Michael John LaChiusa’s complex, layered scores have always been cinematic. Perhaps because he has little regard for the notion that songs should follow a straight line from point A to point B, or perhaps because his melodies have the intensity of early Russian editing, which clashed ideas rather than trying to complement them. Therefore Hello, Again, his adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde made total sense as a film even before it became one. LaChiusa’s jumps across time and space challenged the limitations of theatrical staging, while paying tribute to the power of live performance. In Tom Gustafson’s film version we once again meet ten strangers who over the course of ten tightly constructed scenes tell a history of the twentieth century through the ways in which humans have engaged in games of passion, control and seduction.
Gustafson’s sleek production highlights the characters’ beauty as LaChiusa’s ever powerful score tell us stories about their inner storms. The film stars some of Broadway’s most exciting stars including Nolan Gerard Funk, Jenna Ushkowitz, Cheyenne Jackson, Rumer Willis and the incredible Audra McDonald, who make the familiar songs attain new dimensions aided by the closeups and editing. We spoke to the composer about the ways in which he discovers new things about his work, writing new songs for the film, and why he welcomes change with open arms.
This is the third time you’ve revisited the musical in America. By now which of the characters would you say you understand better?
As you get older, every movie you’ve seen, anything you’ve read, everything is different. You are a different person every day. I think by now I understand the Senator more, I’m more close to the character’s age now, it’s not to say I didn’t understand them all when I wrote them. I knew who these people were, even though at the time I might’ve not had the same experiences some of them had. The Senator is still searching for perfect love, and things like that are provocative to me when I look at the script again, or to see the immaturity in some of the characters which I found charming back then. Some of them seem a little too naive now, like they don’t know what would happen to them later in life.
As a theatre nerd I always say that I realized I was an adult when I found Romeo and Juliet obnoxious and sided with the Nurse and the Friar instead.
Exactly! Now I’m really into Lear and I think Hamlet’s an asshole, years ago I loved him and now he seems like such a jerk.
The characters are given names in the credits. How did this happen?
They had names in the original, we used them for certain dramatic punches. I don’t think the names are as important as we perceive of them as being, we go beneath the archetype and recognize something incredibly human about that archetype. In La Ronde they’re not “a whore,” “a soldier,” they’re “the whore,” “the soldier.” I found that so fascinating.
The “moral bankruptcy” the show speaks about seem to be at its peak today, depending on who you ask of course, and so many of the characters’ shortcomings are related to their sex lives which strikes a chord with puritanical American society. I’ve always thought of the show as satire, but have you heard of people who take it like a serious indictment against immorality?
The characters may say they’re morally bankrupt but they don’t know how they got there or why, they just know something’s missing. The “morally bankrupt” line comes from the Wife in scene four when she’s crying to herself, but what she’s essentially saying is “I’m not filled, despite everything I’m doing to find joy and pleasure, even something spiritual,” and the why she keeps feeling this way is the moral bankruptcy. It’s interesting what people say, when we did the show in 93-94 I gender blended, turned the Young Thing from a female into a male that John Cameron Mitchell played and it was quite shocking for the time. Even though gays in theatre were nothing new, what shocked people was that my gay characters didn’t die of anything. When you put gay characters onstage they’re dying of AIDS, or something terrible is going to happen to them, or they’ll be killed off in horror movies. In retrospect people did get up in arms about this back then. In the play the Whore says “we’re always gonna keep looking for that perfect marriage of carnal satisfaction and spiritual gratification.”
Did you have a favorite interpretation of the play that you used for reference in writing the musical?
Quite honestly I didn’t. As one should, I stayed true to the source material I was adapting, I didn’t reference the Ophüls movie at all, it’s a quaint, pretty to look at film, but I found the original German play had much more edge, more melancholy, sensuality and intimacy which was the most interesting thing for me. People were offended at the play because it depicted such intimacy onstage, Hello, Again explores that in the songs they sing to each other. It’s my way of musicalizing the dot, dot, dots that happen between the scenes.
