InDepth InterView: Michael John LaChiusa Talks GIANT, Upcoming Projects & A Career Retrospective
Today we are talking to a spectacularly talented composer/lyricist/playwright noted for his incredibly impressive and accomplished oeuvre thus far in his career, having collectively composed more than twenty full-length musicals, operas and specialty performance pieces - the passionate and prolific Michael John LaChiusa. Discussing his vast array of projects, from BUZZSAW BERKELEY to FIRST LADY SUITE, HELLO AGAIN and THE PETRIFIED PRINCE Off-Broadway through to his double-header in the 1999-2000 millennial season with MARIE CHRISTINE and THE WILD PARTY both on Broadway to his Off-Broadway, regional and international successes since, ranging from LITTLE FISH and THE HIGHEST YELLOW to another two-show-season in 2006 with BERNARDA ALBA and SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE as well as the recent Americana-themed epic musical pseudo-trilogy of LOS OTROS, QUEEN OF THE MIST and GIANT. Additionally, LaChiusa touches upon some of his lesser-known work, such as his musical revues HOTEL C'EST L'AMOUR and THE GIRLIE SHOW, various operatic pieces, additional material he provided for entries such as THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS and his previous and upcoming solo musicals for continuing collaborator Audra McDonald, such as SEND (who are you? i love you) and Marlene Dietrich'S ABCs OF LOVE. Most importantly, LaChiusa takes us behind the scenes of the sparkling new deluxe cast album for GIANT, starring Brian D'arcy James, and discusses the themes, ideas and adaptation of the Edna Ferber novel itself in a fascinating and revealing analysis of the vast, enveloping and vivid score he has composed for the epic musical masterwork. Also, LaChiusa offers the 411 on this year's Tony Awards specialty song composed for host Neil Patrick Harris and some starry cohorts (Megan Hilty, Laura Benanti and Andrew Rannells), as well as comments on previous Tony show one-offs penned for Hugh Jackman and others. Plus, LaChiusa clues us in on his upcoming projects - including FIRST DAUGHTER SUITE - and much, much more in this career-spanning conversation with one of modern musical theatre's most daring and unique artists.
More information on the new Off-Broadway Cast Recording of GIANT is available at the official website here.
Look Back/Look Ahead
PC: Does it seem to you as though Broadway hosts far fewer adult musicals now than it did, say, ten or fifteen years ago when you had two of them on Broadway in the same season?
MJL: Well, as the saying goes, "la plus ca change," or "the more it changes, the more it stays the same," you know?
MJL: Honestly, I really don't know if it was more or less commercial than it is now - I don't know. I am on the inside looking out, so it doesn't seem to me like I am in the position to judge the scene - as it were - as it has progressed. I will say that there is a large tourist trade these days and I think that is fabulous because that has invigorated Broadway with the tourists and international crowd that they didn't have as much ten or fifteen years ago. So, that's very, very good for our economy and that is very, very good for the actors and the performers and the musicians. It's a good thing, I think. As far as the art goes, I think we are still doing a lot of really good stuff on Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway - what troubles me though is that young artists and young writers and young actors, the thing that creates theatre - it's hard for them to be able to afford to live here.
PC: It's incredibly expensive.
MJL: It is. I think that they are what makes New York magical - they are so, so important to the city. That's the one thing that's bad about it - chasing out the young artists because the economics don't allow them to be able to live here. That's a shame.
PC: The best theatre is not just in New York, anyway - especially these days.
MJL: No, it's not just Broadway anymore, is it? There are remarkable things being done all around the country in regional theaters. As a matter of fact, I am on my way to Kansas City this week - where they've opened up two or three new theaters there, actually, in the last few years; they are doing really interesting work down there.
PC: What show of yours are they doing in Kansas City coming up?
MJL: HELLO AGAIN. It's very exciting to me and they have been doing just wonderful work down there so far, so I can't wait to see it. You know, a lot of New York's fine, great talent is going out into the nation now and finding new places to call home - that could ultimately end up being a very good thing for everyone, I think.
PC: It's a very special time.
MJL: I think it is. I don't think it's really up to me to be a cultural critic or really gauge it all, though. For me, I feel like I enjoy it so much getting out of town and working on something - and, especially because of the internet, people are so much more connected now than they used to be.
PC: You can say that again.
MJL: Just in terms of the web, you can go to any small town some place and be able to get the same information about Broadway as anybody else just because of the computer - the whole world is available there; I don't think there is anything that is "the boondocks" anymore, so to say. There are sophisticated audiences all over America now - that's what I have found out there, at least, in regional theaters.
PC: They are receptive to new work, too, are they not?
MJL: They are - they really are. So, you can try something out in, say, Oregan or Dallas, where we did GIANT, and get an honest reaction to the material there. The audiences are sophisticated and smart and will go along for the ride - these theaters have trained their audiences to expect anything, which is really wonderful.
PC: You recently worked on an old play in LA, as a matter of fact, did you not?
MJL: Yes, SUKIE & SUE: THEIR STORY - it's an old play of mine that we did again out there recently. It was a lot of fun to revisit it.
PC: Looking back at your earliest work, BUZZSAW BERKELEY is one that I unfortunately never got to experience, but what a title!
