By Peter Filichia
If you can get to the always excellent Transport Group’s current production of Hello Again, so much the better. But if you cannot, there’s always the excellent original cast album of Michael John LaChiusa’s 1994 musical that was released shortly after the world premiere.
The cast at the Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center was a most impressive one. Future Tony®-winners Donna Murphy and Michele Pawk, future Tony® nominees Carolee Carmello and John Dossett, as well as such immense talents as Judy Blazer were among the cast of ten.
And it had to be ten, for bookwriter-composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa was adapting Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, in which we meet ten couples in ten scenes. One of the people we meet in one scene will show up in the next until we come all the way around and meet somone from the first scene again.
It sounds cute, and wouldn’t necessarily suggest a play that scandalized the world in 1920. But it did, because Schnitzler’s ultimate goal was to show just how much sex is on everyone’s mind. Once you’ve had it, then you have to have it again and again. To paraphrase a song from Barnum, lust makes such fools of us all. “Old love, new love; anything but true love,” as Cole Porter had written many years before. Sex, even more than drink, turns out to be the great equalizer.
La Chiusa may not quite have matched the achievement of August Wilson’s ten-play cycle, but he did take a leaf from the esteemed playwright’s book. For just as Wilson wrote a play for each decade of the 20th century, La Chiusa set each of his scenes in a different decade of that same century. And like Wilson, who didn’t write his plays in sequence, LaChiusa had the first scene between a prostitute and a soldier take place in the first decade, while the second, which involves a soldier and a nurse, jumps to the ’40s.
That, of course, means that the soldier in scene two isn’t the same soldier we met in scene one. But, as Benay Venuta sang and taught us in Hazel Flagg, “People are all the same.” We’re all looking for love, or at least sex. At least.
People who are dominant in one scene are often submissive in the next (or, of course, vice versa). As we’ve all learned through life, different people are different people to different people. And just as we think we’ve figured out the structure – the person who plays the supporting role in one scene will play the lead in the next – LaChiusa surprises us by going for a completely different option. He keeps us guessing – and listening.
The casual juxtaposition of time also suggests that nothing much changes over time (not to mention that a good man is hard to find). The nurse learns that, too, in the third scene — in the ’60s — and in a rather unexpected way. “Do you think I’m pretty” she asks the soldier. What’s amazing about the purposely sour notes is that LaChiusa chooses for the word “pretty” somehow (and brilliantly) manage to show that the nurse knows deep in her heart that she is not.
Musically, there are very few “songs,” for LaChiusa here is going for musical scenes instead. The opening waltz is haunting, but it does turn dangerous. Of course, if we’re talking about lust, there must be a tango – the dance of love – and LaChuisa gives us quite an unexpected one.
There’s one genuine attempt at a song, and that comes in a film that one of the characters is creating. It starts back in the ’70s, when everyone was beginning to write screenplays – so why shouldn’t at least one of LaChiusa’s characters be writing one? He says, “I’m writing a screenplay for Newman,” as if Paul were anxiously waiting for it. He’d be lucky if Newman on Seinfeld would deign to read it.
The film turns out to be called The One I Love, and what might be called “The Love Theme from The One I Love” comes late in the show. Eleven o’clock numbers are usually thought of as up-tempo affairs, but LaChiusa brings his show to an equally satisfying conclusion with a song that goes for – and achieves – sheer beauty. Many will be humming it when they leave the Transport Group’s current production or when they finish listening to the disc.
There are so many intriguing characters. Has anyone else thought to write about a woman who’s determined to be the woman behind the man who’s running for political office? “I’ll be friendly to Republicans” sings the ambitious politician’s mistress (in the old-world sense of the term) and would-be wife. See if the politician decides if she’s in his best interest.
One cut is actually more of a delicious surprise on disc and digital downloads than it is in the theater. There a theatergoer would get a hint from what was happening from the set. Without that visual aid, a listener doesn’t get the joke until a few measures in. Hello Again startles in its own special way.
While this is “new” theater music, LaChiusa shows how much he knows about the music of yore. He includes some very specific homages to the ancient pop song “And the Angels Sing” as well as a well-known Irving Berlin movie song.
Hello Again will never be confused with Hello, Dolly! But there’s room for both in musical theater, and we’re lucky to have two distinct theatrical listening experiences.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.