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Interview: Theatre Life with Michael John LaChiusa

The composer/lyricist on composing the music for Shakespeare Theatre Company's upcoming production of Our Town and more.

Interview: Theatre Life with Michael John LaChiusa
Michael John LaChiusa

Today's subject Michael John LaChiusa is currently living his theatre life as the composer for the upcoming production of Our Town at Shakespeare Theatre Company. The production runs May 12th through June 11th in STC's Sidney Harman Hall and features (wait for it) a FULL cast of DC performers.

Mr. LaChiusa is a Drama Desk and Tony Award nominated (should have won) composer/lyricist whose work includes some of the most innovative pieces written for the musical theatre genre.

A few examples include Queen of the Mist, Hello Again, Marie Christine, The Wild Party and First Lady Suite.

Locally his work has been seen at Signature Theatre with a number of productions including the world premiere of Giant, See What I Wanna See and The Highest Yellow.

Recently his newest work The Gardens of Anuncia was presented at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre.

He has also written several operas and has composed songs for fifteen episodes of the PBS series Wonder Pets.

When not writing, Michael can be found teaching as an adjunct professor for the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

If you have seen a production of Our Town before you might not think about musical scoring because there generally isn't very much if any used. Read on to see how Michael John LaChiusa approached this project and his thoughts on scoring the piece.

Michael John LaChiusa is one of the most creative writers working in the theatre today. With Our Town, DC audiences have a chance to hear some of his latest work as they watch Holly Twyford as the Stage Manager lead the Alan Paul directed production. It's a win-win for all.

At what age did you have an idea that you wanted to become a composer?

I knew wanted to write songs when I was five or six. But I didn't know I needed to be a composer until I was a young teen.

Who would you say was your biggest musical mentor?

I'm guessing you don't mean "biggest" as in size, but "biggest" as most important to me. If that's the case, I had so many mentors to whom I owe a lot of gratitude. Several important mentors I hold very dear would-be Ellen Fitzhugh, Ira Weitzman, Maury Yeston, George C. Wolfe, Hal Prince, William Bolcom, Bill Finn, and Graciela Daniele. I like to think I can learn something from everyone I meet and/or have worked with, whether the experience is good or even not-so-good. Everyone is my teacher--and I never want to stop learning.

Interview: Theatre Life with Michael John LaChiusa
Holly Twyford and Summer Wei in rehearsal for
Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Our Town.
Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.

When you were approached about composing original music for Our Town, what were your initial thoughts about how to approach the project musically?

I knew I wanted a musical score that was simple and non-editorial; one that not only reflected the quiet poignancy of some of the scenes, but also the hard and sorrowful cruelties of living which Wilder exposes so brilliant. I also wanted something that was both contemporary and reflective of an imaginary small town in New Hampshire from an imaginary long-ago time.

Our Town traditionally does not have any musical scoring. How do you find the balance between the music enhancing the action as opposed to it becoming a distraction?

Actually, Thorton Wilder wrote many specific music cues into his play; hymns for choir practice in Act One, music for Emily and George's wedding in Act Two, and Emily's funeral in Act Three. These are vital to the story telling and can't and shouldn't be omitted. And there are other intrinsic cues that one might not call "music" but are very much a part of the play's sound-scape: the town bell, the clanking of a dairy cow's milk pails, the jingling of the night constable's keys, etc. Now, to find the balance of music enhancing the action versus it becoming a distraction, that happens in rehearsals and that's to be discovered. Any music that distracts has to be modified or cut.

Can you please speak about the sound of the score overall? (Number of players, orchestration etc)

Very minimal. An electric guitar. A church organ. A violin. Bells.

One of the few times Our Town has had musical scoring was in the 1940 film with Aaron Copland as its composer. When you started on this project, did Copland's music serve as any inspiration for your scoring?

I'm familiar with Aaron Copland's score, specifically the three excerpts for piano, which I used to play. It's lovely and very Americana. I've always been a fan of Copland's classical sense of order and his score for the film reflects that. But it is a Hollywood movie: the orchestration is quite lush when not being sentimental, and sometimes ponderously dramatic. The play isn't that. It's stark and unforgiving in its cold honesty. For instance, all too often, Emily's last speech-her farewell to Grover's Corners-is often played with teary-eyed sentiment, and it shouldn't be. It's a cold, brutal farewell to life. If it's to have musical underscoring, that coldness, that brutality should be underlined. The play is also a rumination on our earth's lonely, mysterious place in the universe; it's not a sentimental theme and shouldn't be treated as such musically. There's a dry sensibility that forcibly opposes any sort of editorial music. But because the play breaks fourth wall--after all, the Stage Manager tells us at the very beginning, this is a play--there is room for magic, as when George's younger sister speaks in awe of "the mind of God" or when Emily returns to the day of her birthday, and even during the some of the speeches of the Stage Manager. These are meta-theatrical moments and can sustain musical underscore.

Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt tried to musicalize Our Town with their Grovers Corners and of course there was the 1955 Frank Sinatra version which gave us "Love and Marriage". Jones and Schmidt's version never came in to Broadway and the Thornton Wilder estate hated the Sinatra version. Do you think Our Town could work as a Broadway musical and is that something you would be interested in if the opportunity presented itself?

Maybe and no. It can work as an opera--the composer Ned Rorem adapted it several years ago, quite effectively. Operas employ a large degree of editing when it comes to source material; musicals employ a large degree of re-writing of source material--a "filling out" of characters and their inner lives, for instance. Or traditional song forms that reduce the power of organic poetry to AABA rhymes and/or interrupt the action. I don't think Our Town needs that kind of re-writing. The Matchmaker, sure, but not this play.

Besides Our Town, what does 2022 have in store for you workwise?

Los Otros, a two-hander I wrote with lyricist/librettist Ellen Fitzhugh, will have its NYC premiere this coming fall. And of course, a dozen other projects in various stages of development are waiting to move ahead, if we can return to a sense of process in the theatre. I'm hopeful but pragmatic.

Through the generosity and permission of Michal John LaChiusa, here are two demos from his upcoming score for Our Town.

"George And Emily" Written by Michael John LaChiusa. Published by Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. (BMI) All rights reserved.

"Act Three Opening" Written by Michael John LaChiusa. Published by Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. (BMI). All rights reserved.

Special thanks to Shakespeare Theatre Company's Associate Director of Communications Brittany Proudfoot Ginder for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.

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