MJL: [Laughs.] Oh, that's so funny you say that. We were just at the Drama Desk Awards - Doug Wright and I. We wrote BUZZSAW BERKELEY together years and years and years ago and we were laughing about it at the bar beforehand. You know, we did that show at the old WPA Theater and it was really a lot of fun. I actually think that show was probably before its time, now that I think about it - it really took the musical to task; it was really out there! It was a nice memory to talk about with Doug, anyway.
PC: Was that show part of the reason you received the Stephen Sondheim Award way back when?
MJL: Well, I received the Stephen Sondheim Award mostly because of the one-acts I did at Playwrights Horizons, I think.
PC: BREAK/AGNES/EULOGY, right?
PC: The picture of you and Sondheim is priceless - mohawk included.
MJL: [Laughs.] Yes, I had a yellow mohawk - yes, yes, yes. It's a great memory.
PC: Is Sondheim's work significantly influential on you in general, would you say?
MJL: Yes, I would say that he has been very influential to me - one of the very first Broadway shows that I saw was MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG and I think it has such an amazing, amazing, amazing score. I didn't understand at the time why everybody around me was so angry and sort of mad at the show for some strange reason, but I thought it was totally brilliant! I mean, I saw it like three times - so, it was very influential to me. These days, I usually see Steve once or twice a year at various benefits and stuff and he has always been so kind to me and very generous to me over the years, on a personal basis.
PC: Rodgers & Hammerstein are very influential to you, as well, correct? SOUTH PACIFIC is your favorite show, yes?
MJL: Oh, yes - oh, yes; very influential. Absolutely. I think that SOUTH PACIFIC is one of the best-told musical stories ever done - I love the intelligence of that book and the maturity of it all and the situations within it. As a matter of fact, when we were working on GIANT I really tried to keep SOUTH PACIFIC in mind, as well as THE MOST HAPPY FELLA by Frank Loesser. I have been very blessed to work with such a gifted book writer as Sybille Pearson who believes that musicals can be written for adults, too - not just for kids, but for adults, too; and, you know, actually address adult themes! [Laughs.]
PC: Imagine that!
MJL: In all seriousness, though, it's been really fun to be able to accomplish that with GIANT. I really kept THE MOST HAPPY FELLA and SOUTH PACIFIC in mind a lot when writing GIANT - they are great adult musicals with maturity, I think.
PC: In speaking in specifics about GIANT, "Simple as air" is so evocative of a Hammerstein lyric.
MJL: Oh, thank you for saying that, Pat. You know, every show is a different beast and demands different colors. With GIANT, of course, working with Sybille, my collaborator, allowed me to be OK with doing primary colors - as you know from my work since you know it so well, sometimes I work in very difficult shades of colors; very, very dark or unusual colors. So, I think of music in terms of painting, and, for GIANT, I wanted to paint with a lot of primary colors and that's what Sybille's book allowed me to do. It was a true joy to work on it - every step of the way.
PC: It is like a tapestry homage of so many of your scores - many moments harken back a bit to BERNARDA ALBA and TRES NINAS/LOS OTROS, especially, for instance. Tell me about the Latin music and how you came to use the styles you do in GIANT.
MJL: Well, first, I have to say that it can take up to five years or more to get a musical from page to stage and I tell this to everybody: you have to want to go back into that world every morning; into that music room. So, you have to do a lot of research and you have to listen to a lot of music - for GIANT, I listened to a lot of Texas music and a lot of mariachi in particular; Mexican folk songs, too. So, first, I just listened to those things and tried to get it all into my system. Then, you have to translate it all into your own voice. So, like with some of the Creole music I did in MARIE CHRISTINE, I sort of discovered it as I went along and filtered it through my own sensibility. So, some of the songs in GIANT - "Ruega por Nosotros", for example - are evocative to me of MARIE CHRISTINE insofar as their development. That song is like my version of a prayer - and, that's what makes it theatrical, too, I think.
PC: On that topic, "Miracles & Mysteries" in MARIE CHRISTINE has a Creole flavor but also sounds completely contemporary, as well.
MJL: Oh, it's R&B, baby! Real R&B. No doubt about it. [Laughs.]
PC: Undoubtedly. Has anyone ever covered it?
MJL: No, they haven't! I guess it's because you can't hum it, as they say. That's the stigma I kind of have - not being hummable. Whatever!
PC: "Whatever," is right!
MJL: It's like, "What?! Really?!" I guess they just haven't heard many of my shows. It's really weird to me that people still say that, but whatever.
PC: In GIANT, "No Time For Surprises" is a great character piece. Is there more material for Luz in the long version of GIANT?
MJL: Yes. Luz used to have a larger scene that we referred to as the "hen party," where she had a country song and dance and sort of goes a little wild in front of the women and it is a sort of embarrassing moment for her character. But, that got trimmed in New York and in Dallas, too, to where it basically is now in the version we opened with in New York. Luz was always meant to have that one major song in what we call the first act once Act One and Act Two were combined to become one act for the two-act version of the show [the Dallas premiere was a three-act version]. I always felt it was almost more potent that she had less to say and the resonance that what she said then had than some of the other characters in the show after we trimmed some of that material back.
PC: A rewarded result of judicious cutting.
MJL: We had to make sure that we kept the focus on foreground, middle ground and background and which characters are foreground, middle ground and background at all times - so there was never any intent to give her any more material, because that one number sort of explained everything we needed the character to say and justified her actions that she takes.
