains ever since, as narrator. "She's the major moral compass of the show," said Norman.
She became a larger force in the play than in the book, even as other characters fell away.
"I think Marsha was divinely inspired," said Erdrich. "I don't know how she did it, but the play doesn't feel like it leaves anything out."
Erdrich is especially pleased with the elevation of the narrator. "Step-and-a-Half never stops moving," she said. "I've known people like that, people who've suffered so much trauma from generations back. It doesn't just go away and they're healed."
Norman said that consulting with Erdrich about the adaptation has been essential, helping her to avoid pitfalls and keep the work grounded and authentic.
"When you're writing outside of your experience, you can't just make it up or put in what you think you saw," Norman said. "You have to keep checking, find a person who you can ask questions. With 'The Color Purple,' it was Alice Walker. And Louise is the original source. She has been wonderful."
Family and fiction
Erdrich said it was easy to let the book, and her characters, go.
"I care deeply about these characters -- they're close to me -- but they're not my children," she said. "I had to get it right for my father. There's a lot of my family in it. But it is fiction."
In the end, the high-powered creative team hopes that "Master Butchers" is not just a great work, but one that leads to some new understanding of our history.
"Show me another play that has the massacre of Wounded Knee in the second act," said Norman. "We need to all know this part of our history. In our show, the ghost dance [that precipitated the massacre] plays a big part of the story. It was fear of that dance that caused the cavalry to mow them down at Wounded Knee."
"Our history books are expurgated and cleaned up," said Erdrich, adding that it's left to fiction writers, playwrights and poets "to talk about the true history of our country ... a history of dispossession, slavery and denial of women's rights."
Added director Zambello: "A lot of characters die along the way, but it's life-affirming and very redemptive," she said. "The resolution is very joyous and leaves you with a great sense of the wonderment of life."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390