Michael John LaChiusa is one of the most prolific writers for the musical theater today. Last season, he had two shows open on Broadway, The Wild Party and Marie Christine, and he received several Tony nominations for both. In 1995 he won an Obie Award for Hello Again and First Lady Suite and in 1989 he was the first recipient of the Stephen Sondheim Award. Since songwriters are an essential (and often neglected) contributor to any cabaret show, I was thrilled at the opportunity to interview Mr. LaChiusa as he was preparing a cabaret show of his songs which opens October 16th at Joe's Pub in New York.
Jonathan: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway ... which brings me to the first stupid question of the interview ... do I call you Michael or Michael John?
Michael John: (laughing) Michael John.
JF: Just checking ... I recently interviewed Jason Robert Brown, by the way, so I need to nab Ricky Ian Gordon to complete a matched set of the tri-named triumvirate!
MJL: Great! Just remember ... my name takes up the most space ...
JF: ... so you automatically get the longest bio!
Next stupid name question ... la-kee-OO-sa or la-KEW-sa?
MJL: la-kee-OO-sa ... to be perfectly Italian about it.
JF: That's what I thought ... but so many interviews have had it pronounced the other way. Now that we have the stupid questions out of the way ...
You mentioned in an e-mail that you were going to be home working at the piano today. What are you working on?
MJL: I'm working on the cabaret show of my songs which is going to be done at Joe's Pub on Monday October 16, 23 and 30 at 8:30pm.
JF: Are you going to be performing in it?
MJL: I have a cast of singers and they will be doing most of the material.
JF: And you're not playing for it either?
MJL: I don't know yet ... I may make an appearance. I'm not a big performer kind of type ... I gave that up years ago.
JF: But you did perform at one time?
MJL: Oh yeah! I did a lot of cabaret early on. I enjoy it, but now I have wonderful opportunities to work with some really great singers and piano players. I know people like the touch that comes from a composer playing and singing his or her stuff, but at the same time I figure why inflict that harm on people!
JF: Is it going to be the same show every night?
MJL: Yes, absolutely.
JF: The program is going to include songs from two new shows you are working on, Little Fish and R Shomon, correct?
MJL: Right. Little Fish is based on stories by Deborah Eisenberg and R Shomon is based on the world premier of the film Rashomon; when it premiered here in the 50's, the 'A' had fallen off the marquis, so it's R Shomon, like Hot L Baltimore.
JF: Are either of the shows going to be mounted at The Public Theater any time soon?
JF: When did you do the residency for the Lyric Opera?
MJL: From 1998 to 1999. Fortunately, it was a great residency where I got to live in New York for most of the year.
JF: And you are working on an opera for them called Enigma Variations?
MJL: Yeah. It's going to be put up in June of 2001. We're settling on the director and cast right now.
JF: What is it about?
MJL: It's an original story that I wrote which is set in the town where I grew up, Chautauqua, New York. It's about a poet laureate who has been asked to write the inaugural poem for the President. The President sends it back saying "Less radicalism, more optimism," so the poet faces the dilemma of whether or not he should rewrite it. He's visited by a group of his friends for a weekend in the country, one of whom is a war buddy; the two of them had been dropped into Paris during World War II. His friend brings with him an old book of poems in French, which happen to be the first poems that the poet laureate had published here in the US. And everybody wonders how that could be ... he didn't write them in French obviously, so how did the poems come to be?
JF: Is there any source at all for this?
MJL: No. It's based on the basic outline of Elgar's Enigma Variations, which are portraits that he wrote about his friends.
JF: Is there a difference in terms of style when you write an opera versus a musical? I know you mentioned in an article you wrote for the New York Times last year that you didn't believe there should be a difference in the two forms ...
MJL: There really isn't. Personally, I don't put a connotation onto the form when I dive into a piece; I just write what it is that I want to write. If it happens to be through sung it's because I've chosen it to be, not because I've decided that it is going to be an opera. I think that there is always room for experimentation in all the art forms, no matter what you call them; call it a musical, or musical theater or an opera ... I think it's all very much the same thing. There are various vocal techniques and traditions which are attached and used for each of the forms, and the milieus in which these pieces are performed helps determine whether a show is considered to be an opera or musical. In other words, if it were in an opera house, people would have the tendency to say "Oh, that's an opera," no matter what the show may be.
JF: There really doesn't seem to be a hard and fast dividing line between musicals and opera. If you look at Carmen, for instance, it's almost a 'musical' in terms of the amount of dialogue in it. And so much of Sondheim's later musicals are performed in opera houses across the world.
