PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Michael John LaChiusa

PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Michael John LaChiusa Since Michael John LaChiusa had two musicals—The Wild Party and Marie Christine—play Broadway in a single season, he has steadily gained a national following as a musical theatre composer through Off-Broadway premieres and regional revivals of musicals like Little Fish, The Highest Yellow, First Lady Suite and Hello Again. His latest musical See What I Wanna See opened at the Public Theater this fall. This coming spring, Lincoln Center Theater will present his musicalization of Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba. He also has a one-woman opera in the works for Audra McDonald at the Houston Grand Opera. Playbill.com talked to the composer about his current busy season.
Michael John LaChiusa
Michael John LaChiusa Photo by Aubrey Reuben

PLAYBILL.COM: When did you begin writing See What I Wanna See?
Michael John LaChiusa: I had written a version of the first act in 1997, and I had an idea that I wanted to pair it up with another piece, a second act. I put it away because I had several other projects. In 2000, Ted Sperling, who is a friend of mine, asked me if he could look at the project as something to direct, so I took it out of the drawer. I found the short story "The Dragon" and we came up with the show.

PLAYBILL.COM: Where did the idea of telling two separate stories in each act come from?
MJL: I had always liked the short stories of Akutagawa. "In a Grove" was most famously adapted by Kurosawa for the movie Rashomon. I read more of Akutagawa when I was in Japan a few years ago and found a few more of his short stories and thought it would make an interesting evening. Rashomon is famous because of a crime that happens and the witnesses each have a different version of the truth. I thought it would make an interesting musical. The second act is based on a story called "The Dragon," and I call it "Gloryday." A priest who loses his faith decides to play a practical joke on people and it backfires on him.

PLAYBILL.COM: Where did the inspiration for the prologues come from, when Marc Kudisch and Idina Menzel are wearing the kimonos?
MJL: That's based on a short story called "Kesa and Morito" that shows the two sides of a love affair that is doomed. We chose to set those stories in a medieval Japan, to give a nod at the source material from which all the stories are derived.

PLAYBILL.COM: What does the title See What I Wanna See mean?
MJL: That comes from the title song. It's a little pastiche song the wife sings in the club that she's performing in. It expresses one of the themes of the evening: We see what we want to see. All the stories deal with the concept of what truth is. R Shomon says that there is no absolute truth. The second story is about when one knows the truth, what does one do with it?

PLAYBILL.COM: How would you describe your music in the show? Eclectic?
MJL: That's one way I'd definitely describe it. It's eclectic. It has a touch of film noir jazz as well as contemporary sound. There's an homage to our cultural source, Japan, in terms of musical scales, harmonies and instruments. PLAYBILL.COM: Do you feel as if the musical is finished? Or might you continue revising it in the future?
MJL: The funny thing about musicals is that they're never finished in a lot of respects. You always want to play around with them. This production come as close to our vision as possible. We had a wonderful out-of-town production at Williamstown Theatre Festival that was very beautiful. We learned a lot.

PLAYBILL.COM: You've worked with Marc Kudisch and Mary Testa many times before.
MJL: What I love most about performers such as Marc Kudisch or Mary Testa is that they're daring. They go to certain places that are very dangerous for actors to go to. They have the vocal chops as well as the acting chops to deliver the goods. When Marc did The Highest Yellow I gave him this huge aria with high C's that he had to sing while naked in a bathtub. The man didn't blink.

PLAYBILL.COM: Will The Highest Yellow receive a New York production?
MJL: I'm not looking at it right now for a New York premiere.

PLAYBILL.COM: How is pre-production going on The House of Bernarda Alba?
MJL: We open the production, directed by Graciela Daniele, at Lincoln Center in March. I'm also doing opera.

PLAYBILL.COM: What opera?
MJL: A new one-act I've written for Audra [McDonald]; a sort-of prequel to the Cocteau-Poulenc one-act, La Voix Humaine. It's been wonderful working with her. Like Kudisch or Testa, not only does she have the vocal chops, but brilliant acting to go along with it. You can go to places with her you can't normally.