PC: "Our Mornings" is a fabulous way to work Luz back in to the musical fabric of the score, as well.
MJL: She really has three acts - even without the hen party song, she still has the scene as well as her song in the first act and "Our Mornings"; and, of course, when she comes back and sort of taunts Bick in his mind, too; torturing him about his feelings about his son and this Mexican girl. In that scene, he knows that he has to change, but he can't because of his family's system of beliefs, so she comes back and haunts him - so, she has a pretty interesting three-act arc, I think, even though she doesn't have a lot of major songs to sing.
PC: Was Jett's material the hook for you given the juicy scenes involving him in the book and in the film? "The Dog Is Gonna Bark" is a definite highlight of the score, to cite one example.
MJL: The score covers twenty-five years - the mid-'20s to 1952, so you are covering the early music of the '20s through to early rock n roll. So, the first song for Leslie, "Your Texas", almost has an art song type of leaning, for instance - almost all of Leslie's songs have an art song palette to them because of her love of art and her love of education; I think that was the best way to approach her material. Bick has a harder edge to his material - of course, going into the '40s, you have swing and post-Depression music. Then, we go into the later '40s and early '50s and the early Elvis stuff - the early rock n roll music that was starting. So, it was fun for me to say, you know, "OK. What would they be hearing this year?" When we did GIANT down in Washington, D.C. at the Signature Theatre we did the three-act version and I actually had a whole entr'acte section for Act Three that was called "The Texas Op'ry Hour" and it was like five or six songs being played on a radio. It was really, really quite wonderful for me to be able to write these sort of pastiche numbers and evoke the sounds of a very specific time - like 1945 and what the popular music sounded like then. You know, a little country, a little rock n roll - just a touch; only a touch. It was really fun to bring that little touch of rock n roll in to the score that was coming in at the time and translate it all into my own sound and my own language.
PC: "Coyote" unfortunately did not make it into the two-act GIANT. Can you tell me about that song?
MJL: Oh, yes - "Coyote" was in the Washington version, but that whole scene didn't make it in the shorter version of the show. You know, when we approached doing GIANT, we didn't know if it was going to be three hours, three acts, three nights or what - it was like, "Just write!" And that's what Sybille and I did. So, in that case, the scene was twelve or thirteen minutes or maybe even more and it seemed like we almost had a little one-act play at the end of the first act when we did it - a little, tiny one-act play to end the act. But, when push came to shove, we thought about what was really dramatically the best thing to do at that point in the show - as much as I miss the number and I agree it's a wonderful song, it feels better for me to do it the way we do it now. It works to our advantage to have trimmed it, I think - again, it came down to foreground, middle ground and background.
PC: How did the process of adapting the novel into a musical actually work for you? Did you work directly from the novel or did you have a draft of the book to work from or what?
MJL: Well, Sybille obviously can address this far better than I could ever dream of because she actually had the task of adapting the novel - as you know, I've written books myself, but, in this case, I thought to myself, "This is a big challenge. I am going to need some help on this." I mean, I knew the story that I wanted to tell, but the how wasn't coming clear to me until Sybille got involved. The novel is very tricky - it does some very unusual things.
PC: Did you find it a challenge to try to measure up to some of the iconic moments from the famous film, as well?
MJL: Well, as you just said, the movie is iconic - there is no way we could challenge the movie in terms of the visuals; you just can't do that in the theatre. But, you can create colors with music. So, even though we couldn't have ten thousand cattle onstage - although I guess you could nowadays with projections or something - I could try to create the blue of the Texas sky with my music. That's what I tried to do. I asked myself, "How do I create this cattle? How do I get the sound of the Texas I know; my Texas? How do I make the music reflect the visual experience? How do you create the smell of Texas? How do you create the heat? How do you recreate the stars at night that you can see there in that special way? And, most of all: how can we see into these people's souls?" So, that was the challenge - the very daunting challenge - and, fortunately, Sybille had a glimmer of how to construct the book so that each act had its own raison d'etre.
PC: And a central event.
MJL: Right. If you think about it, it's centered around three parties - the first party, which is the barbecue where Leslie shows up; the second one is the party for Bick; and, then, the third one, in the third act, is really two because there is the wedding and then there is the party at the hotel. So, each act is centered around a big get-together - which is actually very central to Texas and Texas-like; the big, big parties they have. So, using that as the structural model we were able to take the book - which, in and of itself is an icon - and create something new with it. As you may know, the book was very, very controversial at the time it came out - it won a Pulitzer and it was very brave. And, of course, Edna Ferber is so prescient in her frank discussion of what oil was and still may be doing to our country. Even though she was writing back in the '50s, what she is saying is so applicable to today - which is, basically, if we don't watch ourselves and preserve the land and only focus on what we can reap from oil and the commerce it creates, we may be doing a major disservice to society and to culture and to humanity in doing so. I think she has been proven quite right on many accounts when it comes to oil in this country and how it has become influenced by politics, as well. It has really formed the way that we live in a lot of ways.
PC: And just as provocative a point now as it was then, if not more.
MJL: It is. So, you know, as for the movie - we sort of treated it like it was over there and it's just its own thing; Liz Taylor and Rock Hudson with fake gray hair and everything else. [Laughs.]
PC: The book was what sold you on the subject.
MJL: The book was everything to us. There is so much there - and it left so much space for our imaginations to run, too. There was a great deal of source material to look through and play with and so we tried a lot of different things while we were writing it and developing it.