MJL: I think people can be very territorial about opera and musical theatre and what they want from the respective genres. A lot of music theater people want their musicals to be in the standard form of Damn Yankees or a Rodgers and Hammerstein type musical. But if you really think about it, the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows were extremely risky and daring and are as close to being American operas as you got in that period. Today they are seen as being a traditional form, but when they were written they were rather radical, while appealing to a mass audience at the same time.
JF: We forget that Rogers and Hammerstein also came up with shows that pushed the envelope like Pipe Dream ...
MJL: Or Allegro, which was truly an experimental musical and is one of my favorites.
JF: Right. They were able to strike a balance between doing crowd pleasers and more challenging works.
MJL: Where they really pushed the envelope was in talking about race and adult themes. You try and put an adult theme into a musical these days ... God ... people seem to want to be treated like children nowadays.
JF: In that New York Times article, you also touched upon something I found very interesting; namely that theatergoers today are looking for a nostalgia fix ... for a trip back to the 'good old days' rather than wanting to see anything new and daring. Hence the proliferation of revivals, revues and shows based on familiar movies like Footloose.
MJL: It's the Baby Boomer mentality. There are so many of them out there; they are all in the prime of life and they want to be taken back to a nostalgic time ... and of course they are a major portion of the audience right now.
JF: Where do you think the musical genre is headed? I mean given the fact that new and challenging musicals like The Wild Party and Parade haven't been exactly great successes ...
MJL: Jonathan, I'm going to be really, really frank. I say this all the time and it sounds kind of like ... I don't know what it sounds like, exactly ... but I have to say the reason why The Wild Party and Parade were not successes is because of The New York Times. These productions did not have huge financial backing behind them. They were done in non-profit theaters for an extremely limited budget, and more than anything else they needed a good review in the Times in order to run.
Now you don't need any reviews for your show if you have a lot of money behind you; you can run forever. Just look at Broadway today; the shows that have a lot of money behind them run regardless of reviews. Our shows were not successes primarily because we did not get a good review in The New York Times and we needed one in order to bring in the core audience the Times would reach ... the people who needed to be told what to see ... so we could build upon that audience.
JF: Is this going to change the way you write in the future? Are you going to be more careful to write things that you feel the Times would like?
MJL: No, not at all. Having done two shows in a row on Broadway I know that it's useless to worry about what a critic is going to say about my work. But if I'm doing a show for the Broadway arena, I do have to take the Times into account and realize that if I write something experimental or unfamiliar, the critic there is not going to get it. Unfortunately, producers who want to do something experimental and risky know this now too. And that's where you are going to find the resistance to do that kind of show; from the producers. Not from people on the artistic side ... that won't ever stop. But producers might be more inclined to play it safe, and that's the danger.
JF: So is the answer to write shows for regional theaters, such as The Highest Yellow, which you are currently working on for Virginia's Signature Theater? And then taking them to Broadway?
MJL: Or don't even bother bringing them to New York anymore. I don't think New York is a mecca for the arts anymore.
JF: Is it possible to make a living writing shows that don't appear on Broadway?
MJL: Oh yes ... a lot of people are making a comfortable living do that.
JF: Is The Highest Yellow based on anything?
MJL: It's based an original play that John Strand has been developing about Dr. Rey, who was the doctor that treated Vincent Van Gogh for his mental illness.
JF: You really do have the most esoteric tastes in regards to stories ... (MJ laughs) What is it that draws you to a story? Do you find them or do they search you out?
MJL: They kind of find me. I think what I do, Jonathan, is write the shows that fill-in what I feel is missing in the theatrical world; the shows that I want to see as an audience member.
JF: So essentially you are writing shows for you, not for any perceived audience.
MJL: Well, I always think about the audience, but I won't cater to anybody. I have to please myself first.
JF: One of your first shows sounds very intriguing ... I had not heard of The First Lady Suite until I did some research on you. What exactly is it?
MJL: It's funny that you are asking about it, since there are two theaters getting ready to do it and I'm getting material ready for them. I'm a first lady-ologist ... I have studied first ladies for many years and have a huge library on them. So I thought, "You have all this material on the subject and a passion for it ... let's write a musical about it!" I came up with the idea of choosing three major stories and weaving in the lives of the modern first ladies, Eleanor through Jackie. One story deals with Jackie and her secretary, Mary Gallagher. The second deals with Mamie Eisenhower, and the third deals with a night flight Eleanor Roosevelt takes with Amelia Earhart and her close friend Lorena Hickock. The show is a lot of fun and a great showcase for performers.
JF: One of the things I noticed in that Times article you wrote is how often you use the word "mongrel" in regards of yourself, your style, and the way you see America in terms of a country or mindset. What exactly do you mean by that?
MJL: The mongrelism that I refer to is the constant borrowing, interpolation, and consuming of other cultures and races. I think artists should do that; if I wanted to add an R&B beat to a show set in 17th century America, there's no reason for me not to do so. I don't think that there are rules that say you can't borrow from one culture or style and put it into another culture or style of art.
