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Signature Epic by Matthew Murray

  • Michael John LaChiusaWhen you think of big musicals, the first names to pop to mind are probably along the lines of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Boublil and Schöberg, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. But perhaps someone else you don't normally think of also deserves consideration: Michael John LaChiusa. If his projects have been physically smaller affairs, without the huge casts, sets, and orchestras that typify some composers' works, when he delves into places, eras, and personalities, he digs deep. For him, both types of big are about to meld into one.

    On April 28, the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, will begin performances of Giant, the new musical with LaChiusa's score and Sybille Pearson's libretto that's based on the 1952 novel by Edna Ferber. (The novel also inspired the 1956 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson.) In tribute to author and playwright Ferber, who herself loved going expansive (in her classic tale of the Mississippi and musical-inspirer Show Boat and sweeping life stories like Cimarron, So Big, and American Beauty), LaChiusa and Pearson have written a show that spans three acts, three and a half hours, and three generations (from 1925 to 1952) of a major Texas oil family. But the project started by way of another family.

    "Originally, Julie Gilbert, who is Edna Ferber's niece, came to me and asked, 'Would you be interested in adapting my great aunt's novel," LaChiusa told me as was beginning the fourth week of New York rehearsals for Giant. "I was very intrigued by it—I had read [the novel] as a child and was familiar with the movie, but I wasn't sure how to approach it, if I had anything to say. Then this opportunity came up at Signature Theatre of the American Music Voices Project, a new grant for writers to develop a new piece, and it could be anything I wanted. I told [Signature Theatre Artistic Director] Eric Schaeffer I had this vision of it being a three-act piece, and I proposed it to him and he was very enthusiastic about it. So I turned to my friend and colleague Sybil Pearson, whom I work with at NYU, and she was very thoughtful about it and she said, 'I think I found a way into this.' She came back with a very brilliant structure, and we've been working on it for about two years now on and off."

    And have they been working. "It's an extraordinarily huge piece," LaChiusa said. "We chose to go this route to avoid the 'Show Boat second act conundrum,' where you have a nearly perfect first act and, by trying to compact and consolidate, [a weaker second one]. I always felt like you could divide Show Boat into one [more] act. Sybille and I wanted to avoid that and just let the piece play out the way we thought it should. And hopefully it will be engaging enough for the audience to want to come back to see what happens to the characters, what happens to the ranch, what happens to the marriage... Hopefully the most minor characters you'll want to follow in it."

    According to LaChiusa, the score will be steeped in southern twang, and change as the eras do. "You'll hear a little Texan and stuff in it, absolutely," he says. "When we hit the '40s, there's a little bit of swing; when we hit the '50s, there's a little bit of be-bop in it, too. It's a slice of America, especially Texan America—a lot of styles, a lot of colors." The music is being orchestrated by LaChiusa's frequent collaborator, Bruce Coughlin (The Wild Party, See What I Wanna See, Little Fish). "He makes music steamy," LaChiusa says of him. "He releases my music so you can hear it very clearly. It's its own world."

    Fans of LaChiusa's usual daring—adapting La Ronde to span the varying musical styles of cultures and generations in Hello Again; or transforming Medea into a Creole story of carnal lust and revenge, Marie Christine—won't find quite the same invention here, but they shouldn't expect conventional work, either. "[Our Giant] is an adaptation of the novel. There's a linear sense to it all, but we do play with time, as Edna Ferber does: There are flashforwards and flashbacks. But we do tell the story, pretty much chronologically, straight through. The song structures are traditional in the sense that there's anything I can do traditionally. People say I can't write the AABA form, but like Harold Arlen, I play around with it. There are book scenes and there are songs, and they go in and out and interlock. It's unlike any other musical, either that I've written or that other people have written."

    "It demands an awful lot from the cast and the company," he continues, "but they're so dedicated and so willing to go on this adventure that it makes the work very easy, very fun, and very exciting." The cast is led by Ashley Robinson, Betsy Morgan, and Lewis Cleale, and also features Broadway stalwarts John Dossett and Judith Blazer (both of whom have had long associations with LaChiusa: Dossett was in the original company of Hello Again in 1994, and Blazer had a major role in 2006's Bernarda Alba). "Each and every one of them is just brilliant," LaChiusa says.

    GiantWeb.jpgThe production, which is directed by Jonathan Butterell (who choregraphed the recent Broadway revivals of Nine, Fiddler on the Roof, and Assassins, as well as the new musical The Light in the Piazza and produced and overseen by Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Scaeffer, has been developed with the assistance of the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays. The cast will comprise 21 performers, and there will be a 14-piece orchestra. LaChiusa admits, however, that he and Pearson originally envisioned more; the recent economic downtown has forced some cutbacks. "We had to do quite a lot of tweaking to make [the show] work," LaChiusa says. "Our original cast size was to be 24 to 25...our original orchestra was going to be 17."

    Regardless, musical theatre fans don't have to worry about seeing less of LaChiusa. Signature (which premiered LaChiusa's Vincent van Gogh musical The Highest Yellow in 2004), is also presenting his acclaimed 2005 musical See What I Wanna See, an adaptation of "Rashomon" and other stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa; the production, directed by Helen Hayes Award winner Matthew Gardiner, runs through May 31. And LaChiusa's other musicals have been receiving many regional and foreign productions: Just recently, Bernarda Alba (2006) has been done in Chicago and Budapest, The Wild Party was the inaugural production of the new freeFall Theatre Company in Sarasota, Florida, and See What I Wanna See had a sold-out run in Korea. ("I was the oldest person in the audience," LaChiusa says of that production. "Everybody was like 30 and under. They're a very young theatregoing audience there—maybe because TV sucks in Korea!—but they're very much engaged in theatre, and it's very much a part of their culture. They love musicals. They speak to them.")

    Though LaChiusa's work has often proved divisive in New York, he does think that the city is becoming more accepting of unusual musicals than it used to be. "I'm very optimistic about certain things that have happened in recent years, that maybe we've turned a corner and we have a little braver producing element and taking some musicals that might at first glance have seemed very risky," LaChiusa says. "I'm very, very encouraged by that. Adding Machine was very interesting to me [last season]; that was great that they brought it to NY and that the producers let it have a lovely run. I loved that they took Passing Strange to Broadway. And I thought it was interesting to have Spring Awakening play on Broadway—it's very interesting material."

    What else is LaChiusa working on? "We got a commission from the Mark Taper Forum, and they commissioned us to write a second act for Tres Niñas, so I'm working on that with Ellen Fitzhugh," he says about his one-act musical that premiered Off-Broadway last year. "Sybille and I are going to dive into adapting Scheherazade for the Met Opera Commission. And I have a Carmen adaptation in [the works] for Audra McDonald."

    But all that's in the future. Right now, Giant is his big focus.

    "Right now, we're looking at this as an event," he says. "If there is a future, there's a future, and we'll come to that when it's time. Right now, the most important thing is putting together the premiere down in D.C. After that, who knows?"

    Photos (top to bottom): Michael John LaChiusa; Ashley Robinson, Betsy Morgan, and Lewis Cleale of Giant at the Signature Theatre (photo by Joan Marcus)

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