Michael John LaChiusa Is Messing With Texas

For his new musical, the prolific writer-composer is thinking bigger than ever

By Celia Wren

No one has ever accused Michael John LaChiusa of playing it safe.

Indeed, to glance at the résumé of this composer/lyricist/book writer is to experience a mild sense of vertigo. He turned the Medea myth—that ever-creepy legend of magic and infanticide—into musical theatre, with his 1999 opus Marie Christine. On the other hand, he is a joint Emmy winner for his work on "Wonder Pets!," an animated kids' show for the Nickelodeon channel. (Check out the episode "Save the Pigeon!" on iTunes.)

He has ventured into opera (he's adapting the Scheherazade tale for the Metropolitan Opera); has built songs and scenes from revered literary texts (as with his 2006 Federico García Lorca-based Bernarda Alba); and, with his 1993 First Lady Suite, has tackled American history (or at least the corner of history occupied by presidents' wives, a mild obsession of his). And whereas many theatre folk might tend to champion industry solidarity, at least in print, the provocative LaChiusa caused a small ruckus in 2005 with an Opera News article that denounced certain contemporary Broadway offerings as "faux-musicals."

Now the 46-year-old thespian is engaged in what may be his riskiest project to date: a musical based on Giant, Edna Ferber's 1952 novel about the Texas oil boom. The show, created with book writer Sybille Pearson, premieres at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., April 28-May 31, as part of a mini-festival of LaChiusa works. (A cabaret of songs channeling some of his female characters hit the boards in March, while See What I Wanna See, based on short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, broods on love, murder and the nature of truth April 7-May 31.)

As the title may suggest, Giant is no trifling theatrical bonbon. Boasting a cast of 23 and a 13-piece orchestra, the production will run an estimated three-and-a-half hours. ("Everything's bigger in Texas, y'all," the Signature website notes helpfully.) Due to the scale, the company's artistic director Eric Schaeffer, who had originally been scheduled to direct, decided he had his hands full with merely producing (the venture is financially bolstered by a grant from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays). Jonathan Butterell is now slated to helm the piece.

That the musical should tend toward the behemoth is hardly surprising, given that the novel is, in a sense, about hugeness: vast distances, extravagant wealth, hyperbolic reverence for place. "Texas isn't geography. It's history. It's a world in itself," rancher Bick Benedict says to Leslie, his Virginia-born bride, when she arrives in the land of cactus and vaqueros. (In the well-known 1956 movie, Elizabeth Taylor played Leslie; Rock Hudson, Bick; and James Dean a handyman-turned-oil tycoon.)

Ferber's saga follows Leslie and her family from the 1920s through the heady days of the oil rush and on past World War II, addressing matters like prejudice and xenophobia (discrimination against people of Mexican heritage is a major theme), environmentalism, war, urban sprawl, conspicuous consumption, historical revisionism and even lobbying—issues that seem more than a little here-and-now.

"The book is very prescient," LaChiusa says of Ferber's novel. "She had her finger on the pulse of things. She was very, very socially conscious, and she recognized the large problems that faced our country."

Interviewed during a free hour between Giant auditions and a trip to London related to another enterprise he has been associated with—a stage version of A Star Is Born—the composer added that, just as with her 1926 book Show Boat, Ferber used Giant to ask Americans, "How can we be embracing of other cultures, and move forward with that, as opposed to segregation and bigotry ruling the day?" This theme is particularly resonant in our own times, LaChiusa suggests, given the tensions and possibilities opened up by America's relation with the Islamic world.

Moreover, 21st-century folks who have paled at the sight of $4-a-gallon gas, and have watched An Inconvenient Truth shoot up the best-seller list, may well respond to Ferber's portrait of oil lust, airports and McMansions encroaching on the natural balance of the Texas landscape. Giant is quite explicit, LaChiusa observes, about "the consequences of what we do if we spoil the land—the consequences of greed—of what oil has done to our country."

And yes, given the tale's Texas setting, and the themes of hubris, cultural friction and energy dependency, LaChiusa does think the Signature production will make some theatregoers think about the legacy of George W. Bush. "It's unavoidable if you talk about the history of Texas, absolutely," the composer says, reasoning that "that environment very certainly created that man." But he cautions that, while political, the show is not polemical. "Politics to me is just emotion," he says, since "people's emotions can make for a good world—or a bad world."

Tackling all this profundity is no casual enterprise, and LaChiusa might never have signed up for the task had it not been for the intervention of Julie Gilbert, Ferber's great-niece. Gilbert controls her great-aunt's estate (she's also a writer herself), and had long believed that Giant had an operatic quality to it. "It's very musical—the sound of the Texans' Texas and the Mexicans' Texas," she explains.

A social acquaintance of LaChiusa's, she had been wowed by his scores, and thought he might be the right artist to send this novel down the path that Show Boat—source of the 1927 Kern/Hammerstein masterpiece—had traveled. "He was so musically curious, and I found that a wonderful trait," she says. "And, in a strange way, it reminded me of my great-aunt, who was so literarily curious. She would chase a story, and she would get the real heart of the state that she was writing about—the indigenous quality. And I felt that was what Michael John did with his music." (Another Ferber novel, Saratoga Trunk, inspired Saratoga, which hit Broadway in 1959, with songs by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen.)

An avid bookworm, LaChiusa had read Giant as a teenager, and when Gilbert proposed he grapple with an adaptation, he was intrigued, but unsure how to proceed. So he slotted Giant on what he describes as his "to-do-projects-or-maybes" bookshelf—a row of tomes in the library room of his Upper West Side apartment. The volume sat there for several years.

A breakthrough came when Signature's Schaeffer made LaChiusa an offer he couldn't refuse. As part of a new program, the company would offer the writer-composer a commission and would commit, in advance, to staging whatever he came up with. "Whatever I want to do? Are you sure about that?" LaChiusa recalls asking.

The answer was yes: Signature was kicking off the American Musical Voices Project, an elaborately designed initiative aimed at nurturing musical-theatre talent. Funded by a sizeable grant from the Shen Family Foundation, the scheme involved awards (with grants attached) for musical theatre "leadership" (bestowed on orchestrator Bruce Coughlin, composer Adam Guettel, actress and singer Audra McDonald, and director/musical director/orchestrator Ted Sperling); and a "next generation" component of grants and stipends for emerging composers (Gabriel Kahane, best known for Craigslistlieder, a song cycle based on Craigslist ads, is one of five artists benefiting from this tier of honors).

As the scheme's centerpiece, three more established composers would receive stipends for four years, plus health insurance, enabling them to craft musicals that would be promised full productions according to a planned timeline. The message, Schaeffer says, was "Go write something. Go to town! And we'll produce it." The recipients were LaChiusa, Ricky Ian Gordon and Joseph Thalken. LaChiusa was scheduled to step up to the plate first.

"If Giant had been given to me 15 years ago, I doubt very much that I could have done it," reflects LaChiusa, who was born in Chautauqua, N.Y. "I hadn't lived long enough, and hadn't experienced enough to have defined for myself who I was yet, at least in terms of what I felt politically, and so on."

Sometimes an artist needs to grow into material. When he first read Joseph Moncure March's 1928 narrative poem The Wild Party, LaChiusa recalls, he thought, "I like this a lot. It has a lot of potential—but I have nothing to say about it right now." Only after the death of his parents in 1996 saddled him with intense loss and anger did he have the emotional ammunition to address March's tale. "I picked it up again, and I said, 'Oh, now I know what I have to say with this piece!'" he remembers. The Public Theater presented LaChiusa's Wild Party, with a book co-written by George C. Wolfe, on Broadway in 2000, with a jazz- and vaudeville-flavored score that seems to seethe with ruefulness, frustration and violence.

As for the Ferber-inspired leviathan: "Everything I've done has prepared me to write Giant," LaChiusa says. That "everything" might date as far back as his brief stint studying journalism, an experience that, he says, made him realize the parallels between the duties of a reporter and a songwriter. "What? Where? When? Why? Who?" LaChiusa recites knowledgeably. "If you want to do a song, make sure that that's all spelled out." And just as a hack, conventionally, eschews the first person, so a theatre composer needs to learn "not to put too much of yourself in it—but to let the character speak for itself."

Ultimately, his interest in the news business paled beside his devotion to music, so he abandoned his journalistic studies. Subsequently, he earned a reputation as a member of a group of visionary, artistically adventurous composers (and composer-writers) who were inheriting Sondheim's mantle: people like Guettel, Gordon and Jeanine Tesori. The clichéd complaint against this smart-as-a-whip clique, of course, is that their scores do not readily generate tunes you can hum in the shower.

"I don't know what a hummable tune would be, unless it's repeated, like, 17 times," LaChiusa grumbles, when the subject is brought up. His music, he asserts, "is not atonal! It's not Alban Berg music at all! My musical theatre stuff is definitely within the canon of musical-theatre style." But, he adds, "People need a challenge, and I like to challenge myself, too." (And, for the record, on the subject of those un-challenging faux-musicals: He stands by his Opera News article, which he says was directed at forwarding discussion about the art form and making people sit up and think.)

The LaChiusa canon to date includes—in addition to the oeuvres previously mentioned—Hello Again, inspired by Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde; The Highest Yellow, a Vincent van Gogh portrait, with a book by John Strand; and The Petrified Prince, based on a screenplay by Ingmar Bergman, with a book by Edward Gallardo.

And then there was Little Fish, whose debut in 2003 stranded him temporarily in a slough of despond. "I had just done Wild Party and Marie Christine, which were vast pieces," he recalls. "And they were in a big Broadway arena, and of course they were slammed, or they were loved. They were very controversial. How dare I presume to write dark shows! Musicals should not be dark! Blah, blah, blah.'"

And yet, when he supplied Little Fish, a "little cupcake" of a show (in his words) based on fiction by Deborah Eisenberg, and chronicling a young woman's efforts to quit smoking, reviewers had yet more quibbles. "They were mad that I'd written a comedy!" LaChiusa notes in a tone of exasperated amusement. "And it was like, 'Man, I can't win in this town!'"

In a subsequent epiphany, though, he says, he realized his goal was not to gratify critics, but to "win on my own terms." Those terms have included continuing to straddle the musical theatre/opera divide. His Lovers and Friends (Chautauqua Variations) premiered at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2001, and Audra McDonald unveiled Send (who are you? I love you)—a one-woman piece about Internet dating—at the Houston Grand Opera in 2006. He is also tailoring a libretto of Bizet's Carmen for McDonald.

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, notes that when the Met and Lincoln Center Theater launched a joint opera/theatre commissioning program three years ago, "Michael John LaChiusa was one of the natural choices, since his musicals are operatic." The field once trodden by Wagner and Puccini could use more contemporary artists who can create compelling theatrical experiences and who "think big, like Michael John does," Gelb says.

LaChiusa says he relishes the energy and stamina that opera demands of its creators and performers. "It's an Olympic feat, which is what I love about opera, and which is what I often bring to my own work for the musical theatre," he says. "'Cause, I tell you, you ask anybody who's been in my shows, and it's like, 'Gee, Michael, thanks for making me run the marathon again!'"

In the case of Giant, he has found collaborators who are more than willing to don their marathon gear. "I've never had an experience like this," marvels Pearson, who, like LaChiusa, teaches in the graduate musical theatre writing program of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. "It's brought me back to believing in theatre and life, and a lot of things."

A playwright who penned the book for the musical Baby, and who is on board for his Scheherazade opera, she calls her colleague "the most generous, risking, discerning, extraordinary composer/lyricist to work with," and particularly lauds his Giant songs. "They always stay true to the character and the moment," she says. "They never show off, and boy, are they beautiful. They could show off, but they don't."

Gilbert is, thus far, equally enthusiastic. She attended the May '08 workshop of LaChiusa and Pearson's opus—which at that point clocked in at four-and-a-half hours—and felt her novelist-to-composer matchmaking had been fully justified. Though she plans to attend the official premiere, she says, "I could live the rest of my life knowing what I saw, and be happy." That's a real vote of confidence. Gilbert was close to her great-aunt—and besides, she points out, the novel "is a big jewel in the Ferber estate's crown."

Like Gilbert, Schaeffer is more than conscious of this undertaking's potential hazards. "It's probably one of the most risky things we have ever done," says Schaeffer, who co-founded Signature two decades ago. But he's confident that the gambit will pay off. "When people ask me 'What's Giant like?,' I say honestly, 'It's like Angels in America: The Musical,'" he confesses. Epic and "totally topical," he says, the piece seethes with the passions that LaChiusa's work is known for, but it also bares the vulnerabilities of its characters in a way that "just breaks your heart." In fact, Schaeffer says of the composer, "I don't even think he realizes how amazing it is."

Certainly, as of late January, LaChiusa was not resting on his laurels, but rather speaking of Giant as a tantalizing artistic puzzle. How, in the absence of the cinematic technology that benefited the 1956 movie, does one conjure up Ferber's empire of Longhorns and black gold?

"We can't put a thousand head of cattle on stage," he muses. "We can't do the wide open sky. But that's for me to do musically—to create that sense of the blue sky, the ever-reaching land, all the things of Texas. It's dry there: How do you create the sense of dry through music? How do you create dust? How do you create the starry night that you see out there on the plain?"

To paraphrase Bick Benedict, how do you create a musical that is geography and history, mesquite and skyscrapers, a whole Lone-Star-State world in itself?

Celia Wren is a former managing editor of this magazine.