Why Michael John LaChiusa is "Obsessed" With Exploring Unheard Stories of Women — Especially in the White House

News   Why Michael John LaChiusa is "Obsessed" With Exploring Unheard Stories of Women — Especially in the White House
 
This fall marks a homecoming of sorts for Tony-nominated composer and lyricist Michael John LaChiusa. More than 20 years after one of his first musicals, First Lady Suite, began at the Public Theater, his newest musical, First Daughter Suite, is set to open in October at the same space.

Much like the earlier musical, this four-part "historical fantasia" examines the women in the lives of presidents Nixon (wife Patricia and daughters Tricia and Julie), Carter (wife Rosalynn and daughter Amy), Ford (wife Betty and daughter Susan), Reagan (wife Nancy and daughter Patti) and Bush (both Barbara and Laura and their multi-generational connection to two presidents).

Michael John LaChuisa
Michael John LaChuisa Photo by Jenny Anderson

From Ladies to Daughters
What made LaChiusa want to revisit presidential women after 20 years? "I study the First Ladies," LaChiusa explained. "Really, I do — not as a hobby; more like a vocation." His study has taught him "a great deal" about American history and the presidency, he added. That, however, is not what made him want to bring their stories to the stage. "I'm admittedly obsessed with the drama and personal lives of these women."

About three years ago, he found an old New York Times article about Tricia Nixon's White House wedding. On the same page was a story about the Pentagon Papers — which would pave the way for Watergate and the toppling of the Nixon Administration. "I couldn't help but start imagining what that day in the White House must have been like: a nervous bride; weather that threatened to cancel the Rose Garden ceremony; an absurd, towering wedding cake that looked like it was about to fall over; the smiling faces of Pat and Richard Nixon; all the guests... while a scandal was brewing," he recalled.

Carly Tamer, Rachel Bay Jones and Caissie Levy rehearse <i>First Daughter Suite</i>
Carly Tamer, Rachel Bay Jones and Caissie Levy rehearse First Daughter Suite Photo by Jenny Anderson

Ultimately, he admits, the real motivation was a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. "The potential for an actual production is always a fine motivating factor to get a writer to write." While he didn't want to fully imitate First Lady Suite, LaChiusa felt that the new piece could be an extension of the earlier piece. It would not, however, be a sequel. "First Lady Suite is and isn't about the First Ladies," he emphasized. "I mean, it's not a biographical play or historical pageant with every fact in place. It's a fantasia, a riff on the facts and history. And each short story, whether it's about Jacqueline Kennedy or Eleanor Roosevelt, takes on its primary subject by looking at her from an outsider's point of view: Jackie's personal secretary, Mary Gallagher, or Eleanor's companion, Lorena Hickok — for instance, it's Marian Anderson, the iconic opera singer, who teaches Mamie Eisenhower how to deal with and move on with her life. It's a commentary on what it's like to be close to greatness and how a woman deals with it, even if she deserves it herself and is denied it — how any woman (especially a woman of the era that that musical tries to evoke) deals with being considered less than the greatness of the man she's devoted to and for whom she's sacrificed her life."

First Daughter Suite, on the other hand, focuses on the daughters who, LaChiusa says, "are sacrificed by those in power — and in this case, not always by men but by other women, even their own mothers." Rhetorically, he wondered if there was any human relationship more complicated or complex than that of a mother and daughter? "I don't think so," he answered himself. "All parental/child relationships have their complexities and complications, but the mother/daughter dynamic strikes me as the most compelling. Ask any woman about her relationship with her mother or step-mother or mother-in-law. You'll be stepping into a minefield of horror stories or a warm blanket of happiest memories, or (usually) someplace in between."

Alison Fraser and Caissie Levy in rehearsal
Alison Fraser and Caissie Levy in rehearsal Photo by Jenny Anderson

Women's Stories
Up until recently, LaChiusa noted, the mother-daughter relationship went largely unexplored across the disciplines of psychology, science, art and drama. "I mean, fewer archetypical stories exist in comparison to the father/son, mother/son even father/daughter relationship: Demeter and Persephone. Ruth and Naomi. Cinderella and her Evil Stepmother. Mama Rose and Gypsy. Those are the few I can immediately think of. I couldn't help but be interested by why that scarcity exists," he explained.

In exploring the bonds between mothers and daughters, LaChiusa is continuing his trend of bringing women's stories to the stage — a trend that goes back to First Lady Suite and has continued through musicals like Marie Christine, Little Fish, Bernarda Alba and Queen of the Mist. "What attracts me to many of the characters I've put into my musicals is the struggle for self-awareness and self-control that all of them go through, whether it's a Creole woman in 1900 New Orleans, or a showgirl in the 1920s, or a young writer who quits smoking in post 9/11 New York," he said. "That challenge to achieve and own one's identity is and always has been harder for women in our male-dominated global culture. It's not just men who make it harder for women, by the way," he added. "Women themselves can be their own worst enemies when it comes to achieving equity with their male counterparts. That fascinates me, too." A self-described feminist, LaChiusa said that he "actively" supports the rights for women "to choose and to share the same privileges and benefits their male counterparts achieve."

And while the United States has never yet had a female President, LaChiusa sees the indelible effect women have had on American politics. "No President, alive or dead, could ever become the President he is or was without the women in his life," he said. "You may not hear about or know anything about these women — and if so, you've probably only heard a great deal of generalizations or rumors designed to politically denigrate the POTUS — but believe me, those women were very much a part of that man's success — and sometimes his failure — in getting into and running the Oval Office."

The cast of <i>First Daughter Suite</i>
The cast of First Daughter Suite Photo by Jenny Anderson

Returning to the Public
First Lady Suite was was produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Public Theater in 1993, and several of LaChiusa's other musicals have also had their New York debuts at (or produced by) the nonprofit venue. His relationship with the theatre goes back to when he played piano for auditions when Joe Papp was in charge — "brilliant, wonderful Joe Papp and Bernie Gersten," he recalls. "After Joe, there was the Joanne Akalaitis — a remarkable woman whose tenure there was far too short — and of course, then came my dear George, George C. Wolfe, who produced my early musicals and co-wrote The Wild Party with me. Now, I'm so lucky to count Oskar Eustis as a friend and great mentor who generously and graciously allows me to call The Public my home. And it's really that, a home, a good home. Nurturing, safe, like a family — challenging sometimes, like all families can be — but a home. It's a gift that I don't take for granted."

Working with a nonprofit theatre, of course, presents a set of challenges that are distinct from those affecting commercial runs uptown, he acknowledged. "Financing a new show, especially a new music, is difficult, for instance — but that's always been true, at least for as long as I've been in the business," he said.

But challenges can always be overcome: "You have to be tough, always optimistic, and confront the obstacles and be inventive. I always tell my students: Keep writing. Don't be discouraged by the vicissitudes of the business. That's all they are, vicissitudes. At the end of the day, it's what you've written, how well you've written it, that matters most — not whether you land on Broadway or in a basement in Brooklyn. It doesn't matter where your show plays, how big the stage is, or how small, but that your show was played and you were heard. To borrow the title from one of my favorite critic's books, as long as you have 'something to declare,' your work matters."

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