Posted on November 19, 2015 at 5:00 am
Let us now praise Michael John LaChiusa.
One of my first jobs in New York was conducting The Petrified Prince at the Public, and so I walked into the Anspacher yesterday to see First Daughter Suite carrying twenty-one years of history with MJLC’s writing.
I’ve always said he was the most dexterous of any of the lyricists in our loosely-connected gang of We-Were-On-Audra’s-First-CD writers, and that’s still true – on a technical level, he’s miles ahead of anyone else currently writing lyrics for musicals, not just cute rhymes but genuine wit and real character, serious understanding of how to use words to express something other than what you can do in speech, to elevate language without turning it pretentious. And he gets a laugh out of a lyric better than anyone else I can think of other than Big Steve.
But to focus on the lyrics is to miss the fact that the music is of an extraordinarily high quality as well – always defining place, time and character, and telling the story in collaboration with the rest of the elements. There’s very real music being made, in a way you hear so rarely in the contemporary musical theater – complex, challenging, difficult without being inaccessible. With Michael John, I never feel like the music got written first or the lyrics are running the show – instead, the work is truly of a piece; music, lyrics and text proceeding together, getting the story told.
And that’s what most knocked me out about First Daughter Suite, its totality. This is a singular creative achievement, and in that respect, it is like virtually all of MJ’s other work. I don’t have to like everything he’s ever written, but it is amazing, twenty-one years on, to see an artist still approaching his work with such seriousness of purpose, such mastery of technique, and such humanity. The show last night threatened to tip over into camp, but it never did – it played on that edge of reality and myth with great skill and admirable compassion. It didn’t beg for applause or provide easy catharsis – what I came away admiring most was its glorious ridiculous humanity, and the conviction with which MJ follows his own personal muses in his own personal way.
It’s important to see that people are still stretching the musical theater, people are still looking for ways to tell their stories; and it’s equally important that producers are still willing to produce such idiosyncratic but deeply felt pieces. It’s at the Public until Sunday, and even aside from the writing, the performances and the orchestra are something to behold.