ON THE RECORD: Michael John LaChiusa's Giant

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26 May 2013

Cover art
Cover art

This week's column examines the original cast recording of Michael John LaChiusa's Giant.


Giant [Ghostlight]
I don't suppose that Michael John LaChiusa, the eclectic composer/lyricist of serveral musicals, each in very different styles, sat down at his timeworn work table and determined to write a musical that belongs on the shelf with Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella. Or maybe he did. Giant is the result, and it is bountiful, overflowing with melody (and heart), and altogether grand.

Giant is giant, at least in scope. The musical is based on Edna Ferber's 1952 novel of the same title, which served as source material for the iconic 1956 motion picture starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. (The film has an outsized reputation, thanks in part to the death of the latter in a car crash prior to the release. Dean received a posthumous Best Actor Oscar nomination.)

Flash forward fifty years or so. Julie Gilbert, grand-niece of Ferber—a famous spinster, who died in 1968—approaches LaChiusa with the notion of tackling Giant. This is a big undertaking, as Ferber wrote large-scale novels; an earlier one became the basis for Show Boat in 1927. (Another one of her novels fared far less well on Broadway, in 1959, as Saratoga.)

LaChiusa and his librettist Sybille Pearson (of Baby) took their time with the notion—how to do it?—but eventually got down to work. Giant premiered in 2009, in a four-hour version, at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA. A second production, with a different cast and a new director (Michael Greif), was jointly produced by the Dallas Theater Center and New York's Public Theater. The end product finally reached the House That Papp Built on November 15, 2012.

The New York Giant, whittled down to three hours, was a major accomplishment. Not quite ready for the hoped-for transfer uptown—it was still a little unwieldy and in need of focus—it was nevertheless one of the gems of the season. Hopes of a Broadway stand seem to have now faded. Not everyone who saw Giant loved it; the show was a little too intricate and a little too concentration-intensive for some. For much of the audience, though, it will remain a musical milestone.


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