Listen to the music, music doesn’t lie,” a middle-aged, married man tells the young man he is seducing in a stateroom on board the Titanic in Michael John LaChiusa’s new musical, Hello Again.
Some important people in musical theatre – the kind who make and shape careers – have been listening to LaChiusa’s music and lyrics for nearly a decade Off Broadway, convinced that his work, both comic and tragic – and terribly cynical – would have its day.
Indeed, LaChiusa’s time seems to have arrived. First Lady Suite, his musical vignettes of Jackie Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhover and Eleanor Roosevelt (with Amelia Earhart, Marian Anderson, Lorena Hickock, Margaret and Bess Truman, and others making cameo appearances) was produced in December at the new York Shakespeare Festival. Hello Again, LaChiusa’s first full-length musical, based on Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde and directed by Graciela Daniele, opened the following month as part of Lincoln Center Theater’s Festival of New American Plays. Now LaChiusa is collaborating with director Harold Prince on The Petrifield Prince, based on an unproduced Ingmar Bergman screenplay.
Time will tell, but it is clear that an unusual new talent is being revealed, note by note, like a musical composition. Ira Weitzman, director of musical theatre at Lincoln Center, says LaChiusa has “an unbelievable natural gift,” and that he is a “natural theatre writer with tremendous, quirky insights into human emotions and relationships.”
Success is so new to LaChiusa that, in an interview, he has no easy answers, the kind that come from having explained his work often. Nor is he adept at articulating his creative intent or his working process. He is better at simply putting his words to music. Nonetheless, LaChiusa is aware that he is at a turning point. “There is no turning back now,” he says more than once. “The best adventure is one you haven’t taken yet,” he adds, echoing the restless characters in Hello Again.
If musi doesn’t lie, then what truths can be found in the 31-year-old LaChiusa’s music and lyrics? That love is elusive, and that men and women are doomed in their search for it. That the search is not about sex – although that is the primary form it takes in Hello Again – but about happiness.
Happiness is just a word
His musicals are about longing. “I can’t remember my husband’s name/I can’t remember my lover’s name/But I remember what would have been/It has a name,” an unhappy wife sings of her longing for happiness. “Happiness doesn’t exist, it’s a word,” a U.S. senator tells an actress he is about to have an affair with. Happiness, it is assumed, is synonymous with love, and will come in the guise of another person. “I’ve been looking for someone,” the man on the Titanic says to his dinner date. “Ain’t we all?” the younger man answers.
Attempts at permanency end badly. LaChiusa’s characters (like those of Stephen Sondheim, to whom he has been compared) may couple briefly after a troubled courtship. Sondheim’s at least enjory some momentary pleasure during their pursuits (think of A Little Night Music or Company); LaChiusa’s simply have sex, then continue lives of lonely despair. Hello Again might serve as an unintentional modern-day advertisement for old-fashioned arranged marriages.
LaChiusa has been mentioned as a leading member of a post-Sondheim generation of composers and lyricists who, as David Richards wrote in his review of First Lady Suite in the New York Times, “are as happy to explore the dynamics of a relationship or the contents of a character’s mind as their predecessors were to chronicle a clambake or a hoedown.”
“I don’t buy into that myself,” responds Weitzman. “I guess if anyone ever hears a dissonant chord or a dark thought, we think Sondheim. Pretty much all writers working today are influenced by Sondheim. I think what Michael John owes to Sondheim is a certain paying attention to the craft.”
LaChiusa grew up in Chautauqua, N.Y., the son of a football coach and a housewife. He moved to New York in 1980 at age 18 with dreams of writing musicals and just three years of piano lessons as a child (with a blind piano teacher – “I loved her dearly,” he recalls) under his belt. Working at Tower Records, he could spend the day listening to recordings of opera and classical music. “Opera,” he exults, “is the ultimate dramatization of theatre, with dance, music, every element to the max.” Bernstein, Copland, Glass, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Tom Waits and Sting all get mentioned as influences before Sondheim or Webber come up.
LaChiusa wrote four short musicals for the New Theater Wing, a works-in-progress program at Playwrights Horizons, and music for three shows for the comic performer Jeffrey Essman. He has also written librettos for three operas, including Anthony Davis’s Tanya, based on the Patti Hearst affair.
His librettos are “sung through.” There is little spoken dialogue, lyrics are rarely repeated, and there is almost never a refrain. His are not songs that can be hummed leaving the theatre, except maybe by those who can carry a post-minimalist tune.
“I do think they have a melody,” LaChiusa says, explaining his music. “I think our ears are a little more developed now. Stranger things are happening in music. It doesn’t have to be AABA anymore, although theatre folks like AABA. There’s a time and a place for a 16-bar refrain, but sometimes no reason for it.”
It was Graciela Daniele’s idea to make a musical of La Ronde, but it seemed a perfect fit for LaChiusa, too. Weitzman, who had been looking for a full-length project for the composer, “completely casually” asked him if he had ever read Schnitzler’s turn-of-the-century chronicle of sexual indiscretion. What happened next is Weitzman’s favorite story about LaChiusa.
He’s played all 10 scenes
“In a day, he called and said, Well, I’ve written the first scene,'” remembers Weitzman. “He came in and played it, and it was almost exactly as it is now. On the second day, he said, |Well, I’ve written the second scene.’ He played it for Graciela, and she said yes. That’s very much how he is; if he’s into something, he’s very fast. He obviously had an intuitive idea of how to write it.”
It might be because LaChiusa says he can identify with the play’s 10 couples. “I’ve been through all 10 scenes. I was very interested in their search for the ideal lover, in the idea that |the best adventure is one you haven’t taken yet.’ I am dying to have a family-, now is really the time. Hello Again tracks my desire to find it. I don’t like sleeping alone; I don’t like dreaming alone.”
LaChiusa updated Schnitzler so that Hello Again skips through time – which also gives LaChiusa the opportunity to write music that reflects the periods of the century, from operetta, to movie musicals, to |50s rock-and-roll.
Women do not fare well in LaChiusa’s musicals, but neither do men. In First Lady Suite (which grew out of his hobby of collecting First Lad lore) women are abandoned emotionally. Mamie knows she has lost Ike – not to the war in which he was made general, but to his pretty chauffeur; Jackie is jetting her way to Dallas and widowhood; and Lorena Hickock takes herself and her heartbreak out to the wing of a plane being piloted by Amelia Earhart and Hickock’s lover, Eleanor Roosevelt.
In Hello Again, all women are fallen women-literally. Daniele’s choreography leaves female characters on the floor, abandoned by their lovers. “I think a lot of women feel they’re left on the floor,” LaChiusa says of real-life relationships. “I think a lot of men feel they can leave them there and walk out, But who is hurt more? Men are damaged in their leaving, as well.”
What seems quirky in First Lady Suite often seems brutally cynical in Hello Again. “That element is there,” LaChiusa admits. “I am cynical about sex,” which is reflected in the characters’ belief that “sex is love and love is sex. You can call it love, but I don’t think it is.
“Every single person in the show is searching for the ideal lover, which leads to the sense of hopelessness and desperation,” he reasons. “In a sense there is something beautiful in that, too that we’re human.”