“First Lady Suite”
BUFFALO – The Gospel according to Mark, in the Bible, famously says, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown, and among his own relatives, and in his own household.” (Mark 6:4) That’s the New American Standard translation. The same may be true for a musician, as well. Twenty years ago November of this year, the musical show “First Lady Suite,” by Westfield native Michael John LaChiusa opened in New York City, at the highly-respected Public Theater, where it won the Obie Award for best show and a special citation for the composer. LaChiusa had written not only the music, but the book of the show and the lyrics, as well.
Since then, LaChiusa has had a stellar career. He has had three of his shows performed professionally on Broadway, eight shows performed Off-Broadway, and dozens more, including an opera with the subtitle
“Chautauqua Variations,” commissioned by Chicago Lyric Opera, and produced successfully by that renowned company.
His shows have been directed by Joe Papp and Graciela Daniele, among many others, and the casts have included Audra McDonald, Mary Testa,
Toni Collette, Mandy Patinkin, and Eartha Kitt. Most have had successful recordings released of their musical scores, and there have been a long list of Tony Awards, Tony nominations, Grammy Awards, etc.
Sadly, unless you’ve travelled to New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles, or one of the many other sites which have performed and celebrated the Westfield native’s genius, you haven’t heard his music, until this month. His first show ever to be professionally staged in Western New York is currently playing at the American Repertory Theater. Interestingly enough, the show is “First Lady Suite,” the same show which was his first success in New York City.
We attended opening night of “First Lady Suite,” on March 1, and published a review in the March 2 issue of The Post-Journal. This is the first opportunity we’ve had recently to celebrate this young man who has accomplished so much in a challenging and very difficult field. I hope you’ll join me in celebrating his successes.
Michael John is the oldest of three LaChiusa brothers. Younger brother Matthew is the artistic director of American Repertory Theater, and brother Tom is frequently seen as an actor in professional productions, especially in Buffalo. The brothers have a first cousin,
Tim Newell, who is a well-known Buffalo actor, currently appearing in a one-man show about comic Jack Benny.
We spoke by phone with Matthew, before travelling to Buffalo to review
“First Lady Suite.” “Our company was created with a mission to support new playwrights and to introduce new works and new actors into the established theater scene, in Buffalo,” he said. “Last year, we presented our first musical show, with ‘Floyd Collins,’ by Adam Guettel, grandson of composer Richard Rodgers, and it was very successful, so we wanted to introduce another musical show which would be new to Western New York audiences. I’m sure a lot of people will say that we only chose ‘First Lady Suite’ because Michael John is my brother, but I’m sure it would have been our choice, no matter who had written it.”
The production opened March 1, and will continue through March 16, on
Friday and Saturday evenings. The composer will attend the performance on March 15, and will participate in a talk-back between cast and audience, following the end of the performance.
Tickets are $20 for the general public and $15 for students and active members of the U.S. Armed Services. On March 15, tickets will be $30 for the public and $20 for students, and will include the conversation with the composer. Purchase them by phone at 634-1102 or by computer at www.brownpapertickets.com. The company accepts cash and personal checks. Credit cards may be used at Brown Paper Tickets, but there is a service charge for tickets purchased through that organization.
The company performs in the rear of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, which is located at the intersection of North Street and Linwood Avenue in Buffalo. The entrance to the theater is at 16 Linwood Ave. “‘First Lady Suite’ has only six cast members, most of whom play more than one role,” the artistic director continued. “It is a chamber piece and lends itself easily to abstract settings and relatively simple costuming.
“Michael John just recently closed his musical based on Edna Ferber’s novel, ‘Giant,’ in New York City. We would love to present a show like that, but that’s a show which should be performed at Shea’s or one of the really big venues with a larger budget,” he said.
The company had originally intended to perform “First Lady Suite” through March 23, but the church in whose building they are located had to schedule some maintenance work, which would have interfered with performances, so it was necessary to give up two performances.
The company may have chosen the show without reference to the relationship between the director and the composer, but that relationship does come with some advantages. “Michael John has always been supportive of the rest of the family, but he has been very generous with advice and suggestions, as we prepare to perform his own work,” Matthew said.
The Buffalo cast of the show is very talented, according to their director, and they have worked very hard to master the music, which is new and very challenging. The show is a collection of four scenes, each involving a different First Lady of the United States. The first scene is set aboard Air Force One, as the presidential plane flies into Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963, en route to a date with destiny.
The characters in the scene are Evelyn Lincoln, personal secretary to President John F. Kennedy, and Mary Gallagher, who was Mrs. Kennedy’s personal assistant.
The women discuss their jobs, with Ms. Lincoln demonstrating that she is quite taken by the handsome president, while Ms. Gallagher complains that Mrs. Kennedy demands too much effort and takes out her own frustrations with being observed and photographed and criticized, night and day, on her staff. When the assistant nods off in a nap, she is visited in a dream by Mrs. Kennedy, dressed in the famous pink suit which would soon be drenched in her husband’s blood, describing her frustrations and her fears of the coming events.