PC: The scenic design devised for the Michael Greif production at the Public with the big, open spaces marked by oil derricks spatially fit the world of the musical exceptionally well.
MJL: I think so, too - I think that the way he used the derricks to be blocking out and cluttering up the vistas was quite remarkable, too. I loved it in Dallas, as well, though, where it all had a bit more operatic lean to it.
PC: What was the first song you wrote for the GIANT score?
MJL: Oh, God. [Pause. Thinks.] The first song I wrote was actually the opening - "Aurelia Dolores".
PC: Is that how it usually works when you first set out to musicalize something?
MJL: Well, sometimes - a lot of times the first number you write will be the first number, but a lot of times that first number you write gets booted along the way, too.
PC: What have been some cut opening numbers over the years?
MJL: Oh, gosh - I have so many shows, Pat! [Laughs.] I must have blocked them all out by now.
PC: What was the hardest song for you to cut from this score?
MJL: "A Stranger" - no question. "A Stranger". That was a heartbreaker to have to lose. [Sighs.] But, I had to get that back for the album, though, and I am so glad we recorded it. I knew that we needed Leslie to have a number of her own, but we had to trim it down. I felt moving it to the end worked better, too, but we really needed the show to be tight and move quickly and as we worked on the piece and honed it from its original three-act, five-hour version down to three hours with one intermission what we found was that "A Stranger" brought everything to a halt in this version as it played. In fact, it sort of should, but we didn't have the luxury of another three hours coming after it like we did in the other version. I did want to have this rest in the middle of all the action and to go right inside this woman's heart and sort of show her sorrow and her passion that she has still that hasn't been totallly defeated yet - but eventually is by the second act, as we come to find out. By then, she comes to the end of all feelings - for art, for her husband, for everything. So, I really wanted to have this one moment of rest with this woman and we were very, very fortunate that we had the time to do it for the album and record it so beautifully like this.
PC: Was the recording always scheduled to be 90 minutes or did you end up adding material, thus justifying the two discs?
MJL: Well, we didn't really have a lot of money to do it to begin with, so I really focused on making it sort of a highlights album - and I really got into that idea a lot, actually. You know, the LPs of shows in the old days were only like 50 minutes of music or so, so I sort of went with that whole idea when approaching how to present a highlights version of GIANT, but, fortunately, we got some extra funding that allowed us to record additional material, too - and, so, we have quite a lot of music on there in the end, I think; a couple things didn't make it, but that's fine. In the show, a lot of what Sybille and I wrote goes back and forth from song into dialogue and back again - especially in a section like "The Desert", which on the record is edited down a lot from what we have onstage, but you still can sort of get that back-and-forth feel. On an album, I don't know if a lot of dialogue is something I want to listen to, though, to be honest - I just don't like it an awful lot. A little bit works really well, though.
PC: Another masterful original cast recording of one of your shows is THE WILD PARTY, produced by Phil Ramone, who unfortunately recently passed away. Do you have fond memories of working with him on that recording?
MJL: Aww, Uncle Phil - that's what we would call him. Oh, yeah - that was a joy to do. He was the best - the best. Up until that point, HELLO AGAIN and MARIE CHRISTINE were the only shows of mine that had been recorded and those had great producers on them, but Uncle Phil, man - he made me do the editing! He made me do it all myself and I learned so much by doing that for the mixing. I mean, I didn't really know what was going on, but I learned fast! It was one of the greatest educations I ever had in my entire life - sitting with this master of soundtracks and cast recordings and him allowing me to make my own choices for the album. Ultimately, it is my choice - I am the composer and lyricist, so what I choose to go on that album is what should go on the album, I think.
PC: Without a doubt.
MJL: What he taught me mixing THE WILD PARTY album really empowered me and it made me take much more responsibility in making future albums that I made - cast recordings and everything else. So, yeah, it was a really great experience - and, just as with everything else with THE WILD PARTY was, it was wild!
PC: Do tell!
MJL: [Laughs.] It was a really remarkable experience working with Phil, though.
PC: The party atmosphere throughout is tremendous - as is the mind-blowing sound effect after the rape scene.
MJL: Yeah, yeah, yeah - that's a wind tunnel effect; this type of Beatles-thing that I think Phil himself actually created. I remember saying to him, "I want a really warped sound here - something really kind of crazy," and, so, he said, "What about this?" And he played me this effect - I think it is originally from the White Album or something, where they take the sound and distort it into this amazing spiral of sound. It's really something. I love it on the album.
PC: Who made the decision to censor the language?
MJL: That was the record label's decision. You see, we did that album back in the days when people still sold some CDs, so they wanted them to be able to be put it out without the Parental Advisory labels on them. That's my recollection, at least. I know specifically I had to change the "Don't you f*ck with my party" lyric to "Don't you screw with me." They asked. I was fine to do it, though. I just looked at it as doing a radio play and I think it sort of sounds like that - it's a great album and I am really proud to have worked with Uncle Phil on it.
PC: It's a shame the show isn't done more often - it's my personal favorite of all of your scores. A masterpiece.
MJL: Yeah, that score is not very appreciated, unfortunately. I don't know why.
PC: Andrew Lippa's is produced quite often, it seems, incidentally.
