ON THE RECORD: Michael John LaChiusa's Giant

By Steven Suskin
May 26, 2013

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

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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.

Brian d'Arcy James
Photo by Joan Marcus
Ghostlight now brings us the CD, and it is a must for anyone interested in emotional, intelligent, musical theatre. Giant encompasses a quarter century, from 1925 to 1952; a time of enormous change in Texas. (There was a lot going on elsewhere, but little intrudes with the exception of the WWII; Texas, in this musical, is a world in itself.) LaChiusa offers a palette of expansive Texas songs, Mexican songs, jazz, swing, musical comedy, searing character songs and more—and he succeeds on every count.

I have admired LaChiusa's work since he first appeared in the winter of 1993 with First Lady Suite and Hello Again. Giant marks his first score that I can fully embrace, and enthusiastically so. I've always applauded him for seeming to write what he believed he must write, with no compromise; he almost seemed oblivious to the question of popular or audience acceptance. With Giant he appears to have absorbed all those lessons he has learned along the way. There is no artistic compromise, here; this is clearly a LaChiusa score. But it is a majestic score. It turns out that he has apparently always had this in him, he just never before was moved to write it.

Giant is the story of Texan rancher Bick Benedict (Brian D'Arcy James), who returns home with his new wife Leslie (Kate Baldwin), an outsider from Virginia. Jett (P.J. Griffith), a poor ranch hand, takes a shine to Leslie and eventually becomes an oil tycoon. Bick runs the family ranch with his much older-sister Luz (Michelle Pawk), who soon dies but nevertheless remains a visible presence. The older generation is also represented by Uncle Bawley Benedict (John Dossett), who it turns out studied piano in Paris and partied with Debussy before being forced back to Texas by the family.

Bick finds himself unable to change with the times, both in terms of business—as cattle are supplanted by oil—and family, as he becomes increasingly estranged from Leslie and his children, the delicate Jordy (Bobby Steggert) and the firebrand Lil Luz (Mackenzie Mauzy). Also of importance is Vashti (Katie Thompson), the daughter from the next ranch over who Bick passes over in favor of Leslie, and Juana (Natalie Cortez), a Mexican girl who ultimately marries young Jordy.

The above-mentioned actors all gave exceptional performances at the Public, which are carried over to the CD. When was the last time you saw a musical with nine strong performances—or with nine major characters, even? D'Arcy James (Next to Normal) and Baldwin (Finian's Rainbow) pretty much carried the musical, with Baldwin doing an exceptional job with her seven big songs. Griffith (American Idiot), in the James Dean role, was a new discovery; highly effective, although the authors didn't quite convince me with the character development in the second act.

Kate Baldwin and Katie Thompson
photo by Joan Marcus
Pawk (Cabaret) was outstanding as the harsh older sister, while Dossett (Newsies) gave the best performance I've seen from him as the sadly wise uncle. (Pawk and Dossett, incidentally, date back to LaChiusa's Hello Again, where they were paired in the memorable "Mistress of a Senator" scene. They married soon thereafter.) LaChiusa being LaChiusa, he didn't overlook the relatively minor younger characters who only start to appear at the end of the first act. Steggert, Mauzy, Cortez, and Thompson each have major moments that are highly effective on the CD.

There are about thirty songs in the show. (That is, after the reduction of about an hour; one assumes that much of the excised material was equally accomplished.) There are far too many to discuss, but after several plays of the CD I find myself jumping back to eighteen or so. Standing out among the standouts are two duets for Bick and Leslie, "Heartbreak Country"—which serves as something of a musical theme—and "The Desert" ("I Need You"); "Did Spring Come to Texas," Bick's opening number; Leslie's "Your Texas" and "A Stranger"; two numbers led by Bawley, "Look Back/Look Ahead" and "Place in the World"; three relatively lively numbers, "Topsy Turvy," "Jump," and "Un Béso, Béso!"; and Juana's numbers, "There Is a Child" and "Juana's Prayer." Most stunning of all are the two songs for the heretofore unknown Thompson, "He Wanted a Girl" ("Dusty Roads") and "Midnight Blues." It is not just that they are excellent, or that she sings them so well; it is the combination.

"Midnight Blues," which is a true beauty, is not the sort of thing we would expect from LaChiusa. But then, LaChiusa has always given us the unexpected. We should also make special mention of the orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin (The Wild Party). These are not just song orchestrations; they are a full musical tapestry and highly impressive.

The last word to be said is that Giant was commissioned by Ted and Mary Jo Shen, whose foundation contributed to the productions at the Signature, in Dallas and at the Public. They who appear to have paid for the CD as well. The Shens have been longtime supporters of important musical theatre writers, including LaChiusa, Guettel and Sondheim (plus productions by quite a few more). Unlike your typical theatre producers, the Shens seem interested not in commercial prospects but in giving artists room to develop and audiences access to work that they need to hear. We are accustomed to seeing various foundations credited in small type on the bottom of the page, so much so that we barely take note. The Shens, though, have made possible a substantial body of work, not only with their money but with their interest, dedication and taste. Something as monumental as Giant simply wouldn't, and couldn't, exist without them.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)