PLAYBILL.COM: What was your inspiration to musicalize Bernarda Alba?
MJL: I had Bernarda Alba sitting on my shelf for many years. I felt the time was right for me to look at this play. Someone like Bernarda Alba, a very forceful woman, has a choice to open her house, to let people be human. Instead, she puts the clamps down on them and terrible things happen. It's a very appropriate piece for today, with arch conservatism destroying our culture, and a government that has fascist tendencies.

PLAYBILL.COM: Do you have any other possible ideas at the moment for your next musical?
MJL: Oh yeah. Plenty of them. Got my bookshelf full of them. I love challenging works. The minute someone says that something will never be a musical, I'm there, doing it. I do like dark and dangerous territory. I love funny territory too. I've been looking at French Restoration plays lately. As long as the source material is strong. And it has to sing to me—I have to hear it singing to me.

PLAYBILL.COM: Do you think that your next musical will be produced on Broadway, Off-Broadway, or maybe even Off-Off-Broadway?
MJL: You know, several of the Off-Off-Broadway groups have been producing some wonderful work. I'm a fan of the Off-Off-Broadway movement, particularly of the Transit Group. It was really great to see a revival of First Lady Suite. The Public Theater, Lincoln Center Theater, Second Stage all are wonderful places to work and experiment. And there are a lot of great commercial producers. I love [producer] Jordan Roth. He's young, fresh, and has an eye towards the little bit less traditional, which is very exciting. Also, [producers] David Binder and Arielle Tepper. Daryl Roth too, and Roger Berlind—these are wonderful people who dedicate their lives to producing daring work.

PLAYBILL.COM: What, in your opinion, makes a great musical?
MJL: It's one that subverts my expectations. Daring could be Oklahoma!, where they didn't bring in the line of dancing girls in the first scene. By surprise, you engage an audience. These days, daring theatre is work that brings in a young audience. That to me is a very important thing it has to do: try to encourage young people to come.

PLAYBILL.COM: You gained a lot of criticism this summer for your Opera News editorial, "The Great Gray Way," especially for your less-than enthusiastic views of shows like The Producers and Hairspray.
MJL: Not my title, by the way. I was asked to write an article for Opera News. It was an essay about the state of the "art." It was nothing new for me to write about. I've written not only in Opera News, but in The New York Times and American Theatre, as a critic and as a writer. It's pretty much what I think all critics ought to do. Be doers.

PLAYBILL.COM: But is that a conflict of interest, for a practicing playwright to also act as a critic?
MJL: I don't think so. It makes for a very good critical analysis. To be a good critic, you must be a good writer. Hopefully you have a good editor to help you out. I don't think it's a conflict of interest. It shouldn't be. That it is seen as a conflict of interest is one of the great misfortunes that the current compartmentalizing of the arts has brought about.

PLAYBILL.COM: Marc Shaiman wrote a detailed critique of the essay on Talkinbroadway.com. Did you respond to his remarks, or to the articles in Variety and The New York Times about the brouhaha?
MJL: To be honest, I was in Los Angeles at the time. I was so busy in rehearsals that I couldn't respond. When in rehearsal, I've really got to focus. I was very glad that the essay provoked debate; people wondered and asked questions. To me, that was a sign that the essay did what it should do, whether one agreed or not. Ultimately, the work speaks louder than any essay will. It's always the work, the work, the work.

PLAYBILL.COM: Your work is very often compared to that of Stephen Sondheim. How do you feel about that?
MJL: Sometimes people throw that at my work and also at my contemporaries as an insult. But there can be nothing insulting about being compared to the greatest living writer we have in the musical theatre. Maybe people confuse imitation with emulation. There's a tradition in musical theatre where craft is passed along from writer to writer to writer. Sondheim is two generations removed from me. in between, there are a lot of wonderful writers like Maury Yeston and Bill Finn and Polly Penn who I've been inspired by, who I feel connected to. It's a passing on of tradition and craft. It says to me that I'm doing the right thing, doing well, carrying on the idea of good craftsmanship. I'm never offended.

PLAYBILL.COM: What was your favorite musical growing up?
MJL: My mother was a big musical theatre buff. And I loved opera. The musicals I loved most, it's a toss up between South Pacific and The King and I, She Loves Me, and Sweeney Todd. I don't have a favorite. It's the whole catalogue.