ON THE RECORD: LaChiusa’s See What I Wanna See and Debbie Gravitte’s "Defying Gravity"

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: LaChiusa’s See What I Wanna See and Debbie Gravitte’s "Defying Gravity"
This week’s column discusses Michael John LaChiusa’s See What I Wanna See and Debbie Gravitte’s solo album, "Debbie Gravitte: Defying Gravity."

SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE [Ghostlight 7915584408]
How do you solve a problem like LaChiusa?

Michael John LaChiusa, composer-lyricist-librettist of the current Bernarda Alba as well as Marie Christine, The Petrified Prince, First Lady Suite, Hello Again, Little Fish and the Broadway Wild Party, seems to have become a regular punching bag for some musical theatre fans. He has abetted this, in some ways; LaChiusa tends to not only write what he wantsta write, but say what he wantsta say. Loudly and intelligently, annoyingly and provocatively.

But the public LaChiusa is, or ought to be, beside the point. His musicals, for which he usually writes every last word and note, are admittedly “difficult.” Difficult to get into; difficult to absorb during the 90 minutes or so they take to flash by; and difficult to appreciate while you watch them in the theatre. But at the same time they are fascinating.

See What I Wanna See, in the theatre, was for me similar to my experiences at other LaChiusa musicals. I sat there in a mixture of admiration and puzzlement. Sections were clearly and immediately remarkable, with music and lyrics almost painfully revealing the inner core of the characters. Other parts, though, I simply didn’t get, and not for want of trying.

The inability of an audience member to appreciate a musical is not, in itself, a reflection of quality; you need look no further than Candide for evidence. Of course, it is the ticket buyer’s prerogative to stand up and loudly proclaim, “This is lousy.” Few authors or producers mind when the same loud ticket buyer praises the show, even if they go embarrassingly overboard in their enthusiasm. If the majority of ticket buyers (and critics) don’t “get” a show, then it is doomed to the inevitable. But that, dear friends, don’t mean the music ain’t good. My first (and only) viewing of See What I Wanna See, as stated, left me puzzled but interested. My first hearing of the CD, from Ghostlight, reminded me how much I liked the sections that I liked. It was the second hearing, though, that got me. LaChiusa is, and has always been, a remarkable writer. He has the ability to write anything, which is to say that the lyricist in him is more than able to keep up with the composer; if one goes off on a tangent, the other follows and the results, for the listener, can be illuminating.

Anyone who is convinced that LaChiusa is not for them might understandably steer clear of the CD of See What I Wanna See. There is no reason to force yourself to take your medicine, and pay for the privilege. Even so, I say that LaChiusa is not to be ignored, despite his sometimes antagonistic public stance. (Which, you will admit, at least keeps people talking about him.) If you enjoy Hello Again as much as I do, I’d suggest you definitely give See What I Wanna See a try. The performances are outstanding, with an expert cast (Marc Kudisch, Idina Menzel, Mary Testa, Henry Stram and Aaron Lohr) under the direction of Ted Sperling. So is the musical production, from orchestrator Bruce Coughlin, conductor Chris Fenwick and the band. But the score is the thing.

I readily admit that I have yet to emerge from a first viewing of a Michael John LaChiusa musical with enthusiasm unbound. Yet, I am firmly convinced he is a musical theatre creator of great talent. I shall continue to hope that his work becomes more accessible. That is not his problem, at least for as long as he continues to get productions of his work. But sometime soon I would like to emerge from a LaChiusa evening without any reservations, unless they be for future seats.

Twenty-five years or so ago, I was working on a vanity production of a musical that staggered through five performances at the National in Washington. (The marquee at the Palace, at least, reigned over Broadway for a few months). This leaden affair starred one of the most non-charming TV stars ever to find himself starring in a Broadway musical.

There was plenty of talent on the stage, though. Playing his young wife was the unknown Lenora Nemetz, who had recently attracted attention going on for both Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera in Chicago. D’Jamin Bartlett, of “The Miller’s Son,” played his daughter, while his misunderstood and estranged son was the up-and-coming David James Carroll.

Hidden in the chorus was one of those performers you need merely glance at to exclaim, this one won’t be in the chorus for long. Debbie Shapiro had a couple of specialties, which is to say solo bits within the body of larger numbers. This was a voice that virtually trumpeted its way up to the second balcony. Within months she had a chorus job in the three-girl chorus of They’re Playing Our Song, understudying the lead as well, and she was on her way.

Almost 30 years have passed, amazingly enough. Ms. Shapiro is now Debbie Gravitte, and her career seems to reflect the dismaying journey of the Broadway musical in the 1980's and 1990's. Gravitte has eight Broadway appearances to her credit. (Nine if you wish to include the misguided Spotlight.) These include her debut as a chorus girl/standby; three revues in which she was featured, the second of which — Jerome Robbins’ Broadway — won her a Tony Award; one revival in which she was featured; and replacement stints in two of the longer running musicals of our time, Les Misérables and the revival of Chicago. The number of new musical opportunities Gravitte has had? One, a starring role in the misbegotten and aptly titled Ain’t Broadway Grand?

"Defying Gravity" presents 15 numbers, most of which Gravitte has performed along the way (and half of which feature the original Broadway orchestrations). And no, Ain’t Broadway Grand? is not anywhere in evidence. Most intriguing, perhaps, is “Junk Man” (Joseph Meyer-Frank Loesser), with which Ms. Gravitte (then Shapiro) raised the roof of the old Helen Hayes Theatre for a mere 16 performances in the 1980 Loesser revue, Perfectly Frank.

Ten minutes of listening to "Debbie Gravitte: Defying Gravity" will demonstrate that Gravitte is a musical comedy performer of talent, charm and character; but the fairly conscientious theatregoer might understandably have overlooked Gravitte in seven-out-of-eight shows. An impressive and entertaining CD, yet a discouraging snapshot of a career. But that was Broadway in the late twentieth century, before the recent turnaround. —Steven Suskin, author of the newly released “Second Act Trouble” [Applause Books], “A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork,” “Show Tunes,” and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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