It’s a very busy season for Michael John LaChiusa. The acclaimed musical theatre writer premiered First Daughter Suite, a companion piece to his similarly styled First Lady Suite, at New York’s Public Theater last October. And Rain, a new musical based on the Somerset Maugham short story, begins performances next week at San Diego’s Old Globe (it will run April 1-May 1).
Two musicals in the same season is no small feat, but it’s one LaChiusa has pulled off a number of times in his career. In 1993, his La Ronde adaptation Hello Again opened at Lincoln Center Theater on the heels of First Lady Suite at the Public. Then in 1999-2000, both Marie Christine and The Wild Party opened on Broadway, leading to four Tony nominations in 2000 (two for book, two for score). Again, in 2005-2006, he had another Public/Lincoln Center double header with See What I Wanna See and Bernarda Alba, respectively.
Now 53, the prolific composer, lyricist, and book writer has worked steadily since he arrived on the scene in 1993. Though he’s never had what the commercial theatre might consider a hit, he’s had nine Off-Broadway productions and three on Broadway (he provided additional material to the 1995 Broadway show Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which garnered his first Tony nomination). He’s also premiered operas, musicals, and song cycles around the country.
Though he typically is the sole author of his shows’ music, lyrics, and book, his career is also the story of collaborations. Whether working with another writer or with a director, LaChiusa said he relishes the back and forth, and, after more than three decades at it, he knows how to navigate the sometimes choppy waters to make them work. “You learn to adapt to people,” he said in a phone interview. “If you’re unmalleable, if you don’t have any flexibility about things, then your collaboration suffers.”
First Daughter Suite and Rain have both been homecomings. Not only was he returning to familiar material with First Daughter Suite; it also reunited him with his longest-term collaborator, director Kristen Sanderson, who directed First Lady Suite as well as his musical Little Fish. It also marked a return to the Public, which has produced five of his musicals. And Rain pairs him with book writer Sybille Pearson, with whom he first collaborated on the musical Giant. While this is his first time working with Rain director Barry Edelstein, they’ve known each other for around 20 years.
With Sanderson, LaChiusa achieves what he called “a total mind meld.” They collaborate on every aspect of a show except the design, which Sanderson handles, and they are on the same page nine out of 10 times. “She allows me to have my flights of fancy,” LaChiusa said, “and she’ll be there to ground me in certain realities, saying, ‘No, we can’t do this. We have to do it practically.’ She knows my work inside and out, sometimes better than I do.”
For her part, Sanderson said she felt a deepening of their collaboration over time. “In the years between [First Lady Suite and First Daughter Suite], we’ve both grown and changed as artists, and I think the production reflects the depth of our maturity,” she said. “We’re not as emotionally dramatic; we’re better at arguing with each other. Our development as a collaborative team, as a team leading a group of other artists, is far more evolved.”
LaChiusa and Sanderson first met in 1983 at Soho Rep when Sanderson, in her first job as an assistant director, called music directors for a production of Augustin Daly’s 1867 melodrama Under the Gaslight. LaChiusa got the job. They were soon doing their own musicals, devising the ideas together, with LaChiusa writing and Sanderson directing and producing.
They also soon became roommates as well as professional collaborators, and they developed a love of U.S. First Ladies. In those early years of research, LaChiusa and Sanderson read every book on the subject they could find, exchanging the good ones with each other as they immersed themselves in these women’s lives. LaChiusa boasted he now has over 400 volumes on the lives of the First Ladies and even calls himself a First Lady-ologist.
They were particularly influenced by Lady Bird Johnson’s A White House Diary, which juxtaposed the quotidian—getting kids to school, taking dogs to the vet, morning coffee dates—with major historical events, and by My Life with Jacqueline Kennedy by Mary Gallagher, an inside look at the Kennedy administration from Jackie’s secretary, which also fused the personal and political.
The result of their shared obsession was First Lady Suite, four short musicals, each about a different first lady: Eleanor Roosevelt, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman, and Jacqueline Kennedy. The pieces are historical but also veer into the fantastical, with dream sequences and a journey through time and space. “They’re fantasias, flights of fancies,” LaChiusa said. “Not bio-musicals.”
New York City’s Transport Group revived First Lady Suite in 2004, but people often asked LaChiusa if he planned to write more about other First Ladies. He always demurred. But then one day, while reading about the wedding of Tricia Nixon, he spotted a photograph of the cake about to fall over. With those nuptials coinciding with the release of the Pentagon Papers, he found himself imagining what the day must have been like for Tricia and her sister, Julie.
That idea led him to turn his attention to the First Daughters—women and young girls, who, as Sanderson describes them, are more vulnerable than the First Ladies because they are not in the White House by choice. LaChiusa found the mother/daughter relationship a fertile subject. As he put it, “You ask any woman, ‘What is your relationship with your mother?’ And you’ll be in for either a cozy bedtime story or a horror movie, or something in between.”
First Daughter Suite is similar in structure to its predecessor, with four segments, but a slightly bigger dramatis personae: The first includes Pat, Tricia, and Julie Nixon; the second melds together both Betty and Susan Ford and Rosalynn and Amy Carter; then there’s Nancy Reagan and Patti Davis; and finally a piece involving two successive First Ladies, Barbara Bush and Laura Bush, and the former’s short-lived daughter Robin Bush. LaChiusa and Sanderson stopped with the Bushes because, as they put it, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s story isn’t finished yet. The cast album of the Public Theater production is currently available in digital form; the physical CD will be available April 1, from Ghostlight Records.
