The arrival of Michael John LaChiusa’s Hello Again in theatres across the U.S. is a major milestone for the theatre community and its fans. The indie film and its impressive cast of stars signifies a sea change in terms of how producers, major stars, and movie theatre franchises across the U.S. believe in the viability of musicals on film—especially rare works like LaChiusa’s 1993 Off-Broadway musical Hello Again.
Director Tom Gustafson and screenwriter Cory Krueckeberg, the award-winning collaborators known for the romantic 2007 LGBT film musical Were the World Mine, have taken what many would consider a risky and non-commercial niche work and adapted it for film.
In addition to Hello Again’s opening week premiere in more than 280 movie theatres across the U.S., which is a major achievement for any Off-Broadway musical that manages to get a screen adaptation, the film brings with it a major dose of theatre history.
Hello Again is based on Arthur Schnitzler’s controversial 1897 play La Ronde, which brings together ten interlocking scenes that capture a pair of lovers just prior to, or immediately following intense, but all-too-brief sexual intimacy. One character from each scene carries on into the next until a full dramatic circle is completed.
Five-time Tony Award nominee LaChiusa, who is the show’s composer, lyricist, and book writer, took Schnitzler’s Vienna-set play one step further, by placing the action in New York City—as the lovers and scenes stretch across decades and eras in history in a non-linear manner. LaChiusa also put the actual “love scenes” to music, writing the sexual climaxes directly into his words, music, and orchestrations. Each scene in the musical and film rise and fall around this moment.
“I was approached by Ira Weitzman around 1991. He and Andre Bishop and the gang had just moved over to Lincoln Center Theater from Playwrights Horizons. And they wanted to work with Graciela Daniele on something, and Graciela said, ‘I’d love to do a ballet version of La Ronde.’ So they asked me to take a look at it to see if I thought it would make a musical. I read it and musicalized the first scene. I played it for Ira and Graciela and we were off. I wrote about a scene a week, and we put it together. We had one reading, and a workshop shortly thereafter, and then the production happened in 1994.”
Hello Again premiered December 30, 1993, with a cast of theatre actors who were on the verge of major success, including Donna Murphy, John Cameron Mitchell, Carolee Carmello, Malcolm Gets, just to name a few.
“The original cast was a who’s who. Even our understudies went on to have great success. Bob Stillman and Elizabeth Ward Land, Pamela Isaacs, Saundra Santiago—who replaced Donna Murphy. Donna opened the show for us, but she had just been cast in Passion. They were all so brilliant. Even in workshops we had amazing people, like Jane Krakowski.”
Hello Again’s interconnected lovers are played on screen by an ensemble cast that boasts six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, Emmy Award winner Martha Plimpton, Cheyenne Jackson, T.R. Knight, Rumer Willis, Jenna Ushkowitz, Nolan Gerard Funk, Sam Underwood, Tyler Blackburn, and Al Calderon.
Six-time Tony winner McDonald and LaChiusa share major history. In 1999, Lincoln Center Theater produced Marie Christine, LaChiusa’s New Orleans-set take on Medea, which was written as a vehicle for McDonald.
McDonald has frequently performed LaChiusa’s work in concert and on her albums, including two songs from the Hello Again score—“Tom” and “Mistress of the Senator,” the latter of which McDonald brings to life in the film.
The scene, which is one of Hello Again’s final encounters, centers on a female actor and a U.S. Senator who share a hidden affair. She wants more, he does not. A preoccupation with public life and elections closes the door.
A fresh dynamic comes into play on screen with the casting of Emmy winner Martha Plimpton as the Senator. The lesbian relationship deepens the lyrics and raises the stakes for a secret affair that is kept within the shadows of political life.
“I know the song and love the song, and I’ve sung it on one of my albums,” McDonald says. “It was fantastic to look at it in this new light, with the Senator being a woman, and my character is still wanting all the same things. A lot of the stuff that’s going on in her imagination, and what she’d like to see happen, we were kind of able to open up a bit in the film.”
“It was fun for me, revisiting something that was very familiar and comfortable, and finding a slightly new take on it, and a finding a sort of new way to tell this story. And working with Martha Plimpton, come on, there’s no one like her.”
Hello Again also provides LaChiusa another chance to write for McDonald. The film includes a completely new scene and song, which replace what was originally seen Off-Broadway.
“It’s very funny,” says LaChiusa. “Ask any of the original cast members—especially Malcolm Gets and Michele Pawk—about the notorious Scene 8. On opening night I gave everyone the notorious Scene 8 Songbook, because we had difficulty with that scene and I wrote 23 different songs.
“When it came to the movie, Cory said, ‘Would you mind writing a new song?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely, I have no problem, but I also have 23 other songs if you’re interested.’”
A scene between between a silent film director and his muse—played in the Off-Broadway version by Gets and Pawk—is now set in a recording studio, with Cheyenne Jackson as a songwriter/music producer and McDonald as his lover and somewhat reluctant muse.
“We decided it would be cool to bring the film even further into the 20th century and Corey came up with the idea to do an artsy MTV video,” LaChiusa says. “I got to write a really trashy, cheesy song for Audra to do, which I love so much: ‘Beyond the Moon.’ It’s hysterically funny in the film in many respects, with Audra as the moon goddess. It’s fun to watch it.”
“The great thing for me, as far as the character is concerned,” McDonald says, “is that she’s uncomfortable doing this kind of disco pop thing anyway. It’s not who she is, and she’s trying to remake herself. So because disco pop is also not where Audra McDonald lives, that part actually felt kind of tailor made for me.”
In addition to an intense onscreen moment with Jackson, the scene delivers one of the film’s more surreal moments as we see McDonald’s character appear in her own MTV music video, decked out glam makeup with a chorus of back-up dancers.
“To live out my fantasy of being Cher or Tina Turner, with this hair and all these gorgeous boys around, that was fun,” McDonald says. “I think we filmed that at like at 2 AM, or something.”
Gustafson and Krueckeberg say that it was McDonald’s initial signing onto the project that ultimately put the film into motion when it came to nailing down the rest of the cast for Hello Again.
This passion project for McDonald, LaChiusa, Gustafson, and Krueckeberg, continues to gain momentum as Hello Again rolls out across the country.
“It’s incredibly fulfilling and satisfying to see all of this musical theatre work being brought into this new medium like film and being brought to a big screen and being released nationally,” McDonald says. “I don’t even think that’s something we even thought would happen. The idea was just ‘Get it made.’ Because we believed in the piece, and everybody who was part of this piece loves Michael John, loves his art, and loves this story, and what he’s done with it. You’re making art for art’s sake. And it's fulfilling to see it grow and have a life. It's inspiring, and it gives me hope.”
For tickets and information on screening locations, visit HelloAgainMovieTix.com.