Michael John LaChiusa Takes a Giant Step, Musicalizing an Iconic Tale

By Harry Haun
26 Oct 2012

Michael John LaChiusa
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"No," said LaChiusa on first read. "It's too big."

Too-big is not a Texas option, so when she came back two years later, it was yes. Ferber tended to spin the same tall tale in other states, as well. "Cimarron" (Oklahoma) and "Ice Palace" (Alaska) also have strong romantic triangles twirling about against the epic rumblings of a young state emerging.

"Giant" enjoys the natural Texas themes of oil-vs-cattle and Tex-Mex racial conflicts while trying to keep the marriage of cattle baron "Bick" Benedict and his bride Leslie together — despite running interferences from Jett Rink, a ranch hand who strikes oil the second he stakes his claim on Bick's land.

"The musical adaptation follows the novel closer than it follows the film," Greif stresses while still allowing that "it pushes the triangular relationship a bit and exploits the possibility of Jett Rink as a romantic alternative for Leslie."

Oil-rich and a diehard, Rink circles back around a generation later and riles the roost at the Benedicts' Reata Ranch by making a pass at a Benedict daughter.

In the musical version at The Public Theater, Brian d'Arcy James, Kate Baldwin and P.J. Griffith are the trio we follow through three decades. Cluttering their way are Michele Pawk, John Dossett, Bobby Steggert, Miguel Cervantes, MacKenzie Mauzy, Natalie Cortez and Katie Thompson.

"Michael John and Sybille not only made a musical about this marriage, they made a musical about ownership of this land," says Greif. "Is this a cattle ranch or an oil field? Underneath that is a larger issue: Is this American land or Mexican land? Who deserves to be on it? Who gets to say they own this land?

"In a lot of ways, like the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, Michael John and Sybille's musical is not only about very intense personal relationships, expressed beautifully in song, but also about how people live in communities, and have great heroic, history-changing effects on those communities, this musical is much like that."

(This feature appears in the November 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)