MJL: Andrew's version is great, too. Andrew's version is also much more user-friendly, I think - the truth of the matter is, if someone wants to take on doing any version, either version, of THE WILD PARTY my eyebrow always sort of arches and I think, "Wow! They must be very brave souls - and have a very smart musical director!" [Laughs.]
PC: Neither WILD PARTY is an easy sing for anybody in the cast, that's for sure.
MJL: Definitely not. I also think that they must have talent out the wazoo to do the show - either one. And, too, ours are both so much about race and the racial undertones of the time - masks and how culture works in the country; the whiting-up of things and the blacking-up of things and how we still do that in culture a lot to this very day. I think that our version is about all of those things in particular. So, you really need to have an actor to play Eddie the boxer who is African American if possible, for instance. But, then again, I've seen a production or two of it where they didn't have the appropriate races for the roles and it still worked and had different things that were emphasized, so I don't know. But, the idea of race was the idea of the time - the uptown meeting the downtown and the white meeting the black and mix of culture in New York, especially, at that time. That's what George [C. Wolfe] and I wanted our version of THE WILD PARTY to be about, at least. So, for instance, I saw a wonderful production of it in Dallas where a lot of the actors were Latino and Latina and it worked perfectly fine.
PC: Who would you cast as Delores in a revival?
MJL: Oh, God, who would I cast in a revival? How could I ever replace Eartha Kitt?!
PC: You can't.
MJL: We can't. [Pause. Sighs.] Well, of course, you could do Madonna.
PC: How fascinating.
MJL: Yeah, she could do it. It has to be somebody who has lived and seen and done a lot - seen it all and done it all and been there and survived it. I don't know who could really do it these days, though, honestly - Eartha was one a kind.
PC: And you wrote her one of her best roles, for sure.
MJL: In speaking of Eartha, actually, the last thing she ever recorded was something I wrote for her to do on the kid's series I work on on Nickelodeon, THE WONDER PETS. In the episode, it was this cool cat that she played in this jazz piece and I feel so fortunate to have written the last thing that she was able to do - and, she won a posthumous Emmy for that, as well, which was really great and I was really proud to be a part of that. I miss her a lot - she was a great, great, great lady!
PC: What a wonderful story.
MJL: She was so great - what a great lady Eartha was. You know, I remember hearing the news and thinking, "Oh, my God! I can't believe the day has come where I am actually hearing this - I never thought she would actually die!" How could it really happen? It seemed impossible to me somehow. But, yeah - she was so incredible.
PC: Is it true she would do jumping jacks and jump rope in the aisle during breaks?
MJL: Oh, yeah! That's totally true! She was amazing! She could still put her leg over her head, even! You never, ever wanted to get into any kind of physical thing with her I don't think - oh, no, no, no. [Laughs.]
PC: In speaking of THE WILD PARTY, "Lowdown-Down" seems to inform "Midnight Blues" in GIANT just a tad, I thought.
MJL: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah - I know what you mean; there is a little bit of that, but with a Texas slant, of course. It's blues - just like "Lowdown-Down" is - so it has a very similar blues structure to it in a way. It's like "Lowdown-Down" in country blues.
PC: "Lowdown-Down" should be covered more.
MJL: It's funny you say that because you know who has a wonderful cover of that is actually Megan Hilty - she did the show at Carnegie Mellon when she was in school, I think.
PC: We spoke about it when she did this column, actually - she adores the score, by the way.
MJL: Oh, really?! There's a fabulous clip of her doing it on YouTube that I saw and loved. She did it at a cabaret or a nightclub or something on that and it was so wonderful - it's totally terrific. Who ever thought I'd get to see her do that? And, I mean, I love Toni [Collette] and she was brilliant in the show, but I really loved this, too.
PC: What a great Queenie she would be on Broadway.
MJL: Oh, yeah - I think Megan Hilty would be brilliant. She's quite a remarkable performer - she is really something else.
PC: Do you have a particular favorite from that score yourself?
MJL: No, I don't really have favorites - there are just no favorites with me when it comes to most of my scores - but, there are a few exceptions, I suppose.
PC: Jett's "Private Property" evoked some of the Thief's slinky, jazzy material in SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE for me. Could you compare the two characters in some ways, do you think?
MJL: I think you are right that there is something similar there between them. You know, they are both dangerous guys. I think every dangerous critter has something at their core that is human, though, so they have that in common, too - the Thief is more of a prototype character, though; in the first act of SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE you are never supposed to really know who any of the characters really are. That's a very intriguing observation, though, I have to say - I will have to think about that more. But, you know, they are about the same age and they both have the same intent with "I want this person who is already somebody else's person," but they are both human at the same time, too. Jett is very much like the Thief in some ways - neither one of them is all bad, I don't think. There is has to be something good that got damaged and that's Jett to me - damaged goods. They are both damaged goods.
PC: Idina Menzel's best work to date was in SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE, I'd say. Was it particularly thrilling to work with her on that show, right after she had won the Tony for WICKED and everything?
MJL: Oh, Idina was so, so fabulous in SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE - I thought she was so brilliant as the Actress in Act Two, especially. In particular, I just loved watching her sing "Coffee" - she was so committed to that character. I remember seeing her in Andrew's THE WILD PARTY and I felt like, "Wow, this girl has some serious, serious acting chops!" And, then, when we got her for the Actress role, it was just incredible to see her in rehearsal - I was like, "You are really, really owning this!" She has really, really good acting chops - she can do it all. I mean, I know my material and that song "Coffee" is f*cking hard! [Laughs.]
