Michael John LaChiusa doesn’t write easy musicals. He writes complex, multi-themed and often huge works based on challenging material.
Think of Marie Christine, the theatrical opera based on Medea that he wrote for Audra MacDonald. Or consider the huge Wild Party based on Joseph Moncure March’s jazz poem that used a host of Broadway stars for its brief Broadway run – Eartha Kitt, Marc Kudisch, Norm Lewis and Mandy Patinkin among them.
Even his supposedly minimalist pieces are marked by high ambition and challenging concepts. See What I Wanna See was built on three stories by Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa built into two stories plus two introductions. The sequential coupling one-act musical Hello Again based on Schnitzler’s La Ronde had broad themes built on interconnected details that required close attention throughout.
His Giant is another example. It is based on Edna Ferber’s huge (416 pages in paperback) novel of Texas sized ambitions, passions and competitions between ranchers and oil men (and their women) spanning two generations over three decades. Ferber’s novel was the basis for the 1956 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and, in his last screen work before his fatal car accident, James Dean.
The musical has a book by Sybille Pearson, the Czech-born playwright who wrote the book for the Maltby and Shire musical Baby. It was written on a commission from Virginia’s Signature Theatre with funds from the Ted and Mary Jo Shen Charitable Fund and premiered there in 2009. At the time of its premiere at that theater it ran a full four hours with two intermissions.
In my review of the Signature production I said that “Edna Ferber’s novel proves to be just too much to condense even into a full four hours … As efficient at delivering the key plot points as Pearson’s script is, and as effective as LaChiusa’s songs are at revealing specific character elements, the scope of the project defeats the effort to focus on any one aspect long enough to look below the surface. Love, lust, jealousy, ambition, insecurity, tradition and bigotry are each hit by dramatic and musical spotlights, but none are examined very deeply.”
By the time it hit New York, with an Off-Broadway production at the Public Theatre last winter, it had been slimmed down just a bit, but it still ran 3:15 with just one intermission. It had some two dozen songs for its one dozen main characters.
Ghostlight Records gives us a two-disc recording that takes almost 1:40 to listen to. Well, actually, it will take you over two hours to work your way through it on your first listen because you will be hitting the pause button between nearly each track to take time to read the snippet of synopsis that is printed song-by-song with the lyrics in the well illustrated booklet.
Original Cast Recording
Ghostlight Records Catalog 8-4471
Running time 1:39 over 26 tracks on two CDs
Packaged with lyrics, synopsis as notes to the lyrics and 26 color photo
Giant is no Hello Dolly!, chock full of traditional 32 bar AABA show tunes. LaChiusa’s melodic lines can run on for as long as a Texas horizon line.
His lyrics are all written in the plain language of his characters, not in any highly poetic strictly structured meter pattern. Still, different characters have different vocabularies.
What’s more, he manages to write to period. The music he has written for the portion of the show that takes place in the 1920s sounds very different than the music for scenes taking place in the 1940s and 1950s. This isn’t just a case of creative orchestration, although Bruce Coughlin’s charts are superb. It is that LaChiusa has written songs that belong in the eras of their portion of the story.
There are strong performances by Brian D’Arcy James as the owner of a Texas cattle ranch of two and a half million acres, Kate Baldwin as the Virginia horse-country belle he brings home as his bride, Michele Pawk as his sister who shares the running of the ranch, and PJ Griffith, as the ranch hand whose sexuality is his brand and whose audacity takes him from the dust of the corral to oil-based riches. Griffith is a standout in two songs, the first act’s “Private Property,” and the second act’s stunning final burst of drunken bombast titled “The Dog is Gonna Bark.”
All in all, the recording is an absorbing experience, but just as it seemed in its earlier incarnation on stage, it remains a bit of a heavy slog.