The second scene begins in the presidential bedroom of the White House, where Mamie Eisenhower is waking up to the realization that it is her birthday, and she is alone, because her husband has gone off to Little Rock, Ark., where he was trying to negotiate an understanding between African-Americans, planning to integrate the public schools of that city, and the local and state officials, determined to keep them out.
Mamie laments that she has been good and followed orders, all her life, following her husband around the world on his military career’s demands, raising their son virtually on her own, and putting up with the rumors that during World War II, Ike had a far more friendly relationship with his female driver than was appropriate. She engages in a discussion with opera singer Marian Anderson, who believes she ought to be doing more for the cause of Civil Rights, and the two go on a whirl of imagination to scenes of importance in Mamie’s life.
The short third scene involves first lady Bess Truman, attending a mother-daughter banquet with daughter Margaret, who tried so hard to establish a singing career. Margaret has been asked to sing at the banquet, and she tries to do so, while her mother, discussing all along her intention to be supportive, makes every noise and attention-grabbing gesture she can manage.
The final scene is set aboard an aircraft, which is being piloted by famed flier Amelia Earhardt. She has been at a political banquet, where she was sitting next to Eleanor Roosevelt. The first lady has complained that she has never flown in a plane, so the flier invites her and her close friend Lorena Hickock, “up for a spin over Washington.” As they fly, the friend, commonly called “Hick” by the First Lady, laments that she has given up her successful career as a journalist to be Eleanor’s friend, and now she is taken for granted, ignored, always in a back seat – literally so, in this case.
“While the music of this show is modern and not the familiar style of musical theater, it is often wonderfully melodic. I find myself leaving rehearsals singing along in my head,” Matthew LaChiusa said. “I hope area audiences will give it a chance. If they do, I know they’ll have an entertaining and challenging evening and be glad they came out.”
MICHAEL JOHN LACHIUSA
We spoke by phone with the composer of “First Lady Suite,” from New York City. I asked if he is able to create a musical show and then leave it alone, or if – as many composers do – he wants to add and subtract elements, whenever he hears it.
He said that musicals are never finished, in his experience. He has made small changes in “First Lady Suite” as recently as 2004, when a production of it was done in Los Angeles, and he composed a chorus for the entire cast, to be sung before the beginning and after the end of the four scenes. “I think I have let go of this show, but that’s like a mother saying she isn’t going to give her children any more advice.
You can’t really take that too seriously,” he said. I wondered why the show goes backward through history. It begins in 1963 and ends 20 years earlier. He said, “I originally planned it to come forward in time, in traditional style, and I thought the tragedy of the Kennedy assassination would be the climax. But when it was being rehearsed, I felt a strong musical arc, beginning with the external tragedy of the Kennedys, and building up to the personal anguish of the Lorena Hickock scene. All of the scenes involve women trying to fly away from their position of privilege and public attention, and to find something personal for themselves. The Eleanor scene does that most powerfully.”
When we spoke, the composer had just returned from recording studios, where he was putting the finishing touch on the cast recording of “Giant,” his recently completed show. “Julie Gilbert approached me about creating a musical based on the most famous novel written by her aunt, Edna Ferber. I knew that the novel had been made into a very successful film, which made a star of James Dean, and was reluctant at first, but I began to find music playing in my head when I thought about different scenes from the novel’s plot, and I agreed to do it. I think it turned out to be something to be proud of.”
Since he said he always has music forming in his head, is there something new forming there? He says there is. “In fact, I’m planning another suite of musical scenes, relating to first ladies, this time dealing with the relationships between mothers and daughters. He has already mapped out a scene dealing with the White House wedding of Tricia Nixon, and dealing with Pat Nixon and her two daughters. He expects this new suite to move historically forward, unlike his first suite. He is dealing now with scenes involving Betty Ford and daughter Susan, with Rosalyn Carter and daughter Amy, and with Nancy Reagan and daughter Patty Davis. “There may be something with Barbara Bush, as well,” he said.
Chautauqua County has always been important to Michael John LaChiusa, and he returns to the area nearly every summer. “I wrote large portions of my musical ‘Queen of the Mist,’ about the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive, and ‘Giant,’ and a large segment of the second suite about first ladies, in Westfield,” he said. “It’s so beautiful there and Lake Erie can be dramatic and there are many things which contribute to successful writing and composing,” he said. The composer divides his time between creating his musical shows and teaching musical theater at the Tisch School of the Arts, at New York University. “I often discuss with my students the advantages of working in New York, compared to the advantages of working somewhere smaller, where the pressure is not as great. I am impressed by what my brothers and my cousin have accomplished in Western New York, and I encourage my students to think long and hard whether they wouldn’t like to have a similar career in an area where they feel at home,”‘ he said.
We have long espoused the message that talented young artists who are willing to invest the time and the hard, hard work, and who have enough natural talent to succeed, can make it to the very top of any of the arts. Now Michael John LaChiusa suggests that young people can make it here, from there, just as well.