Michael John LaChiusa Makes the Story Sing

Posted in MusicWorld on November 30, 1999 by

Since he’s now done three musicals at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont, composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa may regard the lobby there as his home away from home. When he’s about to give an interview, that’s where he decides to take his cup of coffee and settle into a graceful ice-cream parlor chair within reach of another chair he can pull over to rest his legs on. Casual in an expensive-looking gray turtleneck sweater and jeans, he looks like a million bucks even if he claims he’s had to hock his piano at least once to continue producing the work he loves doing.

His new show is Marie Christine - the previous two were Hello Again and Chronicle of a Death Foretold - and it’s been three-and-a-half years in the making. An adaptation of Euripides’s Medea, the piece is about an 1890s New Orleans black woman who falls for a smooth-talking Chicago white man and then, when he throws her over in a paroxysm of political ambition, murders their two boys. The musical tragedy is done to a not-quite-sung-through score that relies on dissonance - the orchestra in a pit, a percussionist perched high on a stage-right platform - to emphasize its simultaneously sharp and blunt points.

In other words, Marie Christine takes on the big theme that moves LaChiusa to write: “What is America?” he says. The show, he adds - his urgent concern cutting through his affability - is about “misogyny, racism, the theme of how the country treads the line of indulging in passion and then becoming completely cold to passion.” It’s about what he regularly calls the “mongrel” aspect of society today. “I’m a mongrel,” he boasts. “Aren’t you? Aren’t we all?”

Once upon a time wags wondered whether such things are the stuff of musicals. No more - attitudes have changed, and LaChiusa is in the second-generation of those who’ve changed them. And his approach to constructing musicals isn’t something he regards lightly. In a recent essay that appeared on the front page of The New York Times Arts & Leisure section, he wrote, “I wonder, when complaints arise that the subject matter of new musicals is too dark and the hummable songs are too few, if what most of Broadway’s audiences really want is a nostalgia booster shot. I certainly won’t and can’t give them that fix.”

Nonetheless, he insisted in the same essay that “a musical, or opera, or play does have the fundamental responsibility to entertain.” With Marie Christine marching off to slaughter her tots, what does he mean by “entertain”? “You engage all the senses: the eye and the ear are engaged,” he says, and goes on to suggest that the sense of touch involves the “texture” that he, for one, brings to music by varying it through eclectic sources and layering it, as he does, through rhythm and instrumentation. On what he considers the unsuitable subject of suitable subject, he simply says, “There have to be moments in a story that sing.”

LaChiusa, who counts and as acceptable vice, gets notions for shows from the books he reads and the ideas swirling around him. He’d been discussing Medea’s plight for some time with Graciela Daniele, who directed all three of his Lincoln Center pieces. But he only saw how to proceed when a book on New Orleans folklore fell into his hands and he learned that fabled New Orleans voudon practitioner Marie Leveau had a daughter who followed a white lover to Chicago. Light bulb click, and he composed “four songs in a week and took them to Grazi.” That was the start of something big.

But there’s another springboard for LaChiusa’s writing: performers. Marie Christine is also his gift to three-time Tony-winner Audra MacDonald, whose first audition at Lincoln Center is famous for her fainting dead away. When she came to show her wares for Hello Again and “got through the audition on two legs,” LaChiusa attests, the consensus was that she was too young for the role. But LaChiusa kept her in mind, and the moment Medea morphed into Marie Christine, it was MacDonald whom he envisioned.

Not so incidentally, MacDonald has repaid the attention by titling her first CD Way Back to Paradise, after a Marie Christine song/aria. The collection has sold upwards of 30,000 copies, LaChiusa is happy to report, and therefore could be said to be as close to providing him with a hit tune as he’s gotten. He concedes he likes the idea of amassing hits, if possible. When it comes to original cast recordings, LaChiusa takes a stoical approach. Marie Christine will be recorded by RCA as was Hello Again, in accordance with a contract between the label and Lincoln Center. LaChiusa’s other click, First Lady Suite, isn’t recorded and therefore hasn’t triggered the kinds of additional productions that original casters help land. To a suggestion that he could back an album himself, LaChiusa blanches and says, “I don’t have that kind of money.”

Once Marie Christine opens, LaChiusa has time for a few gasps of air before shuttling midtown where, with co-author-director George C. Wolfe, he starts production on an adaptation of Joseph Moncure March’s jazz-age poem, The Wild Party. Having gotten it in the Joseph Papp Public Theater works by using his trusty write-the-first-four-songs routine, LaChiusa now gets to air his whither-America theme with jazz-age music and a narrative in which a group of show-biz types called Queenie, Burrs and Black meet up for an after-hours blow-out that turns violent. Calling March’s work “a deep, deep, deep piece,” he says he intends it to reflect “where we all are right now - at a party we think will never end.”

Because so much of LaChiusa’s prolific output has been commissioned - the Lyric Opera of Chicago is another of his benefactors - LaChiusa has been accused of elitism. It’s a charge that makes him lose his otherwise admirable serenity. Insisting that a not-for-profit environment is precisely the place for intellectual “derring-do,” the self-admitted mongrel barks, “I’m not elitist. I’m sophisticated.”