In both of his musicals this season, LaChiusa delves into the psyche of women scorned and emotionally battered--at first downtrodden, then oddly victorious. Even when she slaughters her offspring in the turn-of-the-century Southern retelling of Medea, Marie Christine somehow appears tragically triumphant. And The Wild Party's heroine, Queenie--a seemingly vacuous party girl in 1920s Manhattan--crawls from the depths of her insecurities and a hooch-sodden world to see the light.
I recently met up with the charming, 37-year-old LaChiusa in Harlem at a local eatery for what turned out to be a booze-induced gabfest. After we'd had four cocktails each, I finally turned on the tape recorder and got a bit of dish for TheaterMania.
TM: Do you think that someone who would turn off Marie Christine to play Ricky Martin is too soulless to live?
LaCHIUSA: I don't know about that. But what if Ricky Martin played Marie Christine? I'd be there!
TM: What attracts you to a piece?
LaCHIUSA: The central character's dilemma. I have to think: Is this a dilemma that I emotionally respond to? Do I feel for her? Do I feel for him? What gets resolved in the end? Does she kill her kids, as Marie Christine does, or does she step into the light, as Queenie does in The Wild Party? I'm attracted to a dilemma that is as perplexing and as challenging as possible.
TM: What are the most difficult lyrics you've ever written?
LaCHIUSA: Audra McDonald's song "Beautiful," from Marie Christine. I wanted to write a song that was utterly honest and had no rhyme; I felt that rhyme would carry a touch of insincerity, and I didn't want that. I wanted to show a woman deconstructed, fragmented, not put-together. One of her later numbers is "Way Back To Paradise," where she's completely in touch with herself, and that's where I use a lot of internal rhyme.
TM: In 1989, you were the first recipient of the Stephen Sondheim Award. What are your feelings about Sondheim, and what are your favorite Sondheim lyrics?
LaCHIUSA: Sondheim's the master. What I admire most about Steve's work is his devotion to his craft, and I think that must be emulated. He casts a very large shadow, but it's one that I've been very happy to live under and work under. I think a lot of us owe so much to him--and not only to him, but to his choice of collaborators and the people who chose to support him and allow him to do his work. When one thinks of Sondheim, one has to also acknowledge Harold Prince and Hugh Wheeler and Jonathan Tunick; no man is an island, and no one can write a show alone.
TM: "Inaccessible," used in reference to the scores of contemporary musicals, is a word I'm sick to death of. Don't people own a thesaurus anymore? Sondheim once stated that any melody is hummable; it's really a question of how many times you hear it. He has said that people have lazy ears. How do you respond to that?
LaCHIUSA: Sondheim was right. Our listening skills as an American culture have diminished. What our culture is going through right now is infantilization; we want to be children, to hear what's already familiar to us. Peter Brook said that there are two types of popular theater: one that tells you something you already know or have heard, and one that tells you a lie that you want to believe in. Well, I choose to write something other than that. Certainly, you want people to hear something the first time around and have them feel something. I believe that the type of material I choose disturbs people when they first hear it. And, guess what? That's good. So when people say "inaccessibility," I not sure I know what that means. Does it mean that, if they hear it long enough, they'll get it? I don't know. Time is the true critic.
TM: If a figure skater went through your work, what tune do you think he or she would choose to skate to in competition?
LaCHIUSA: Hmm. I'd say "People Like Us" from The Wild Party. Now, if you want to talk metaphor here, Michelle Kwan is the Audra McDonald of the figure skating world.