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A look at Westfield native LaChiusa’s Off-Broadway show

November 5, 2015
Westfield Republican

NEW YORK - Chautauqua County has produced more than its share of people who have come to the top of their fields, in the arts.

One of the greatest successes, especially in the field of creating scripts and musical scores for musical shows, is Westfield's Michael John LaChiusa. I recently made the long journey to Manhattan, to witness the opening of his most recent Off-Broadway show, "First Daughter Suite."

It's always a pleasure to share with our readers the progress of the success of people who grew up in our area. I always like to remind readers that I once read in a study that an individual is more likely to play in a Super Bowl game than he is to have a show produced on Broadway. Let me tell you about LaChiusa, and about his latest creation.

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Westfield native Michael John LaChiusa has just opened another show, for which he has written the book, the lyrics and the music, at New York City’s Public Theater.




MICHAEL JOHN

Michael John LaChiusa was born in 1962. His family lived in Westfield, and he and his two younger brothers all grew up to earn their livings in the theater.

His biography reports that he taught himself to play piano at the age of seven, and that he had very little musical training. On early graduation from high school, he headed off to Manhattan, to make his way into the life of the theater. He started by playing piano, performing in night spots and volunteering to accompany rising singers and singing actors.

He admits to having been influenced by three classical composers, and three musical theater composers. They would be John Corigliano, Philip Glass, and John Adams, on the classical side, and George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, and Stephen Sondheim, in theater.

Being self-taught, LaChiusa's musical scores don't fall easily into any of the traditional patterns of musical compositions. He tends to paint musical portraits of his characters, the style of the music embracing and illustrating the qualities of the individual characters.

The subjects of his shows have changed extremely over the 25 years in which he has been active. There have been classics from the ancient Greeks, for example, as in "Marie Christine," a setting of the Greek myth of Medea, transposed to the world of New Orleans in the days of the slave trade. The role helped to establish the career of Audra McDonald.

There was a setting of the poem "The Wild Party," which sought to portray the quality of life in the Roaring Twenties, featuring Mandy Patinkin and Eartha Kitt. There was a fractured fairy tale, in the form of "The Petrified Prince," and a "Sex and the City" clone, based on short stories by a career girl in Manhattan, called "Little Fish."

There have been "Giant" based on the novel by Edna Ferber, and "See What I Wanna See," based on Japanese short stories, and a work in the style of sophisticated Vienna, in "Hello, Again," which was based on Arthur Schnitzler's play, "La Ronde." This is just a sampling.

The very first of his shows to receive a production in a major New York venue was "First Lady Suite," a show inspired by LaChiusa's fascination with the families of American presidents. They don't run for office, they don't have any power, beyond the ability to influence the people who do have power, and yet their lives are inspected under the magnifying lenses of the press, and now the additional magnification of the social media.

The newest show, "First Daughter Suite," continues in the vein of that first show. It examines the lives of women - and one little girl - who have lived a large portion of their youth in the White House, in conditions which have often been compared to being in prison. The first show examined the lives and feelings of Eleanor Roosevelt, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman, and Jacqueline Kennedy.

The new show focuses on daughters of presidents, but it also focuses largely on their relationships with their mothers. The show contains four independent vignettes. Each of the vignettes contains much humor. LaChiusa reported that he did extensive research into both the lives and the personalities of the women he has written about, but he has allowed himself a great deal of license, as well.

The show contains a great deal of compassion for historical people, many of whom are viewed by history far more negatively than he views them. Let's share the interview I did with the composer, after seeing his latest show, and then I'll do a hasty review of the production which is now playing at New York City's Public Theater.

AN INTERVIEW

I reached LaChiusa by telephone on Oct. 16, several days after having seen a preview performance of his newest show. In fact, I had had a near encounter with him before curtain time, in a stairwell, outside the performance space, when I was on my cell phone, trying to firm up a dinner reservation with our oldest son. I heard him passing behind me with several members of his production team.