I was so impressed at Audra McDonald’s ability to have onscreen sex and sing her heart out at the same time.
(Laughs) We don’t live in musicals, we go to them and have them written for us so we can watch Audra McDonald have an orgasm and sing a high G at the same time.
The show has always been such a great combination of genres and styles, which made me think of the records my parents had with all the greatest hits from all the genres. It made me wonder if you were in some way trying to recreate “best of” compilations?
Absolutely! You nailed it, I had the same experience growing up, records would go from “The Morning After” to a song from the 20s, or our family sing-a-long with my mom and her sisters, or a 40s song followed by something by Elvis. That’s the musical tapestry I grew up with and what I wanted to bring to Hello, Again. I wanted to create a sense of variety in the piece because musicals need highs and lows. I’ve seen stage productions of La Ronde and sometimes it overstays its welcome, because it’s the same thing, it’s so flat, there’s no plot, two people meet, have sex, talk and move on. With musicals there’s a cumulative effect, you can use leitmotifs. With all the lovers I’ve had, I’ve always taken a little piece of him or her with me, and they’re always with me. The score was fun to work on because it accumulate musically this motif here, this phrase here, this lyric can be repeated...it was like building a puzzle.
The structure has clearly always been cinematic, and you have a knack for non-traditional structures like the one in See What I Wanna See, what makes chronological order less appealing?
That show was what about what was true and what was not, I like games and little puzzles to keep engaged in the work.
Speaking of puzzles, I can’t stop singing “Beyond the Moon,” what was it like to introduce a new song into a world many are already so familiar with?
Some day you must talk to Malcom Gets and Michele Pawk who originated the roles of The Writer and The Actress in the Off-Broadway version. In the original scene we had a problem which is also in the play, it’s the eighth scene so by the time you get to it, you feel like you know what’s happening and just want it to wrap up. We needed to get over that, we had over 23 original songs for Scene 8 and we settled on “Silent Movie,” we wanted to make it the shortest path to Scene 9. Corey Krueckenberg asked me if we should do something closer to our time for the scene which sounded great, Corey came up with the idea of us doing one of those terrible, arty, music videos of that particular period, and we could manipulate Audra’s voice like Cher. We thought she’d be horrified by that, but I’ve always wanted to write a disco song, and Audra was fabulous about it. The music video in the movie is insane, she looks stunning in it though as the Moon Queen. You see how much her character’s willing to debase herself for the jerk she loves. The song says a lot about the piece, especially followed by Audra’s next scene with Martha Plimpton.
What about Tom Gustafson made you go “this is the right guy to make my movie,” was it Were the World Mine?
Yes, that did it. They approached me to do a film version of The Wild Party, things didn’t work out, so we spoke about Hello, Again. Cory and Tom’s musical was what I thought a modern musical should be about, I love that movie.
You’ve spoken before about how people have been priced out of going to the theatre, did the democracy of film have any influence on you wanting to make Hello, Again?
I didn’t really think about it in those terms, I thought it would be great to see the piece through Tom and Cory’s lens. I liked seeing what Jack Cummings III did with the revival, so I had fun seeing what other artists saw in the musical. I don’t know much about film, it’s a nice documentation and it’s a beautiful version of the show. They did such beautiful work, and with such little money, goodness gracious.
You’re clearly open to change and adapting your work to fit the times we’re in. What would you say to purists who believe revivals of shows should be replicas of the original?
First and foremost theatre is a living thing. What I love the most about doing theatre is that it’s alive and live. We have living, breathing actors so to ask them to do a replica is wrong. I think theatre of all the things we have in human life, is the one I always want to do because it’s life, it’s an extension of ourselves. Life changes, life is transformative, mutable and transcendent, if you don’t embrace that with your own work and don’t find a way to allow your work to be interpreted by different directors, designers, writers and musicians, what’s that all about? I’m not the type of writer to say “no talkbacks after my show,” it’s always a writer’s prerogative to say whatever they want about their show, so my prerogative is: be free.
Hello, Again is now playing in select theaters.