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At Long Last, Michael John Lachiusa

The Buffalo debut of the Western New York native’s First Lady Suite

When Michael John LaChiusa’s 1993 chamber musical, First Lady Suite, opens at American Repertory Theater of Western New York on Friday, it will be the first professional production of any LaChiusa musical in Buffalo—which might seem a little crazy. Not only is LaChiusa one of the most highly admired and widely celebrated artists working in the musical theater today, he’s from Western New York.

Moreover, his brothers, director Matthew and actor Thomas, are mainstays of the Buffalo theater community, and his cousin Tim Newell is one of the region’s most popular and accomplished actors as well.

With multiple Tony nominations, and shows like Hello Again (1993), The Wild Party (2000), See What I Wanna See (2005), Bernarda Alba (2006), Queen of the Mist (2011), and Giant (2012) to his credit, there have certainly been multiple opportunities to present LaChiusa’s work here. With the production of First Lady Suite, that long overdue event has come.

First Lady Suite is a set of four musical vignettes about four American First Ladies: Eleanor Roosevelt, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman, and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

The first scene, “Over Texas,” takes place on Air Force One on November 22, 1963. When Jacqueline Kennedy’s personal secretary, Mary Gallagher, nods off, Mrs. Kennedy invades her dreams.

Next, in “Where’s Mamie,” we meet Mrs. Eisenhower in her White House bedroom, sad and alone on her birthday. In a flight of fantasy, she is visited by opera star Marian Anderson, who whisks her off to pay a visit on Ike, in order to confront him about his marital infidelity.

“Olio” is a comic romp with Harry Truman’s daughter, Margaret, who is trying to sing a recital but is constantly disrupted and upstaged by her mother, Bess.

Finally, in “Eleanor Sleeps Here,” Eleanor Roosevelt and her famed gal pal, journalist Lorena “Hick” Hickok, take a ride on a plane flown by Amelia Earhart.

With an evening that reaches from the broadly comical to the hauntingly poetic, First Lady Suite was showered with praise when it opened at the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Joseph Papp Public Theatre. Then, right on its heels, LaChiusa rocked the theater world when his musical version of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde opened at Lincoln Center, adding luster to the reputations of its truly astonishing cast: Donna Murphy, David A. White, Judy Blazer, Michael Park, Carolee Carmello, Dennis Parlato, John Cameron Mitchell, Malcolm Gets, Michele Pawk, and John Dossett.

From that moment on, Michael John LaChiusa was hailed, far and wide, as a musical theater genius. So why has it taken so long for his Buffalo debut?

Speaking to the artist by telephone from his home in New York City, I ask if the complexity of his music might be a factor.

“I think that might have something to do with it,” says LaChuisa. But he quickly adds, “I visit Buffalo frequently, and I really think that the talent pool has grown a great deal in recent years. Last year, for instance, my brother was able to produce Floyd Collins in Buffalo, and that’s also a complex musical. I think it all has to do with the available talent.”

Michael Hake, musical director for First Lady Suite and a veteran of countless musicals, confirms that the show is demanding.

“When I first looked at the score,” says Hake, “I could see that this would be a challenge. The material ranges across many musical styles. It’s harmonically complex, and rhythmically complicated. This is not all chords and melodies. It requires musicianship. It took me about two weeks to feel that I had a good grasp on this score.”

Keep in mind, for this production the score has been condensed for a single piano.

Hake is far from alone in his assessment of the challenges a LaChiusa score presents. When Audra McDonald, a five-time Tony winner and Juilliard graduate, starred at Lincoln Center in Marie Christine, LaChiusa’s 1999 musical adaptation of Medea set in New Orleans and Chicago, she only did six of the eight weekly performances, and opined that it probably would have been vocally prudent to do only three.

Beyond the First Lady Suite score itself, the variety of musical styles presented an unusual challenge for the production. Typically, as the audience arrives at a theater, some sort of pre-show music is playing.

Shayna Raichilson-Zadok and Mary Ryan in ART of WNY's production of First Lady Suite.

“In this show, there’s jazz, there’s gospel, there’s opera,” says Hake. “We couldn’t arrive at anything that set the appropriate tone for this show! At the moment, we think it might be best just to go with silence, but we’ll see.”

In addition to musical direction by Hake, the company’s founder and artistic director, Matthew LaChiusa, is directing the ART/WNY production. Katy Miner plays Jackie Kennedy and Amelia Earhart. Shayna Raichelson-Zadok plays Lorena Hickok. Mary Ryan plays Mary Gallager and Margaret Truman. Katie McMahon plays Mamie Eisenhower. Leanne Troutman plays Eleanor Roosevelt. Jackie Davis plays Marian Davis, and John Calvin plays President Eisenhower and Bess Truman.

First Lady Suite is from early in my career,” notes LaChuisa, “and it was very important for me. This was a musical fully by me [the music, the lyrics, the story] and my first experience with George C. Wolfe [artistic director of the Public Theater at the time, who would later collaborate with LaChiusa on The Wild Party]. Then to have this show and Hello Again in production at the same time was huge.”