"I'm sorry I missed you," he said on the phone, when I described the event. "Why didn't you call out?" I explained that I had called out, but he was down the stairs and gone, and I was standing on a narrow stair, attempting to turn around, with little success.

He said that his show was in good shape at the time of our conversation. It was in the stressful period between opening in previews which began Oct. 6, during which changes may be made in the script and the score, and officially opening, which took place Oct. 21, after which no changes are allowed.

"The truth is, we 'froze' the show early, because I felt we had gotten what I wanted with it, and the cast and director were happy," he said. "I know many composers who hate to let go, and accept that they can't change anything else, but I always look forward to it. The actors never really take their roles inside themselves when there's a good chance they'll have to forget some dialogue and to learn new speeches and change their responses to the events of the show.

"I've been lucky to have had really excellent casts in my shows," he continued. "They've always taken what I've given them, and then given me something even better, in return."

While his four segments are based upon a degree of history, all of them are, to some degree, fantasies, based upon history. I wondered if he researched the lives of his characters, or if he just placed them into a fantasy.

"I do very extensive research," he replied. "I place my characters into a fantasy situation, but I don't want to portray them as doing anything they wouldn't have done."

I wondered about his decision to do a show about first ladies, and then a second about first ladies and their daughters. Would he consider writing a show about presidents, or about first sons? He answered, "There is already an ocean of things written about men and power. Most of Shakespeare, for example, is about the relationships between fathers and sons. Women often get dragged into their fathers' and husbands' politics, and they need to adapt themselves and their relationships with others, in terms of those men and their doings."

Does his answer mean that he often studies Shakespeare? He answered, "I re-read all of Shakespeare every five years. There is so much understanding of the human condition in his writing, and as I get older and experience different elements of the world, I find myself reacting to this writing with different understandings."

With a brand new show which hadn't officially opened yet, does that mean LaChiusa can take some "down time," before cranking himself up to attack a new show? He says it means no such thing.

"I'm heading off to San Diego, California, soon, to work at the Old Globe Theatre, there. I'm working on creating a musical version of Somerset Maugham's play, "Rain," the story of Sadie Thompson and her effect on a fallen-away clergyman," he told me. "No matter what happens, I'm planning to be still there in February, when the weather around here becomes unendurable."

Will we see the composer in Chautauqua County, any time soon? He said there is a good chance. "I'm hoping to get home to Westfield around the holidays. I'm looking forward to getting together with my family."

LaChiusa's younger brothers, Matthew and Tom, are presently residing in Buffalo, where Matthew is artistic director of American Repertory Theatre of Western New York, and Tom frequently is a leading actor with the many various companies based in the Queen City.

Is there anything he's like to say about our area? He said he'd like to throw in a plug for the theater and music departments at the State University of New York at Fredonia. "Those departments have always been good, in my experience, but lately, I've had the occasion to have graduates of those programs audition for one of my shows, and they are really talented and very well prepared," he said.

Clearly, one of our local boys has made very, very good.

IN REVIEW

If you've ever attended one of Michael John LaChiusa's shows, you know that they are always mentally challenging and musically excellent, but they are not the kind of show which drags you out of your troubles and fills you with energy.

"First Daughter Suite," is the most accessible of the six I've seen. As he describes in his interview above, LaChiusa builds his characters' words and actions into a bed of real words and actions which they have actually expressed. But, usually with great compassion, he allows himself to envision what they would have said or thought, inside, while they were smiling and waving at the cameras.

The first vignette, which he calls "Happy Pat," is probably the most realistic. It's Tricia Nixon's wedding day. The president's older daughter is nervous, and is completely overwrought by the fact that she has planned to be married outdoors, in the White House Rose Garden. There is a musical number about how the White House staff has set out hundreds of chairs, then taken them back into the East Dining Room, then carried them back outside, as Tricia can't decide. The younger daughter, Julie, who never fails to point out that she is her father's favorite, also needs to point out that she got married first, and to a famous husband, Presidential grandson David Eisenhower.