PC: It even sounds it!
MJL: That's one of the trickiest songs I've ever written - it's really, really difficult. She was brilliant.
PC: Audra McDonald originally played that role at Williamstown, correct?
MJL: Yes. Audra did the first version of the show back when it was called R SHOMON that we did at Williamstown.
PC: Michael C. Hall participated in that production, as well. Did you enjoy your experience working with DEXTER himself?
MJL: Oh, yeah - Michael C. Hall was wonderful in the show. He was great. He's so sexy, too - he got DEXTER right after we did it, I think. George [Wolfe] saw it there and that's why we ended up doing it at the Public when it became SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE. But, Michael was wonderful - yeah. I loved working with him and I want him back working in the theatre more - he is brilliant, too! Brilliant.
PC: "The Dog Is Gonna Bark" has a major WEST SIDE STORY feel. Tell me about the Bernstein influence on GIANT.
MJL: "The Dog Is Gonna Bark" definitely has got Bernstein's drive and brass and how he does that cluster stuff - I love his use of harmony in a lot of his stuff. Of course, Bernstein was a big influence - how could he not be a big influence?! [Laughs.]
PC: GIANT is your WEST SIDE STORY. What can you tell me about your upcoming projects?
MJL: Well, we are going to be work-shopping a new musical of mine soon - it's called FIRST DAUGHTER SUITE and it's a companion piece to FIRST LADY SUITE.
PC: What an exciting topic for musicalization - and a musical sequel, too!
MJL: Yeah, it's all about the daughters this time. I actually just started playing it again to get it in my fingers since we go into rehearsal for it soon. Then, we are going to be doing it in October, I believe. It's very experimental, musically, I think - I wrote it for a Shakespeare festival and they wanted something a little bit experimental, so I just went with it. I go back and forth and back and forth - it really depends on the venue and the source material most of all to me. I mean, when I mention to you GIANT, it's not a complicated story per se, but it is an epic story, so you can tell it simply - the colors need to be simple; the melodies need to be simple. On the other hand, when you are doing something chamber they think you are doing something small a lot of the time and that isn't what chamber is at all, really - the chamber pieces such as FIRST LADY SUITE and now FIRST DAUGHTER SUITE are not small pieces; they cover huge, universal issues involving humanity and where we are at as humans, and, at the same time, we are presenting it in a small space. So, complexity is absolutely necessary for something to work well in a chamber setting.
PC: Who is covered in the show?
MJL: Let's see: we do Patricia [Nixon]'s wedding, so there are her two daughters, Julie and Tricia, and, also, the ghost of Dick's mom, Hannah. Then, we are doing Amy Carter's fabulous dream adventure - which is Amy Carter, Susan Ford, Betty Ford and Roslyn Carter. That's a really funny one. Then, we are doing PATTY BY THE POOL, which is Nancy Reagan and her daughter, Patty.
PC: So you are doing Nancy after all!
MJL: Yes, I am! But, I won't tell you what happens. Nancy's Peruvian maid is involved, though! [Laughs.]
PC: How hilarious.
MJL: And, we are also doing Barbara Bush and Laura Bush, too.
PC: Will Michelle Obama or her daughters appear in it at all?
MJL: I haven't decided on that yet - I don't know quite yet everybody who will be present in it.
PC: There's a new wraparound to FIRST LADY SUITE, correct?
MJL: Yes, there is a new song for the opening that was first in the Jack Cummings revival that we did - I think it's on the recording, too.
PC: There is an alternate scene you've written for HELLO AGAIN since the original, is there not?
MJL: Well, what we have in HELLO AGAIN now is an optional Scene 8. We offer that to groups who are doing the show to do if they want. When we were first doing HELLO AGAIN at Lincoln Center Theater, Scene 8 was always a little problematic. It was problematic in the Schnitzler play, as well - you know, the whole show is basically the same scene over and over but just different characters in each one, so it gets a little repetitive. So, by the time we get to Scene 3, we realize that we are seeing basically the same scene play out over and over. Eventually, I felt that by the time we got to Scene 8, it was like, "Gosh, OK. How do we get through this a little faster?" So, I originally imagined it as an actual silent movie when I was writing it, but we didn't have the funds to actually do a silent movie - but, I'd love to see it done someday; there's no dialogue, just the scene with the music underneath and some silent movie surtitles. Then, there's another version of that scene where the actress sings a little song called "Do A Little Rewrite" that we give the option to theaters to use in order to give that actress a little bit more material in the show to sing. Scene 8 would be great as the silent movie, though, and I hope somebody does that someday - I would love to see it.
PC: HELLO AGAIN provided you the opportunity to write in some contemporary genres, as well. Would you be open to a full-out synth score or a really rock sound someday, do you think?
MJL: Oh, I'm sure if the right story came along that required that kind of sound I'd love to try it. Certainly, the thought of me doing rock is sort of strange to me because I don't really know what rock is - you mean "pop"? I don't mean you, but in general. I mean, I write pop song-type of stuff all the time. When I think of rock scores the only things I really think of are TOMMY - which is genius - and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR - which I think is brilliant, too; I love it very, very much.
PC: So, you are an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan, would you say?
