INTERVIEW: Michael John LaChiusa Is a Giant Talent
The award-winning composer-lyricist discusses his new musicals, Queen of the Mist, Los Otros and Giant, and his hit comedy, Sukie and Sue.
His musical Queen of the Mist, inspired by the real incident in which Anna Edson Taylor risked her life by taking a plunge down Niagara Falls, premiered last fall from Transport Group in New York City, and has received several Drama Desk Award nominations, including one for Best Musical, Best Music, and Best Lyrics -- and an original cast CD (featuring star and special Drama Desk Award winner Mary Testa) is officially due out on June 19.
"It's been fun for me to do originals, such as First Lady Suite and Queen of the Mist," says LaChiusa. "As far as musicals, any source material is game, such as the poem "The Wild Party," and Marie Christine comes from the Medea myth. Doing original stories is more challenging, but it can be a lot more fun when you really are your own source."
He's also busily working on the musical Giant, based on Edna Ferber's legendary novel about Texas ranchers in the first part of the 20th Century, which will have a Fall 2012 run at New York's Public Theater -- directed by Michael Greif -- after previous productions at the Dallas Theater Center and the Signature Theatre in Virginia.
"When Sybille Pearson and I first wrote it, we had this wonderful commission at the Signature Theatre, which allowed us to do whatever we wanted. I said to their artistic director, Eric Schaffer, 'what do you say if I write a three-act musical,' and he said sure. So the first production ran four and a half hours and had two intermissions," he notes. "But after we did that version, we thought among ourselves that we could always have that version, but what about a different version for people who want to see it but have babysitters or parking issues -- those who don't have this much time to put into attending a Wagner opera. How could we have a version that could appeal to that crowd? So we did that in Dallas as a three-hour piece with one intermission, and we will be doing it at the Public in the fall, with more changes."
On top of all that, LaChiusa has two shows premiering in Los Angeles: the comedy Sukie and Sue: Their Story, now in the midst of a successful run at Hollywood's Blank Theatre, and the chamber musical, Los Otros, which debuts at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum on May 23, starring Tony Award winner Michele Pawk and Julio Monge.
LaChiusa's first attempt at a nonmusical work (aside from its humorous underscore), Sukie and Sue charts the misadventures of two young nurses who face unexpected challenges when a rag doll given to one girl by her mother turns out to be possessed. "To be honest," says LaChiusa, "I wrote the play about 10 years ago and just put it on the shelf."
Last year, however, he dusted off the script for further development in the Blank's Living Room series. The company's artistic director, Daniel Henning -- who has previously produced and/or directed five of LaChiusa's works -- loved the idea of offering this play as a change-of-pace from his company's typically more heady fare.
The resulting production has made LaChiusa very pleased. "They did a great job with this play," he says. "Mackenzie Phillips is wonderful in it. She's hysterical playing a wannabe psychic." Still, LaChiusa hints that behind the goofiness of the piece, there is a message about people not seeing serious trouble when it's right under their noses.Commissioned by L.A.'s Center Theatre Group, Los Otros reunites him with director Graciela Daniele, his collaborator on 1995's Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and librettist-lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh, his collaborator on the one-act musical Tres Ninas.
The show, which offers a portrait of contemporary Southern California life and the Mexican-American experience through its two interconnecting segments, also ties in, in its own way, to the long-aborning Giant. "My work and research on the Mexican culture for Giant has filtered into my work on Los Otros, says LaChiusa.
But it was the chance to work again with Fitzhugh that cemented the deal, he says. "Ellen is a genius and, although we consented on several decisions, I let her take the lead on this new project and run with it," he adds. "The stories come from her personal life. I don't usually write music for other people, but we have a fabulously collaborative working relationship, and I feel blessed to create this show with her."