In opera for instance, there's always talk about singers needing to have a purity of tone in terms of European training, but I don't think that needs to be. I think that if you sing spirituals very well, you should be able to use those colors and bring them into Madame Butterfly. If you are an American you should be able to belt in Butterfly and wail away if you want to. I feel that Audra McDonald is the perfect embodiment of this concept, as she can perform in the 'legitimate' style and adds a lot of herself into a song in terms of style.
JF: I agree. I find it so irritating that we have this inferiority complex, especially in regards to the classical style of singing; we feel we have to be 'European.' It drives me crazy to hear, say, "There's a Boat that's Leaving Soon from New York" sung in a pure operatic style with no soul or heart in it.
MJL: Right ... it's not what we as Americans are about.
JF: It's the same as hearing Pavoratti sing show tunes in a style that is so wrong it's painful ... usually butchering the English in the process. But yet, that's what so many in the classical world want to emulate ... just because it's European or 'classic.'
MJL: Right. I don't think it's a degradation. I don't think it's bringing down the art form or destroying the music: I think it illuminates, revitalizes and re-energizes it. A good work of art is always a good work of art, regardless of who's looking at it or interpreting it. It will always be a work of art, and that's true whether it's a song or a painting. That is a real pet peeve of mine; when we feel that we have to hold ourselves up to this idea of purity, which only serves to hold us back from becoming what we are so capable of becoming in terms of a country of artists.
JF: Time for a pretentious question ... if you could rewrite any musical, not because it was badly written the first time, but because you happen to like the story and would love to take a crack at making a musical of it, what would you choose?
MJL: Wow ... that's a good question, man. You win! There are so many of them ... let me think ...
JF: To give you time to think ... I was really surprised to read that South Pacific is your favorite musical.
MJL: Yeah. South Pacific to me is a gem and musicals don't get any better than it; the beauty and maturity of the message in that show, combined with the beautiful songs that transcend the show ... That's one I would not want to re-write ... My favorite musicals are the ones I would never want to touch; they are my sources of inspiration and I could never do them better. You know, I love Three Penny Opera an awful lot, and that's one I would love to do.
JF: OK ... I'll be looking for the Michael John LaChiusa version of The Beggar's Opera in the near future!
It's funny ... when I was in college, we had someone from the RSC come to my directing class. He asked us all what shows we liked and wanted to direct, and everybody mentioned the typical college pretentious authors ... Beckett, Sheperd, Dario Fo ... and I said Sweeney Todd. He replied, "Thank God!" and we got into this big discussion on how more people will leave a theater humming "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" and carry its message out of the theatre than ever will a theatrical monologue.
MJL: That's the beauty of doing musicals and the genre's most gorgeous aspect; that you actually leave the show with something. Today, audiences seem to want to leave the theater with only the most simplistic things; they want to leave with a TV jingle in their head, which makes me feel like they should just stay home and turn on the TV. When people say "I can't hum the tune" ... well nobody can after hearing a song for the first time. But you can take the experience with you.
The theater on Broadway is no longer an arena for community discussion ... I'm specifically talking about musicals here. You just don't find musicals providing catharsis anymore. While light entertainment definitely has its place on Broadway, we need to have room for shows that talk about politics and what's going on in the country right now and the problems that we haven't solved.
I tell all my friends and colleagues this; it's not the critics or even necessarily the audience that are creating us, it's we who will create them. They don't create our art and we will create critics that will have to write about our work and an audience who will see it. It just takes a really long time.
JF: Before I let you go, I have one last question for you. A friend of mine raised an interesting question recently regarding The Wild Party ... when you wrote the part of Queenie, did you envision her as being played by an African-American actress? The whole 'mask of snow' versus Burr's blackface thing ...
MJL: It was originally written for Vanessa Williams. She got pregnant, so we decided to go with the remarkable Toni Collette. I don't think of it as something that was lost in the piece, but it would have been fascinating to see how an audience responded to a black Queenie. The show is all about the masks that we wear culturally and the removal of those masks over the course of the party. So it's all there ...
JF: ... for future productions to take advantage of. Are there plans for a songbook?
MJL: Yes. I just finished the vocal selections, and should be out really soon.
JF: Great! I'm looking forward to buying it when it comes out. Thank you for a fun interview, and best of fates on your upcoming shows.
An evening devoted to Michael John LaChiusa's songs will be performed at Joe's Pub in New York for three Mondays: October 16, 23 and 30 at 8:30pm. Tickets are $20. For reservations, call Tele-Charge at (212) 239-6200, or visit their website at www.telecharge.com, or in-person at The Public Theater box office.