Is there any theatremaker working in musical theatre today who is as divisive as Michael John LaChiusa? Some people think his work is amazing, diverse and complex while others think he writes musicals that are unmemorable, one-note and pretentious.
I’m in the former category. It’s my view that the LaChiusa’s career over the past two decades or so emulates (to some extent) reactions to the career of Stephen Sondheim during the time when Sondheim was writing really edgy and groundbreaking stuff, like Anyone Can Whistle, Company and Follies. (That’s not to say that Sondheim’s later musicals are any less noteworthy; part of this comparison involes the mileau in which Sondheim was working at the time.) Those musicals took the form seriously, pushing it forward during an age when musical theatre was having something of an idenity crisis. The so-called “golden age” was over, pop music was on the rise and the popularity of musicals was on the wane. When LaChiusa started rising to prominance with First Lady Suite and Hello Again in the 1990s, Broadway was also experiencing something of an identity crisis. The “megamusical” invasion of the 1980s had slowed down, many of the old guard had either passed on or slowed down and Disney was starting to make its presence felt on Broadway, as were the jukebox musicals and more-and-more frequent movie-to-musical adaptations that would really trend at the turn of the century. The faux musical was on the rise.
It seems appropriate to use that term here as it was a term introduced by LaChiusa himself in a controversial article written for Opera News, “The Great Grey Way”. When that article was published, people were up in arms. People like Marc Shaiman, one of the artists who came under fire in LaChiusa’s article, lashed back at LaChiusa. Message boards were abuzz with debate about whether LaChiusa’s opinions held any truth, about whether his choice to criticise his contemporaries revealed conflicting interests and whether his tone obfuscated his point. Personally, I found the article to be a refreshing eye-opener: although I didn’t agree with some of the specific examples cited by LaChiusa in his discussion, I believe his point that it was becoming more and more difficult to write musicals with serious intentions and artistic integrity and have them produced on Broadway, which hitherto had been a space for both serious and light shows, was a valuable one. I find it difficult to view the brief stay on Broadway of a show like John Kander, Fred Ebb and David Thompson’s brilliant The Scottsboro Boys and the absence on Broadway of shows like LaChiusa’s own The Highest Yellow and Giant (on which he collaborated with Sybille Pearson) without considering the points raised by LaChiusa in that article.
Digressions aside, it seems to me that many of LaChiusa’s detractors are perhaps akin to those who couldn’t see the value of Sondheim’s work for his experimentation with the form. Because the truth is that, despite their complexity, LaChiusa’s musicals are some of the greatest pieces of contemporary musical theatre around and, because of their complexity, they offer endless opportunities for engagement for someone who’s willing to go on the journey with him.
So if you’re one of those who haven’t yet discovered LaChiusa’s work or someone who’s avoided it because of what others have said about it rather than making up your own mind or even somebody who has given one of his musicals a spin and dismissed it without so much as a second thought, how about joining me today in giving one of the cast album’s of a LaChiusa show a spin? I’ll probably go for Marie Christine or The Wild Party today. I haven’t decided yet. Which one will you choose?
This post is inspired by and a response to “I’ll Never Get Over Trying to Understand the Russian Soul” in Shirley MacLaine’s I’m Over All That and Other Confessions.
Good piece David. I look forward to the day when Michael John enjoys the almost universal respect that has finally come to SJS.
On the one hand, I know intellectually that LaChiusa is brilliant, and I’m consistently amazed by the complexity and diversity of his music. But on the other, I’ve never felt emotionally connected to one of his shows (granted I’ve only seen The Wild Party and See What I Wanna See, and other than that I only know Marie Christine). I feel like I’m always being removed from the story by the sheer difficulty of the score, the quirkiness of the lyrics, the twisting and turning of the plot. There are moments in Sondheim shows where I have that reaction too, but I think a lot of the brilliance of Sondheim lies in the way his music/lyrics make people feel. There are Sondheim rhymes and that take my breath away, and make me cry, and it’s not until later when I re-examine the moment that I figure out how he constructed it to elicit an emotional response. I also think sometimes LaChiusa could stand to subscribe to Sondheim’s “less is more” philosophy; some of my favorite Sondheim songs are the ones that aren’t clever, but honest and straightforward.
That said, LaChiusa is also younger than Sondheim. Who knows where he’ll end up? Also, I probably don’t know quite enough LaChiusa to make this argument anyway. 😉
Thanks, Anne, for your comments. I must admit that one of the things I love about LaChiusa’s work is how instantly I felt emotionally connected to what it was trying to say. When I first heard “People Like Us” from The Wild Party, I nearly went nuts over how brilliant and how moving the song is. And certainly, that is a “less is more” moment, so I take your point. I wonder what you’d make of Bernarda Alba, which is a very compact piece, which is full of intense emotion and, as a chamber piece, often distill things musically into very clean moments of song.
That said, I find some of the grander passages in Marie Christine and many of the frenetic sequences from The Wild Party equally moving.
I guess what you’re citing as the difficulties in LaChiusa’s work are precisely what draws me to them. I feel privileged that someone in musical theatre is making a huge effort to engage me deeply with his work. I love that he is so uncompromising in his artistic vision. And I feel all of that in spite of any technical flaws the pieces have in their craftsmanship, because – yes – sometimes the lyrics don’t work as organically with the music as the should and sometimes I feel that LaChiusa’s work might benefit from a collaborator on the books of his musicals. (The problem there is that there seems to be an absolute dearth of excellent book-writers in musical theatre today.)
I hope that one day something clicks for you when it comes to LaChiusa’s work or that one of his musicals finds you the way that several of them have found me. Since that moment in my journey with his work, I’ve experienced a great deal of pleasure from it, both intellectually and emotionally.
I was going to suggest Bernarda for Anne too.