MJL: Oh, goodness gracious - he has given so much pleasure to people! His music lands really, really well on people's ears, I think, and it doesn't sacrifice integrity as far as I'm concerned, either. I think that, lyrically, he gets into trouble sometimes - I've written about this and his music before for OPERA NEWS and stuff - but I think some of his shows like JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and EVITA - especially what Hal Prince did with that and PHANTOM - are just fabulous. But, for me, I think JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is just a fabulous, fabulous thing and I love that show so much.
PC: Would you consider doing a concept album like that someday yourself?
MJL: Oh, yeah, absolutely! I would love that - I really would. That would be fun.
PC: Hal Prince directed your THE PETRIFIED PRINCE, of course. That's another score of yours that needs to be recorded, does it not?
MJL: Yeah, there is a lot of funky stuff in that show - a British actor covered one of the songs on an album, but that's all that's been done from it, I think. You know, I don't really talk about THE PETRIFIED PRINCE a lot, but that's only because no one ever asks me! It was just this small little show that we did and I think that it was... oh, God! The production and the way that Hal directed was so f*cking outrageous that it was just totally, outrageously brilliant in every way. It was a brilliant production and a cast to die for - I still like a lot of the stuff we did in that. People ask me, "Oh, do you have anything you've never recorded that I can take a look at?" And I usually offer stuff from that show. I have very fond memories of doing that show and I feel so fortunate to have worked with Hal on it. I agree with you, too - it should be recorded.
PC: What casting opportunities it affords capable actors, as well!
MJL: You'd have to get the perfect cast together for that - we had such a great cast when we did it originally. Loni Ackerman and Daisy Prince and CAndy Buckley and some really, really great voices. There's some lovely, lovely stuff in that, I think - I'm very happy with it.
PC: Another constantly developing piece of yours is LOS OTROS - formerly the one-act, TRES NINAS. What is the status of that project at this time?
MJL: We are still working on the second act of LOS OTROS. We are coming up with a version of it right now that will probably be quite a bit different from the production we did in LA.
PC: Will the gardener character ever actually appear in it after all?
MJL: No! Never! How could we show him?! [Laughs.] How could we ever find anyone that gorgeous?!
PC: Victoria Clark was exceptional in TRES NINAS and it worked so powerfully as a solo show.
MJL: Oh, wasn't she beautiful? Yes, I loved her in it. She was so gorgeous. Of course, in LA, Michelle Pawk had a whole different take, which was also so fabulous. That was a great evening, though - INNER VOICES, where we did TRES NINAS.
PC: Speaking of your most recent work, Audra McDonald's new album GO BACK HOME is so stupendous and your two tracks are sensational. Tell me everything you can about Marlene Dietrich'S ABCs OF LOVE.
MJL: Oh, isn't Audra just gorgeous on those songs?! Incredible. Wait till you hear the whole thing - Audra is just amazing. It's based on Marlene Dietrich's ABCs and Ira Weitzman gave me the book, actually, back when we were in rehearsals for BERNARDA ALBA.
PC: How did that happen?
MJL: I remember one day I went to his office and said, [Big Sigh.] "Ira, this show is so depressing!" [Laughs.] And, then, he gave me this book and he said, "You know, this could make a very interesting piece - you might want to play with it." And, so, I wrote it in like two weeks, right after that - I was done.
PC: Inspiration struck and you took advantage of it.
MJL: I did. It was that fast. You see, the thing is, at first, some of the things seem sort of antiquated in a post-feminist way - you think, "Oh, the way she talks about what women should do is sort of old-fashioned," but, then, as you get further and further into the book you start to realize, "Oh, this is true. This is how we are. This has not changed - the dynamic between men and women and who we are and how we interact on this planet. It's about what it means to be a mother and what it means to be a good friend and what good art is." It's about all of these things. And, you know, everything she put down there in the book is a truth - it's so hard to find something like that, made up of truths. So, Audra and I have done a couple readings of it and I feel so pleased and so honored that she chose to include those two songs on her album now - the shortest song on the album and the longest song on the album; I love it! [Laughs.]
PC: So, is it a one-woman show?
MJL: Yes, it's a one-woman show. It's this woman's experience of reading this remarkable, remarkable book of philosophy - written by this great, great woman named Marlene Dietrich. And, then, to have Audra - the Audra McDonald - performing it? I mean, she could literally sing the telephone book - actually, this is pretty close; she is singing the alphabet! [Laughs.]
PC: Your specialty material for her concerts is so fun, too - especially "Lola".
MJL: Oh, yeah - she's done "Lola" a few times; I think she did that on TV. Also, I love when she does "See What I Wanna See" - she did that on one of her earlier albums, too. I saw her do her most recent PBS special live at Avery Fisher Hall and it was just incredible - words can't do it justice. She's incredible.
PC: SEND (who are you? i love you) is another great unrecorded solo piece you wrote for Audra, as well.
MJL: Oh, yes, that's right - SEND is an interesting piece, I think. Audra was so wonderful in that, too. Unfortunately, no one has asked to record it yet.
PC: THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS was another fabulous piece you have written for her.
MJL: I thought that song was a lot of fun, too - "The Christian Thing To Do". I love that song - I actually put it in my songbook anthology because I am so fond of it. I hope more people do that in the future.
PC: HOTEL C'EST L'AMOUR was a great revue of your cut material - you have enough material for another one by now!
