The Tony-nominated composer-lyricist, whose Broadway works include Marie Christine, The Wild Party and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, as well as the Off-Broadway musicals Giant, Queen of the Mist, Hello Again, See What I Wanna See and Little Fish, now turns his eye to the young women who spent their formative years in the White House, including Trisha and Julie Nixon, Amy Carter, Patti Davis and more.
Playbill.com spoke with LaChiusa just following his developmental lab of First Daughter Suite at the Sundance Institute's December Theatre Lab at Mass MoCA. LaChiusa was among several writers participating in the lab, overseen by Sundance artistic director Philip Himberg and producing director Christopher Hibma – that is dedicated to nurturing musical theatre and ensemble-generated projects.
First Lady Suite is structured so that it drifts in and out of the various narratives in a non-linear fashion. Does First Daughter Suite take a similar path?
Michael John LaChiusa: It's actually structured very similarly to First Lady Suite; a series of four stories – fantasias on the First Ladies. I decided that I wanted to write something that dealt with mothers and daughters, and as far as topics are concerned, nothing could be more fascinating than the topic of the relationships between First Ladies and First Daughters. For example, I looked at Pat Nixon and her daughters Trisha and Julie, and I chose Trisha's wedding as the event because of the political stuff that was happening around them and to them at the time. I also wanted to do something about Amy Carter and her mother, Rosalynn, and Betty Ford and her daughter, Susan. Another piece is about Nancy Reagan and her daughter, Patti Davis, and Nancy's gun-slinging Paraguayan maid, Anita. The last piece is about Barbara Bush and her daughter-in-law, Laura, and Barbara's deceased daughter, Robin.
You had a stellar cast of actresses with whom you've worked before, as well as some newcomers.
MJL: It was just wonderful talent and just wonderful to be able to be in a room with them. We cast Barbara Walsh as Pat Nixon, Caissie Levy as Trisha Nixon, Luba Mason as Pam Nixon (Richard Nixon's mother) and Jessica Grové as Julie Nixon Eisenhower. Then in the second piece, a wonderful young actress named Carly Tamer played Amy Carter, and Kathryn Boswell played Susan Ford. The hysterical Beth Leavel played Betty Ford and Carolee Carmello, who I worked with years ago on Hello Again, played Rosalynn Carter for me. For the piece called Patti by the Pool, Kathleen Chalfant played Nancy Reagan, Leslie Kritzer played Patti Davis, and Isabel Santiago, who was just in Giant, played Anita the Paraguayan, the gun-smuggling maid. Then for the Barbara Bush piece, Mary Testa played Barbara Bush, Theresa McCarthy played her daughter, Robin, and Elizabeth Stanley played Laura Bush.
MJL: Yes, that was almost 20 years ago. I mentioned to her that I was considering going back to the subject of First Ladies. As I was writing the piece, we were in constant talks about it and sharing ideas. She's been helpful in that regard. She knows just about as much about the First Ladies and First Daughters as I do because we're both big First-Lady-ologists, for lack of a better term. We are all about the history.
Many writers speak of how invaluable it is to be able to step away from life in New York and devote themselves to crafting a new work. What has your experience been like with Sundance and Mass MoCA?
MJL: Well, Sundance in general, the theatre program run by Philip Himberg, is a unique and extremely valuable tool for a person who is in the process of developing a work. I was very fortunate to initially write First Daughter Suite at Sundance at UCross, so it was wonderful to be given the opportunity to go to Sundance at Mass MoCA. It's just a remarkable place, far away from New York, but at the same time surrounded by an artistic community that you can feed into and feed off of. That environment just generates a lot of ideas, a lot of good reworking and rewriting, as well as intelligent responses to the work. I had a terrific dramaturg to work with while there, Mame Hunt, and the whole community aspect up there is just wonderful. There's just a great generosity of spirit. You get a lot of work done because that's all that you are up there to do. It's not meant for end result. You have to present a show at the end of it, but it's a wonderful way to take that next step. It's a unique and extremely valuable tool.
What is your relationship with Sundance like? Do you find it helpful as a writer to have artistic support from a community that is familiar with your work?
MJL: You never know exactly what's going to happen when you get there. Musicals are crazy beasts. Especially when you work with a piece that has roles open for 14 women, the means to accomplishing that are much like organizing D-Day, in some respects. They are really well prepared for anything that will happen when putting on a show. It's a safe environment, but no artist wants to be in a safe environment all the time. It's not about all comfort, it's about being in an environment that challenges you to be the best that you could possibly be. That's what makes it so valuable of an experience.
This is a commission by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Have you determined when audiences will have the chance to see First Daughter Suite?
MJL: Not at this time. I want to do one more workshop of the piece. I'm not sure if I'm going to wait until the election year, so that it would have more bite.