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A CurtainUp Berkshire Interview
Michael John LaChiusa
By Elyse Sommer
Last Thursday afternoon I saw the second open to the public performance of the new musical R shomon at the WTF's Nikos Stage and then had an hour long chat with its composer-lyricist-librettist Michael John LaChiusa. I had my fingers crossed on the ride up to Williamstown that I would like the show so that our meeting wouldn't start with my being polite rather than enthusiastic. Of course, being a long-time LaChiusa watcher and by now a fan of the dramatic flair and scores he brings to musical theater, I wasn't too concerned. Indeed I was right in feeling pretty sure that R shomon would be very much my cup of musical tea. The music, the performances, the inventiveness of this adaptation of the Ryonusuke Akutagawa Rashomon stories made for a memorable and moving afternoon -- and that without fine tuning.
The end of the performance found LaChiusa surrounded by colleagues -- fellow composer-lyricist William Finn and the performers from another buzz-creating Berkshire world premiere musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee , one of whom, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, appeared in another short story inspired LaChiusa show, Little Fish. When the crowd dispersed (well -- as big a crowd as a 96-seat theater can generate), we headed for a picnic table on the grounds where Michael John parked his crutches -- courtesy of a polka dancing accident -- and I turned on my tape recorder.
Links to LaChiusa shows we've reviewed (these don't include shows seen prior to CurtainUp's existence, like Chronicles of a Death Foretold, Hello Again and the original production of First Lady Suite.):
The Wild Party
First Lady Suite
Requiem for William (a rare example of a show in which the composer's involvement was one song
CU: It all went very well this afternoon, so are you satisfied enough to consider Rashomon frozen, at least for its run here?
No, no, no. Last night was only our very first performance and this afternoon still wasn't well . . . (Note: he points to a pad filled with notes taken to pass on to his director and cast) that's what's so wonderful about the development process in a place like this.
CU: Do you think this show would work as well or better in a larger space?
No, I like an intimate space and this is a small show. This particular venue makes it difficult to catch all the lyrics as the sound is different wherever you sit with strange little pockets that swallow up lyrics in some parts of the theater. I do think it would fit in a small Broadway house.
CU: This strikes me as one of your accessible musicals. Are there plans for it to go to Broadway -- or Off-Broadway?
Well, we have to see if there's a larger audience for it. It's a global story. People are familiar with the original story's structure of the different versions of one story, but it's hard to make short stories into theater. The Kurasawa film Rashomon is a classic). I love working in a larger form as well but the short story form is really challenging.
CU: In this case how long did it take you to fulfill that challenge?
I worked on this version for about a year and yes, that's relativelyly fast. I like to work fast. Why waste time. . . just write it, get it out, that's my motto.
I did write the first story (note: "In the Grove" -- the familiar story of the murder and rape and the different accounts of how it happened) about ten years ago but it was very different and I put it away to do other things. But I always had the second story pigeon marked and that was the one that spoke to me especially after 9/11. Whenever major tragedy happens people want some sort of a miracle whatever they believe or don't believe. (note: That second miracle seeking story, "The Dragon", is tagged "Gloryday" in R shomon. Both the murder and interrogation and the Glory-seeking day take place in the same area of Central Park's Clearing.)
CU: What about the third story "Kesa and Morito?"
I was a little worried about this. But there's Kesa at the beginning and then there's Morito opening the second part and suddenly people can get it.
CU: Especially people who come up here who are pretty bright and adventurous.
Exactly. They come just to be in the theater and expecting something new and different. Well, that's what's not being developed -- the sense of privilege at hearing something new and when you're slashing arts programmng as in New York State how are you going to develop a public that has that sense of community of being in a public space with a group of other people with whom you can cry as well as laugh. Because that's missing in New York, the educated audience that goes to the theater may be harder to find.
CU: Which raises the question of what keeps someone who writes progressive musicals as you do going even though mass audiences seem to prefer more familiar, less challenging work?
Audiences may be harder to find than for less progressive, more traditional shows and the money thing makes it tough. What interested me about the downtown revival of First Lady Suite was that they charged $15 and for the first time I saw a New York audience there -- old, young, black, white, Asian uptown and downtown (Note: It was a small show but with a big power cast that included R shomon's Mary Testa and people were crowding into extra chairs set up in the aisle).
When Little Fish played at Second Stage, a non-profit, it was $65 I cannot afford to spend $65 to go to the theater. That's too much money for me and I think what's happening in New York is that the tourist trade has dried up and a lot of non profits as well as Broadway are discovering that even the educated New Yorkers I write for have been priced out of the theater. That's a very frustrating thing because a lot of wonderful new writers are coming up and it's sad to think that we won't be able to hear from them.
When I was growing up in 80s there were other places you could go -- but now the Great White Way is no longer there-- there is no there. The other places are Boston, Chicago, LA, even Lincoln, Nebraska. That's where you have companies nurturing audiences to come prepared to see something which might be a little more edgy, dark, operatic -- companies like the Signature Theater in Virginia which is producing my next show The Highest Yellow next November.
As I tell my students (Note: He's an adjunct professor at NYU) "yes it's important for you to show your work New York City and if you want to have that Broadway show go ahead and do it because it is fame and if you want to have that fame go for it . . . but you won't necessarily make the money and you won't necessarily be able to write another show. Maybe you'll have an Avenue Q hit but we don't know, and we don't know what will happen in Las Vegas. (Note: Instead of going on the road as is typical for hit shows Avenue Q has opted to by-pass theaters usually hosting touring shows).
