TheaterMania Logo
Theater News

Old Rules Are Old Rules But New Rules Are Better

Matthew Murray reviews the world premiere recording of Michael John LaChiusa's presidential musical, First Lady Suite. logo

Michael John LaChiusa, who has been nominated for many awards and produced scores for no less than twelve works around the world since 1989, is rightfully known for his skill at tackling unusual subjects in unique textual and musical ways. The premiere recording of his 1993 musical, First Lady Suite, will be released by PS Classics on March 4. Seventy-three minutes long and featuring a significant amount of dialogue (enough to make each plot line easy to follow), the recording preserves the performances of the Los Angeles cast of the Blank Theatre Company production, which incorporated a number of changes from earlier incarnations (these are documented in a CD booklet that also includes the recording's lyrics and a number of black and white photos). Whether this recording represents the final form of the show remains to be seen, but it is certainly an excellent example of the type of thoughtful, challenging work that is LaChiusa's trademark.

The production's original two-piano orchestrations have been augmented for the recording with reeds, percussion, and a cello to good effect, providing a good deal of extra embellishment and richness, with Stephen Bates's musical direction proving juicy and energetic throughout. Still, based on the variety of music included on the recording, one can't help but wonder how the show would sound with fuller orchestrations -- as it is, it sounds like few musicals previously written by LaChiusa, or anyone else. Sometimes sweeping and sometimes intimate, the music is always direct and unpretentious, simultaneously utilitarian and innovative. It gives every moment exactly what it needs, suggesting the importance of musical economy throughout. (Economy, of course, being a primary concern of any musical politically inspired!) Through his composition, LaChiusa has eschewed the use of one single musical style to define all of his three primary subjects, but the minimal orchestrations don't always point up all the dramatic and musical subtleties present in the writing.

Even so, no part of the recording comes across as anything but musically distinguished. The first of the show's three major chapters, "Over Texas," following the events taking place between Jacqueline Kennedy (Bronwen Booth) and her secretary (Heather Lee) on Air Force One on November 22, 1963, is highly internal and conversational, trains-of-thought set to music. The last major chapter, "Eleanor Sleeps Here," finds Mrs. Roosevelt (Evelyn Halus) and her devoted friend and writer Lorena Hickok (Mary-Pat Green) on board a plane being flown by a very different kind of first lady, Amelia Earhart (Kate Shindle). The music here is deeply personal and emotional; while "Over Texas" deals with the banalities and repetitiveness Kennedy experiences in the public eye, Roosevelt's life was even more about redefining boundaries -- "This woman crosses oceans no one's ever crossed before," Shindle hauntingly sings as Earhart, in "Great Ladies," one of the show's most exquisite songs, and perhaps the most concisely defining number of First Lady Suite.

If "Over Texas" is musically the least interesting sequence on the disc, and "Eleanor Sleeps Here" the most moving and intricately constructed, the second chapter, "Where's Mamie?", is the most entertaining, containing almost all of the show's comedy. The life of Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower in 1957 is presented as it might have been viewed through a stereotypical 1950s sitcom (think I Love Lucy). Eydie Alyson gives a brash comic performance as Mamie, who concocts a zany scheme to help her husband (Gregory Jbara, the show's one male performer) integrate the Little Rock public schools. That it finds her, her husband, and the great black singer Marian Anderson (Paula Newsome) in 1944 Algiers by way of a dead-on (and hilarious) "Bali H'ai" parody (sample lyric: "By and by / I'll lose you / Where the wind / Stirs the sand") proves almost incidental. It's the portrayal of the time period and its perception of women that's key here, just as it is when showing Kennedy's blindly adored queen or Roosevelt's worshipped trailblazer in the other two chapters.

The show's surrounding frame (newly conceived for the Blank production) further underscores this, defining the hopes and dreams of all the first ladies, political, social, or otherwise. A woman, apparently the first African-American First Lady (also played by Newsome), stands in the Smithsonian First Lady exhibit, trying to gain strength from her predecessors, and singing of her own desires and fears of playing a role as difficult as the one her husband must fill. As she ponders her new place in the world, she is joined by the other First Ladies who explain to her the core issue of First Lady Suite: "Do you know what I thought when somebody said / How does it feel to be 'first'?" As the stories unfold and we later rejoin the new First Lady, the point has been strongly made: All the women wanted to effect change, to make contributions to the world and to, in a word, fly.

Though LaChiusa has brilliantly captured this musically, First Lady Suite seems incomplete as just music -- like any great work of theater, it cries out to be staged. Regardless, the recording is immediately striking and affecting on its first listen, but yields up its musical and dramatic complexities more readily upon repeated playings. Possessing a unique, unforgettable sound, First Lady Suite is a powerful -- almost presidential -- collection of songs and musical scenes that explore and celebrate the women who have driven American history.

Tagged in this Story