Michael John Meets Tony?
Nominated for multiple Tony Awards this year, Michael John LaChiusa is in the catbird seat.
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: I love that Audra apologized to the kids for killing them. She explained to [the actors who played Marie Christine's children] that she wasn't really killing them, and she would make little fart noises in their ears.
TM: Mandy Patinkin?
LaCHIUSA: He is really remarkable in so many respects. The joy of creation with Mandy is so exciting. I wrote a really bad lyric, and he said he wanted to frame it. I said, "But it's bad." And he said, "Yeah, but we did it together."
TM: Toni Collette?
LaCHIUSA: Ah, Toni Collette. She's living the life of a wild party gal with me. We've belted a few back! She wants us to put out an ad with her tit in a champagne glass. I just love her freeness with her body; she's one of the most unrepressed women I've ever met. Just a beautiful, beautiful woman.
TM: Eartha Kitt?
LaCHIUSA: Well, Eartha can out-jump-rope me by three minutes. I was dissed by some critics this year, and it was an obvious slight; yet, when they were putting together their awards ceremony, they wanted Eartha to perform. It was obvious that they didn't like our work, and yet they wanted us to come and entertain them. I felt that was wrong. But Eartha put her arm around me and told me to never give in to any feelings of defeat that I might have--to be strong in the face of it all. Of course, she went on to do the number and wowed everybody. They just don't make them like her any more! She told me that the way you move on is to show them that you're moving on. When you get advice like that, especially from a trouper like her, you take it to heart and you cherish it.
TM: You wrote music that made Audra McDonald's veins pop out on her neck. Who else's veins would you like to see bulge out to one of your scores?
LaCHIUSA: Brian Stokes Mitchell. I think he's one of the most exciting actors out there right now, and I'd love to write something for him.
TM: If you could exhume any three dead people and invite them to a wild party, whom would you choose?
LaCHIUSA: Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein...and I'd like Eugene O'Neill there.
TM: What lines from Marie Christine and The Wild Party have special meaning for you?
LaCHIUSA: "You think love's too small a pain for a woman? Come on and dance with me." Marie Christine sings that in a reprise of Dante's little "come on and dance with me" that he does with all the little girls. She's saying, "Oh, you think you can be this way with a woman, you can do these things to a human being who loved you? Try me." That, to me, is a very poignant part of that aria, "Tell Me." I just don't like it when women are abused. My mom was not physically abused, but psychologically, she was. And "Lowdown-Down" from The Wild Party is a lot like me: "Small town girl she comes to town, tin of rouge and strapless gown, dies a lot before she gets to die. But, with a smile, she'll say, 'Ah, that's the lowdown-down.' " Queenie's not ready to confront it all yet: she still had to cover it up with a mask of snow.
TM: What are your three favorite musicals by other composers?
LaCHIUSA: South Pacific, The King and I, and Mozart's The Magic Flute.
TM: When you had to hock your piano during a financial slump, how much did you get for it and how long was it before you got it back?
LaCHIUSA: Well, it actually never left my place. A person came down and rented it for 250 bucks a month. I wasn't going to move it upstairs!
TM: What is the worst job you've ever had?
LaCHIUSA: I worked at a Brew-Burger on 53rd, about a block away from where The Wild Party is playing. I served tap beer from midnight to six in the morning to the whores, whom I really liked a lot. The girls who worked the street were fabulous. That was the job's only saving grace--meeting that side of life in Manhattan. Yeah, you got to see a lot of life, man.
TM: Tell me how you felt at the opening of The Wild Party.
LaCHIUSA: I was very tired that night. We'd done a lot of work in previews, and I had to prepare the cast album, which took a lot of preparation. I was also very happy that we'd reached our opening on time. I knew it would be a hard one; I knew that the critics wouldn't be all together on it, and that weighed heavily on me--wondering what the reviews would be like. At the same time, though, I had a wonderful time. You know, they pulled us on stage. I don't like to do that sort of thing, because I'm very superstitious about being on stage with the actors. But it was still a lot of fun to be with them all.
TM: What do you say to those who've said that Marie Christine is more like opera than Broadway?