MJL: You're probably right - at this point, I bet I do! [Big Laugh.]
PC: It's been a very busy year or two, especially, for you.
MJL: You're right - I've been really lucky; I think I've been in production consistently now for about a year and a half until now. I did QUEEN OF THE MIST and then LOS OTROS and then GIANT and then another GIANT, and, so now, I am looking forward to taking some time to just write, which is what I really love doing most of all.
PC: Where do you write?
MJL: I write primarily in my studio here in New York, but I do like going home to western New York over the summer and stay there sometimes, too. It's a beautiful time for me right now in that respect because I get to go and do what I love to do, which is write. I've been in production so long, it has been a real joy to take a break the last couple of weeks and say, "OK. Now I can just take a breath and write, write, write."
PC: Being so prolific, do you ever utilize trunk material?
MJL: Well, I'll tell you, I have a trunk of songs and it's actually labeled "The Dead Baby Trunk" and I feel like if you take that dead baby out of the trunk and you try to fit it into another show - you know, you are stuck and you need something, so in a moment of desperation you take one out and see if you can make it work; it may seem to work, but as the show progresses and the piece comes to together, that piece can start hurting the other children, the other songs. It's so weird how it works - but, it starts sticking out. It's like that horror movie about the dead kid coming back to life - PET SEMATARY. That's what it's like - the dead baby coming back to life as some evil, disfigured version of itself. It's like grafting something onto something else - so, writing something new always works better, I have found.
PC: Is there a full THE ROSE TATTOO that you have written with Mary Testa in mind?
MJL: Well, with THE ROSE TATTOO, that comes down to a rights thing. It's crazy what the rights situation is with that - it's really, really tricky. A university owns the rights and there was just a change of guard over there, so it is very tricky trying to acquire permission to do it. It has been a very difficult process, so I sort of have moved on from it and said, "If it happens in the future, I'll be happy to look at it again." I do think that of all Tennessee Williams's plays that that is the one that is a musical - indeed, it even has a song in it as it is. His poetry is so great that it would be impossible to replace it with music in most of his plays, but THE ROSE TATTOO has a certain roughness that I think allows for songs to take place.
PC: Did you complete your musicalization of it?
MJL: It's not quite complete. Once I found out that the rights weren't really available for me to acquire, I sort of backed away from it. I wrote quite a few things for it, though.
PC: Did you run into estate problems in adapting GIANT at any point in the process?
MJL: Fortunately, we did not - we had a brilliant person to work with at the Ferber estate who was so supportive and kind and helpful and generous. There are those moments where you deal with some estates and it can be tough, and, when they are, a writer can't just sit around waiting for something to happen - you have to be able to move on from it. You know, if I feel really inspired someday maybe I'll go back to it and see what can be done, but otherwise you just have to keep moving forward. Don't do it if you can't get the rights - otherwise, put it on the shelf and let it go.
PC: MARIE CHRISTINE was recently revived in New York and I was curious what your thoughts are on the future prospects for the piece?
MJL: Yes, it was just done at Columbia University - a young director did it and they did it downtown at a theater space. I actually went with Mary Testa to go see it - I wrote Magdelena in the show for her to do, actually, originally, as you know - and we felt like it really held up. It was beautiful. The kids were extraordinarily talented, too. The young lady who played the lead was pretty fierce - I thought, "Oh, yeah! That's it." You know, thinking about it makes me tear up because it reminds me of something George Wolfe said to me a long time ago. He said, "If you write roles with a lot of diversity, younger people are going to go to school and want to play those roles someday. You are giving them something to look forward to and something to play, so if you can find a way to be passionate about that, follow it because it will you will reap the rewards from it." And, ever since he said that to me, that has been my mission in a way - it's just one of those things. So, in talking to the young cast afterwards, the best compliment I got was from the young man who played one of the brothers - the brother who sings "All Eyes Look Upon You" - when he said, "I've wanted to play this role my entire life," and I went, "Oh, my God!"
MJL: It makes me want to cry just thinking about it. That's why you do this - that is exactly why you write; when an actor comes up to you and says, "Thank you for writing this - I have wanted to play this role my entire life." There is no greater compliment that you can get from an actor, young or old.
PC: Lastly, could you tell me about the specialty material you penned for the Tony Awards this year and how that came about? You've written a few songs for them, have you not?
MJL: The Tony Awards producers - Glen Weiss, Ricky Kirshner, and Neil [Patrick Harris] - asked me to write special material for this year's show. For the past three years I've been doing special material for Neil, actually, including his duet/duel with former host Hugh Jackman. It's always a blast and Neil is just so damn funny and smart, so I love doing it. As usual, an idea is hatched - this year we thought it'd be fun to check in with theatre actors who'd tried their hand in the TV world - so, how it works is that I write a draft, get feedback, rewrite; then, the number gets orchestrated, recorded, rehearsed... and, all within few days! I honestly don't know how Neil and company do it in such little time - they're all truly amazing.
PC: As was this today. Thank you so, so much, Michael John. This was perfection - and, on a personal note, my deepest thanks to you for your early support many years ago when I was just a fan.
MJL: Thanks to you, too, Pat - this was a total joy and it is so, so important what you do and I'm so flattered to have done this today. We need more people like you in the theatre these days. Bye bye.
Photos: Walter McBride, Joan Marcus, etc.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro