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.