As in First Lady Suite, the authors use fantastical sequences to explore how these women survive the demands of their roles. Amy Carter sails her mother and the Fords to Iran. Barbara Bush speaks to her daughter Robin, who died at age three from leukemia. Throughout each story, the political invades the personal, as events like the release of the Pentagon Papers, the Iranian hostage crisis, the Iran-Contra hearings, and the 2004 election can’t help but seep into their lives.
LaChiusa said he chose his subjects out of a desire to understand them. Of writing about Patti Davis, he wondered, “Where did that ambivalence and hostility come from, when the picture the Reagan family presented was of a perfect American family? How can I find compassion for these people?” He added, “What Barbara Bush has said on record about her son George W. Bush is mind-blowing. Where does that come from? Do we blame [George] for who he is? What were the factors that led to the character makeup of this man?”
After First Daughter Suite closed on Nov. 22nd (following a one-week extension), LaChiusa switched his focus to Rain, based on Maugham’s tale of travelers stranded on an island near Samoa. The short story focuses on Alfred Davidson, a missionary bent on reforming Sadie Thompson, a fellow traveler and prostitute trying to escape her past.
Rain has compelled generations of readers since its publication in 1921, and previous adaptors have found it irresistible: It has spawned no fewer than three film versions variously starring Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, and Rita Hayworth as Sadie Thompson. It was also the inspiration for a musical flop in 1944 by Vernon Duke and Howard Dietz that almost starred Ethel Merman (June Havoc replaced Merman after she reportedly walked out of rehearsals). The story lived for years on LaChiusa’s shelf of possible projects, which he described as “things that stare at me every morning and say, ‘Are you going to musicalize me today?’” As he and Pearson were completing Giant and looking toward their next piece, LaChiusa suggested Rain.
Giant was not one of those shelf projects—it came when the Edna Ferber estate approached him about adapting the novel. Though he most often writes every note and every word of his musicals, for Giant he knew immediately that he wanted to work with another writer: The scope of the project was too large, and he thought it would be best for the piece to have a book writer so he could focus on the music and lyrics.
He found that collaborator in Pearson, his colleague at New York University’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, where both teach, Pearson as a full-time faculty member, LaChiusa as an adjunct. Pearson received a Tony nomination for her book for the 1982 musical Baby and has written numerous plays.
LaChiusa also enjoys having a collaborator for adaptations in order to, as he put it, release the adapted material from the original medium, in this case the Maugham story. He called Pearson an ideal collaborator for the task because she could “take very difficult material and open it up, and make more of characters that may not even register on the page. The short story form is very difficult to do, because there’s generally only one action and very little character. If you want to adapt short stories to the musical stage, you have to really invent.”
At first, Pearson confessed, she struggled with the material. In fact, her “first instinct” when she read the story was “no, you can’t do this. But I reread it and then I saw that we would need a scene there, we will need this here. And I said, ‘I’d like to do this.’” Together they fleshed out some of the minor characters, including giving one unnamed character, the doctor’s wife, a name and story.
LaChiusa compared collaboration to “hopping in the boat and going down the Amazon. I know that she will use the oar on this side of the boat and I will use my oar on that side of the boat.”
The other collaborator on the project, director Barry Edelstein, had been a fan of LaChiusa’s work since they met at Williamstown Theatre Festival in the late 1990s. He had been looking for a musical to bring to his audience at the Old Globe since he took over as artistic director in 2012. He asked his agent, Charles Kopelman, co-head of the literary department at Abrams Artists Agency, if there were any new pieces he could look at. Kopelman gave him Rain.
Edelstein loved the script and signed on to direct a presentation at Vassar this past summer as part of New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theater season, and now at the Old Globe. He described LaChiusa’s score as “serious music that’s going to be an interesting new sound for the Globe audience to hear.” He thinks they’re also likely to get a different feeling from the entire piece: “Michael John and Sybille see the musical theatre as a place of deep dramatic inquiry. Our audiences have heard Sondheim and other serious composers, but this sound and this approach will seem new.”
Indeed, the score to Rain incorporates Polynesian drums, a gramophone providing diegetic music from the 1920s (a device he previously used in The Wild Party), the sound of rain, folk music, ’20s jazz, and a character who plays the guitar. The disparate elements come together into what even LaChiusa thinks of as a new sound for him. “I can go places I haven’t been, and make my own version of what that place sounds like,” he said.
Of course, he’s been doing that with each new musical—traveling to places he’s not yet been—while never straying far from his distinctive artistic voice. “I see again and again a restless and inquisitive artistic mind,” Edelstein said of LaChiusa. “He’s the same brave and daring artist today that he was 20 years ago.”
He’s also creating a legacy of musicals that don’t adhere to a typical formula, Pearson said. “He shows young writers that you don’t have to work off a pre-thought-out grid.”
“His voice is his voice,” Sanderson added, summing up LaChiusa’s determination to write the musical theatre he wants to write. “He is not a slave to the moment and he never will be.”
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