PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Michael John LaChiusa

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Michael John LaChiusa With two Broadway musicals due this year -- Marie Christine and The Wild Party -- Michael John LaChiusa has swiftly become the most successful, most produced and highest profile musical composer of his generation. Marie Christine, a modern retelling of the Medea story which opens at Lincoln Center Theater on Dec. 2, has the added attraction of featuring Audra McDonald in her first starring role. While The Wild Party, based on Joseph Moncure March's scandalous 1928 poem, will herald the return to the stage of Mandy Patinkin and Eartha Kitt. LaChiusa talked to Playbill On-Line about the challenges of shepherding two musicals in one season, writing music for specific performers and being saddled a hard-to-pronounce name.

With two Broadway musicals due this year -- Marie Christine and The Wild Party -- Michael John LaChiusa has swiftly become the most successful, most produced and highest profile musical composer of his generation. Marie Christine, a modern retelling of the Medea story which opens at Lincoln Center Theater on Dec. 2, has the added attraction of featuring Audra McDonald in her first starring role. While The Wild Party, based on Joseph Moncure March's scandalous 1928 poem, will herald the return to the stage of Mandy Patinkin and Eartha Kitt. LaChiusa talked to Playbill On-Line about the challenges of shepherding two musicals in one season, writing music for specific performers and being saddled a hard-to-pronounce name.

Playbill On-Line: With all the attention surrounding the openings of Marie Christine and The Wild Party, you've been interviewed and analyzed a lot as a member of the new breed of theatre composers. How do you feel about being the de facto spokesman of the "new theater music," as it's called?
Michael John LaChiusa: I don't think of myself as a spokesman at all. First and foremost, anytime anything that comes along is called new, one has to be careful of that word -- new -- it might not necessarily be good. The major thing is that we be allowed to practice the craft diligently and wisely. It's exciting to be a part of a group of theatre writers who love theatre so much and are being allowed to practice it right now. Right now we have a new group of writers coming up -- Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, Jeanine Tesori, Ricky Ian Gordon. I'm very proud to be included in that list. And also, we still have the great, legendary writers practicing their craft as well -- Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Kander and Ebb. It's a very exciting time in musical theatre.

PBOL: Do you feel an affinity with Guettel, Brown, etc?
MJL: Absolutely, yes. We all challenge each other. I'm very supportive of their work, they're very supportive of mine.

PBOL: Few people write a musical for a specific star anymore. What was it like tailoring Marie Christine for Audra McDonald?
MJL: It was a joy and a pleasure. Audra gives so much. It's a very difficult thing to create a new role. It's something actresses just don't do anymore. Generally, they're recreating roles. To take a new score on is quite a responsibility, and then to assume the lead in a show is quite an extraordinary feat, it's the equivalent of running the Olympics every night, as far as I'm concerned. It takes a person of great stamina, great talent and great fortitude to get through it all. So, writing for that effort also challenges myself to be the best I can be.

PBOL: Her stage persona seems rather sweet and wholesome. What made you think she was a Medea?
MJL: I think we have to feel empathy for the character of Medea. If we don't, why -- and it's Marie Christine that I'm writing here, as well, based on the story of Medea. We have to feel some empathy for her. Her crime is not to be condoned, but at the same time it should be understood. Audra elicits a great deal of empathy. Her personal persona, yes, she is wholesome up to a point, but I think that is part and parcel of the character, until, of course, this love affair gone wrong erupts her from within. PBOL: On her album, "Way Back to Paradise," she renders your work better than anyone I've heard. Would you agree?
MJL: For the album, yes. I think she did a splendid job singing the numbers. Although I was very fortunate in Hello, Again to have Carolee Carmello introduce "Tom," and Michele Pawk introduce "Mistress of the Senator" [both of which are included on McDonald's album]. Those songs were tailored for those two actresses. So those actresses, both so talented, were wonderful to write for, too.

PBOL: We haven't heard much about Wild Party?
MJL: You haven't hear a lot about Wild Party!? (Laughs)

PBOL: Well, maybe we have a bit.
MJL: I think we've heard a little too much.

PBOL: We haven't heard what it's like musically. How does it differ from Marie Christine?
MJL: Oh, it's a lot different. Marie Christine has a different palette to it, because, first of all, the characters are very different. My central character, Marie Christine, is essentially an anti-hero. What happens to her and how the plot develops and unfolds, is essentially the desconstruction of a woman's memory. The score reflects that to a certain degree; certain songs get deconstructed or reconstructed throughout the show to reflect a central series of themes that have been created for this character. Wild Party has a lot of in-one numbers, because it's set in a Vaudevillian milieu. Marie Christine is set in the turn of the century in Chicago. Wild Party is set in New York in the '20s at the peak of jazz uptown -- the Cotton Club, Duke Ellington. And the characters are so different. Everybody is doing a number. In Marie Christine, everything bleeds into the next thing, a bridge becomes a verse and a verse becomes a bridge. Wild Party has a lot more buttons to it, because the characters demand applause. They're all show-business people.

PBOL: Is the score finished?
MJL: I don't think anything is finished until you open, so I'll say no, absolutely not.

PBOL: Are you going to tailor any of it to the rather well-defined skills of Mandy Patinkin and Eartha Kitt?
MJL: How could I not? When you're working, again, with a talent as great as Audra, and as flexible and gifted, you have no choice but to go to these gifts and go, Oh, I can do this here and extend myself. With people like Mandy and Eartha, there is such a reservoir of talent and brilliance. That's true for the whole cast. Wild Party is very much an ensemble piece. There's Jane Summerhays, Michael McElroy, Adam Grupper, Sally Murphy. And, of course, Toni Collette.

PBOL: Who's your favorite person working in the theatre today?
MJL: I admire Stephen Sondheim. His craft and brilliance are inspiring to me. His trek through musical theatre is so remarkable. I love Jerry Herman and Kander & Ebb. These are the greats. I also like Andrew Lloyd Webber. He was a great influence on me as a kid. Graciela Daniele, I could write a book on her. She is the best director-choreography we have. I loved working with George Wolfe.

PBOL: What's happening with The Highest Yellow, the musical about Vincent Van Gogh's doctor which was announced for the Signature Theatre in Virginia for 2000?
MJL: We're all so busy right now. [Signature Theatre Company artistic director] Eric Schaeffer's got Putting It Together right now. He's been quite busy. Myself, it took all of me to get these two shows going. It's a little bit on hold right now. It's a real true love project. It demands love and attention and focus. We do hope to do it.

PBOL: Is it a drag having the most mispronounced name in the American theatre?
MJL: (Laughs) You know, I always know if it's a friend on the phone.

--By Robert Simonson