CU: So you see the high cost of tickets as the main problem hindering the success of innovative musicals?
There was movement in the 20s when colleges produced an enormous amount of well educated, sophisticated adults for whom you had to supply music. I don't think we're turning out particularly sophisticated young adults in this country. But does that mean I should write for stupid people? That doesn't interest me If there are only five people who'll appreciate what I do, I'll write for them. I can't think about writing for the mass audience. You can't write for the masses-- there are just too many masses. (Note: The vastness of the masses made me think of the priest's exclamation about Central Park in R shomon: "It's so big. . .so central!")
CU: Still R shomon is quite hopeful as well as accessible so it might do okay in New York?
True, this is a desperation period. New Yorkers in particular seem to be calling "Help. . . I need something larger than me. (Note: Like "Gloryday" in R shomon!)
CU: What about the genre that your kind of musical theater fits which some people refer to as operatic and lacking in hummable hits.
I don't really think about genre or audience categorizing. If you felt something, you felt something -- so if you walk out you take that with you as you would hum after a conventional musical. Popular music is now very ecclectic whereas it used to be very homogenized so that one is hard pressed to explain what is a popular tune. . . country western, Christian revival . . . it's not like when you had one kind of top ten hit list.
CU: Still, with your work so often called operatic and your having done a residency with the Lyric Opera Company in Chicago a while back, is opera something you plan to be doing?
That was so funny when they asked me and I said "but I'm just show trash" but they said "we really want you to write something for us."
So is more work with opera companies in your future?
I like opera but the process would have to be defined in a way that would have dialogue that has music underneath it that just happens to be dialogue. That's why when I have a lot of dialogue -- as in R shomon -- I always tell my actors to keep the energy on the songs as they speak . . . it's not like Shakespeare.
What is interesting about opera companies like the Lyric is that they are training some really beautiful actors ((CU: Among them the cast for Lovers and Friends, the result of that residency which had a libretto set in LaChiusa's home town of Chautauqua). The theater schools too are turning out really top notch musical theater performers who could perform on an opera stage.
My big battle is acoustics. I hate being blasted by music. It hurts my ears and it's so beautiful to hear voices without acoustics. If you have a mike strapped on you can't hear the changes in the voice, the timber' Also if you're an actor with a mike strapped on you can't lose yourself in the role. It's going to be a battle of mine to get us back o acoustics. and I think it can work when you have the right singers.
Like Audra Mc Donald and Mary Testa?
Yes. Both were in Marie Christine which had a cast of opera singers who could have made it work without mikes.
In R shomon you also have someone like Tom Wopat who's not been in a show like yours.
I enjoy pushing someone like him who's not as used to my language. He wanted to be pushed and he's grown so much with this little troupe of actors.
Was musical theater your first career choice?
It's what I always wanted to do. When I wrote this little musical for my 4th grade class, my teacher Mrs. Hammer who's probably 92 or 93 now told me "when you grow up you should write musicals. " And one never said No to Mrs Hammer.
What musical instruments do you play and compose on?
I played drums and then piano on which I compose.
Do you use any of the composing technology?
I've programmed for printing out the music and I'd like to get one of those little midis but I like piano though the computer is good for corrections.
Since you generally write the libretto and lyrics as well as compose the score, what comes first?
It depends. I'll look at a story and there'll be a moment that moves me and makes me think "oh, that would be a great set of lines". . . and a moment that would make a wonderful monologue or just says "you've got to do me." If I go for that and musicalize it with four or five songs, that's generally how I start and then I can go from there.
You seem to prefer existing stories?
There's really nothing that hasn't been done but with existing material there are changes. Sometimes with something like "Kesa and Morito" in R shomon you come up with something that hasn't been done before but I'm sure I'll find someone who's done this before . . . probably Harold Pinter. (CU: La Chiusa's Wild Party certainly seemed like a brilliantly original use of Joseph Moncure March's long poem -- and yet another composer happened upon this never musicalized source and at the same time which led to two Wild Party musical adaptations in the same season).
How do you feel about the tendency to put on revivals rather new musicals?
I don't object to revivals but to appreciate something old you have to put it next to something new. I went to see Fiddler and cried at this heavenly constructed score. It's like you. You probably love being around younger people as well as your older friends. . . so that you feel alive and better and get the perspective on your life and it's the same with putting a new show next to an old show and not old next to old.
One of examples of this is the recent programming at the Met which is in such crisis because the audiences just wouldn't come to new operas so now they're not doing one new thing. Do you plan to continue the Renaissance man focus on doing it all yourself-- music, lyrics and libretto?
Not at all. I'm collaborating right now with Richard Nelson (CU: The collaboration is still in the off the record stage but it sounds like a good fit for both men's interests).
I was going to ask you how the letter "a" went missing from the title but the show explains it quite clearly. Just how is it pronounced?
ARE SHOMON. (CU: For the edification of readers not able to catch the show, like the "e" in Lanford Wilson's Hot L Baltimore this is a case of a letter falling off the marquee, in this case a foreign movie house showing films like Rashomon which the character played by Tom Wopat likes to visit. Besides this witty allusion, the missing letter is also described as a symbol for anger and ambition.)
To follow one pronounciation question with another-- what's the correct way to pronounce your last name?
La-kee-OO-sa (CU: A name that should be included in any musical enthusiast's lexicon of attention worthy contemporary composer-lyricists!)
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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