Michael John LaChiusa and Graciela Daniele have been collaborating professionally for thirty years, starting with Hello Again in LCT’s Mitzi E. Newhouse and continuing through the current The Gardens of Anuncia in the same space. He thought he had heard every detail of Daniele’s upbringing in the Peronist Argentina of the 1940s and 1950s. Then he asked her to speak to a Master Class he was teaching at Columbia.
“I invited guest artists to the course who had had a long, fruitful life in the theater,” LaChiusa told me the other day on a rehearsal break. “I wanted the students to hear how you sustain a long career through its ups and downs. The kids were fascinated by Graciela and her life. I had heard about it for years. Or thought that I had: until she told a story I didn’t know.”
After class, LaChiusa and Daniele went out for their customary post-performance martini: vodka, very dry, with three olives. (If you’re thinking, as Auntie Mame once said, that olives “take up so much room in such a small glass,” LaChiusa hastens to add: “The olives are on the side – on the side!”) Fortified by libation, LaChiusa told Daniele that the new story -- it’s in the show and I’m not going to spoil it through disclosure – was a creative trigger. Using his affectionate name for Daniele, LaChiusa revealed: “I told Grazi: ‘I’m going to write a musical about this.’ She said: ‘No, you’re not. I’ve already lived that life and I’m not going to live it again.’”
Undeterred, LaChiusa went home and promptly wrote the musical’s opening number. By the time the pair met again, he had written a second song, “Listen to the Music.” He played them for her. Touched, she said: “Okay, go ahead. But don’t make it about me. Make it about the three women who raised me.’” They are her grandmother, her mother, and her aunt.
LaChiusa created the show – he wrote both the words and the music – at a keyboard. “It was an emotional process,” he said. “I wrote it as a valentine, as a thank you to the three women who, without many material advantages, nurtured a great artist.”
According to LaChiusa, the process of creating the new piece was tricky. “I always tried to keep in mind that whatever the challenges I faced I was working with someone who had lived the story I was writing. That gave me perspective.”
In previous collaborations for LCT – Hello Again, Marie Christine, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and Bernarda Alba – LaChiusa and Daniele have channeled many influences. Bernarda Alba, for example, used flamenco. “But I always try to make it clear,” LaChiusa explained, “that I’m putting my own spin on things. When Bernstein wrote the Mambo for West Side Story it was his version of a mambo. With Gardens, there’s tango, but it’s my version of the tango.”
For the new show, LaChiusa not only delved into tango. He researched Juan Peron, who was President of Argentina from 1946 until 1955, and his second wife, Eva, known to the world as Evita. “Gardens is the antithesis of the musical Evita,” LaChiusa said. “There’s nothing heroic about the Perons. They are an illustration, still very useful to us today, of how quickly a country can become a dictatorship if we’re not careful.”
LaChiusa spoke of the garden metaphors in the new piece. “We don’t have a real garden onstage – this is the theater.” He added: “I hope the metaphor goes deeper than pretty flowers or tasty vegetables. We’re asking: What is your garden? What is the reason you get up in the morning? How do we regenerate ourselves over the course of a lifetime?”
LaChiusa has created so many complex and pretty flowers during his career – let us not forget First Lady Suite (1993) and The Wild Party (2000) – I couldn’t help but ask him which piece he would like to see revived in a major way. At first, he answered broadly: “I’m lucky that my shows continue to be done around the world.” Then he confessed: “I would love to see Marie Christine again. It’s so dark, so fabulous. No one can replicate what Audra McDonald did in the title role here in the Beaumont. But there are lots of amazing performers out there who could give it a go.”
In LCT’s production of The Gardens of Anuncia, talented performers are in abundance. “We are so fortunate,” LaChiusa said, “to have most of the cast back from the first production we did, at the Old Globe in San Diego, in addition to the legendary Priscilla Lopez.” But the LCT version will be its own flower. “I’ve made quite a few changes, to make things clearer. I hope it flows even better now from scene to scene.” He added: “A musical is primarily songs and dialogue, but the real trick is in the transitions.”
Brendan Lemon is a freelance journalist in New York.