Her wedding took place inside, came off without a hitch, and didn't get any of the sniping which the tabloids have been sending Tricia's way. Both young women press their mother to take charge and deal with all the crises, but Pat Nixon, hair fixed and gowned in her mother-of-the-bride dress, is perched on a sofa, sipping a glass of whisky, and is communing with the ghost of her late mother-in-law, Hannah Nixon.

Hannah was a Quaker, and speaks in the antique formulas which members of that faith often use, substituting "thee" for "you," for example. Her pronouncements include that of all her sons, including the two who died, Richard has been the biggest disappointment, even though he is President of the United States, at the moment. She calls Pat only by her original name, which was Thelma, and tells her she has failed as both a wife and a mother. She pronounces the Nixon daughters as both spoiled.

Barbara Walsh as tired, lonely, unloved Pat made her audience care very much about her. Betsy Morgan as fluffy Tricia and Caissie Levy as no-nonsense Julie were fine, and Theresa McCarthy as the self-righteous Hanna struck perfect notes, to show the pain she must have inflicted on those around her.

The second of the four vignettes is titled "Amy Carter's Fabulous Dream Adventure," is set aboard the presidential yacht, Sequoia, in 1980, at the time Carter's single presidential term was being destroyed by the capture of the staff of the American embassy, in Tehran, Iran, by Muslim activists who had over thrown the American-backed Shah.

Amy was the only daughter in her family, with three older brothers, the youngest of which was 15 years older than herself. Not a physically attractive child, Amy spent her father's presidency often alone. LaChiusa imagines that if he could see the child's dreams, that she would fantasize becoming the captain of the presidential yacht, and sailing with her mother and Susan Ford, the daughter of the man her father defeated in the 1976 election, to Tehran, to rescue the hostages, become a hero, and save her father's presidency.

The composer imagines that Susan Ford, who was pretty, was older, and had much social success in the White House, including holding her class's senior prom in the White House, would have been the object of a childhood crush by the young girl. Somehow, Susan's mother, Betty Ford, has made her way into the dream as well, and as played by a brilliant Alison Fraser, spends her time dancing, in bright, red shoes, and drinking inordinate quantities of Billy Beer.

The third vignette imagines an encounter between Nancy Reagan, and her alienated daughter, Patti Davis, who has already published a novel which is clearly about the horrors of living with her famous parents. Fraser returns as Nancy, who is as cold blooded and ruthless as any character short of Inspector Javert. Actor Levy returns as Patti, determined to force her way into her mother's awareness by spouting to the press, things her parents want to stay hidden.

The final segment is titled "In the Deep Bosom of the Ocean Buried." It imagines that each year, on the anniversary of her daughter's death, Barbara Bush goes to the family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, where she communes with the spirit of Robin, her daughter who died at age 3. "The Granite Grannie," as Bush was often called by the press, is bitter that she has lost her beloved daughter, while her sons have proven to be such a disappointment. Daughter-in-law Laura Bush seeks to show Barbara the cost of her powerful disappointment on her sons and their families.

I realize I've focused on the plot of the show, even though I know that there are some who will say that when a critic focuses on the plot it's because the other factors aren't good. That isn't true. The direction by Kirsten Sanderson, the choreography by Chase Brock, the sets by Scott Pask, the costumes by Toni-Leslie James, and all the other production values were first rate. But, the stories of these central figures in our nation's history are what I left the theater, obsessed by. This is really a first-rate show.

AND ... NEW YORK

I've loved New York all my life, although at the moment, everything about the city is much too expensive. Travelling there is unpleasant, and very difficult. Some shows cost as much as $300 per ticket. If you're going to be in New York, I recommend "First Daughter Suite" very highly. If not, you can hope that a regional company will do a fine production of it, perhaps in Cleveland or Pittsburgh, or Toronto. If they do, you'll enjoy it just as much, and set back your personal economy far less drastically.

 
 
 

 

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