LaChiusa has generally followed a career path to please himself.

“There is no specific agenda,” he explains. “I don’t try to be commercial; I don’t set out to write challenging music, either. Ideas come into my head, and I do what I want to do. I write for children’s television, because I enjoy it. Sometime I will put ideas for shows aside and pick them up later when their time comes. That happened with Giant. When Edna Ferber’s niece, Julie Gilbert, first approached me about writing a musical version of her aunt’s novel, I didn’t think I had much to say about it. Then, years later, when I picked it up again, my life itself had changed, and I felt a close connection to that material. That’s what a career is like.”

Actually, First Lady Suite has been resonating in LaChiusa’s head lately.

“I’m thinking about another first lady suite,” he confides. “This time, it’s all mothers and daughters. I’m thinking about Pat Nixon at Tricia’s wedding. It will be Roslyn and Amy Carter, and Betty Ford with her daughter Susan. And of course, Nancy Reagan and her daughter Patti Davis!”

The mind reels! When I mention that many of these people are still living, the composer notes, “They’re public figures.” Then he adds, “Mary Gallagher came to see First Lady Suite once. I had no idea how she was going to react. But she was great!”

LaChiusa strongly feels that his Western New York upbringing sent him in his career direction.

“We grew up in Westfield, with excellent teachers and excellent schools,” he says. “I did shows in school, and we lived near the Chautauqua Institution and went there all the time to see theater and hear music. The Cleveland Play House was in residence there in those days, and we saw great shows. I remember that my fourth- grade teacher, Mrs. Hammer, told me, ‘When you grow up, you should write musicals!’ Look what happened!

“My brothers and my cousin Timmy and I are very close, and my mother and her sisters supported everything we did. We did everything together. When we were growing up, I was always putting Matthew and Thomas and Tim in shows, and they were good sports about it. And there was always a lot of singing and music.

“My mother always had cast albums in the house,” he continues, “so we heard a lot of show music. She encouraged me to play the piano. We also went to Buffalo. We’d go to Shea’s. We went to Studio Arena and saw amazing shows there. We saw Christine Baranski there, and plays by Pete Gurney.

“Also, in those days, Michael Tilson Thomas was the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra [1971-1979], and he was introducing modern composers, not just to Buffalo but to America. It was a wonderful time. To this day, I love to go to Buffalo.

“I feel that my brothers and my cousin and I were supported, not just by our family but by the community. I am so proud of what my cousin Tim [now appearing in Mister Benny at Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York] has done; he is proof that you can stay in Buffalo and have a career in the arts here. I teach at Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, and I tell my students, ‘Don’t just limit yourselves to New York.’ There are many ways to make a career. New York is not the be-all and end-all. Think about the community from which you come. It is possible that you could go there and make a career there and work all the time, and that might be where your true happiness lies. That is what my brothers and Tim are doing, and I think it’s inspiring.”

Of all LaChiusa’s musicals, the one that is thematically most connected to Buffalo is Queen of the Mist, the story of Annie Edson Taylor, who became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive in 1901. In the musical, LaChiusa highlights Taylor’s fanaticism by having her give a bit of advice to an agitated stranger who seems to share her obsessive spirit but just can’t commit to his unspecified cause. “We can and we must act on our impulses, our dreams!” she tells him. The man turns out to be Leon Czolgosz, who goes off and assassinates President William McKinley. The New York Times suggested that this moment was LaChiusa’s nod to “his fellow composer and spiritual antecedent Stephen Sondheim, whose Assassins (1990) set Czolgosz’s ambition to wry and haunting melody.” Since the assassination of McKinley happened at the Pan American Exhibition in Buffalo, I took the moment to be nod to LaChiusa’s home region.

“Of course Queen of the Mist is my nod to Buffalo!” says LaChiusa. “When Jack Cummings of the Transport Group approached me about writing the show, I told him how much I love Niagara Falls. Whenever I can, I go there. I did all of the research for Queen of the Mist at the downtown branch of the Buffalo Library. I stayed at the Mansion on Delaware Avenue and every day I walked to the library, where the staff was knowledgeable and helpful and amazing in every way. They showed me things I would never have been able to find anywhere else, original materials. It was a joy to be there.”

Not surprisingly, LaChiusa is looking forward to coming back to Buffalo for First Lady Suite.

“And I’m looking forward to doing a talkback after the performance on Friday, March 15,” he says. “And I especially love that it is my brother Matt’s theater that is doing the show. That makes it all the more special. It’s an honor really. Yeah, that’s the cherry on top of a beautiful sundae!”

First Lady Suite will be performed at American Repertory Theater of Western New York’s home at Bittner Hall (16 Linwood Avenue), March 1-16, Wednesdays to Saturdays at 7:30pm. Tickets for all performances, except the Friday, March 15 talkback, are $20 general admission and $15 for students and military veterans. Tickets for the March 15 performance and talkback are $30 general admission and $20 for students and military veterans. Visit www.artofwny.org for more details. Call 716-634-1102, 9am-4:30pm, for reservations.