Thursday, November 30, 2017

Highlights From BoHo's Talkback With Michael John LaChiusa

On November 17th, BoHo Theatre held a talkback with writer/composer Michael John LaChiusa and our artists following a performance of Marie Christine. Presented here are edited selections from that event.

Moderator: What possessed you to write this show?

Michael John LaChiusa: A series of things. One was working with Graciela Daniele. We were talking about our favorite plays of all time and we both agreed that one of the greatest plays ever written was Medea, the Greek play.

And then a young lady came to audition for me for a show I was writing at the time called Hello Again, and she was amazing, she blew my mind, but I couldn’t cast her in the show because she was too young. She had just graduated from Juliard. Her name was Audra McDonald. But at that moment, I said, “I must write a play for her one day.”

And then my brother sent me a book of myths and legends of old New Orleans, particularly of Marie Laveau. And I was sitting there reading that book and there was one line that said, “Marie Laveau had a daughter who ran away north with a white man.” And the pieces fell into place. And I wrote it.

It all just came together. I thought, I can transpose Medea into latter century New Orleans and really explore something I didn’t know a lot about. Also politically, I got to be a murderer too, theatrically, because there is the trope of the tragic mulatto, which is something that I despise, and I thought maybe with Marie Christine, I could kill the tragic mulatto stereotype. So that’s one of the reasons why I wrote it.

It’s all loaded, why I wrote the show, why it’s never really done-- its dark stuff. But it’s one of my most precious scores because it means so much.

Moderator: With this show, what message did you want people to walk away with in 1999, and is that message different now?

MJLC: I still think it’s the same message-- it’s the same message that Medea had. There are many messages in Medea: what do we do with our passions, do we control our passions, do we let them overrun ourselves, how do we find that balance between them? And also, in our country, we have this open wound [of slavery and racism] and the salt keeps pouring into it.

These are still big problems, obviously, and I put them out there for us to take whatever you want to take from it all, the grief of it all, and whether or not we can solve them. I always feel like Marie Christine is offered so many choices along the way, like Medea is-- you can get out of it this way, you can get out of it that way-- but there is ultimately only one thing she can do in order to move on. Now, I’m not advocating to kill your kids, but I think some part of us has to die in order for us to move forward and sometimes those deaths are very, very hard for us to deal with as a society, as a culture. It’s one of the big things we have to deal with and that’s why we grieve so much and why we have so much struggle with change. If we’re going to change, we have to kill some things off [metaphorically], and it’s going to be very hard but we’ll be different at the end of it all.

Moderator: On behalf of the music director and the cast, I have to ask, why do you write such hard music!?

MJLC: I don’t think it’s that hard. (laughter) I tell you, you'll never go back from this. Once you do this, like, why would I not want to challenge my singers? Why wouldn’t you want to push the limits of where musical theatre can go? Where you can push your actors to places vocally, musically?

(Gesturing to the cast) It’s theirs, they own every single note of the music. (to cast) You own how you sing those notes. Noone else is going to sing them the way you sung them tonight ever, ever, ever. Every night, they’re yours.

Aaron Benham, Music Director: I gotta say, on my end, doing the show, I feel like I’ve accomplished something after every show. It’s really pleasing to me to do this show.

MJLC: And why not? You’re Olympians. I don’t know why we don’t want to always be Olympians. Right? We all want easy things to do, every now and then, and we want to make a ton of money doing it, but why not be Olympians at all times? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be? Challenging ourselves?

Audience Member: I know that you love writing for groups of women, for example with the First Daughter and First Lady Suites and Bernarda Alba, I wonder why you gravitate towards that?

MJLC: One, their ain’t enough roles for women. There are just not enough roles or complicated roles or interesting roles that I see out there for women. So yes, I write shows for women casts because-- I have a very lucky life. I’m happy doing what it is I do. It’s not that I get to do what I want to do, it’s not that. I have to make choices about what I do for other people, (to audience) for you, (to artists) for you, so that’s why I do that.

George Wolf taught me one of the greatest lessons of my life when I worked with him: That if I didn’t write interesting roles for people of color, other genders, races, etc, then these young people would not go to school to learn them or be challenged by them. If I didn’t commit my life to this, then there was no point in writing. It was a great lesson that I learned and one that I am an apostle to.

Moderator: What was your experience watching your work with this group of artists?

MJLC: It’s been so long. Marie Christine is very rarely performed...

The commitment that this company made is remarkable to me. How committed they are to the music, how committee they are to the roles, to each other. And how committed they are to [Lili-Anne Brown’s] vision is profound to see in the theatre. It’s breathtaking to see this sort of magic and mystery happen on the stage. And to see this tonight was deeply, profoundly moving to me in many ways.

A beautiful moment for me tonight was hearing a song that had been cut from the show on Broadway, "The Map of Your Heart." To hear the song tonight was so beautiful and I'm so grateful that you restored it. I felt that it had such beauty with you two singing it. To see some of the little funny things you [Lili-Anne Brown] put back into the show-- I gave her an original script-- so she stuck some things back in that we had cut in the normal course of doing the show. It was wonderful to hear. Thank you.

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