Michael John LaChiusa — the composer behind the musical version of Giant that the Dallas Theater Center is debuting in January as a co-production with New York’s Public Theater, you know, that guy – has been working on other projects while he and the Giant creative team have been trimming down what had been a three-hour original version. For instance, LaChiusa — as composer-lyricist-librettist this time — just debuted another new musical, Queen of the Mist, off-Broadway at Judson Church Gym. Maybe good fortune will strike twice: That’s the same place, coincidentally enough, where Lysistrata Jones (aka Give It Up! at the DTC) opened in New York before moving to Broadway this month.
Queen of the Mist concerns the real-life daredevil, Annie Edson Taylor, an obsessive public-performer-celebrity type who became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel — in 1901. Here’s a video interview with LaChiusa and cast members, and here’s the NYTimes less-than-excited review of the show.
Two interesting points appear in all this: First, LaChiusa talks about how the music of that period — piano rolls, waltzes, etc — really appealed to him and informed his score for Queen. Which makes one wonder: How much ‘Texas’ music (country, blues, cowboy ballads) will echo in Giant?
And second, NYT critic Ben Brantley writes about how LaChiusa is much admired in the theater world for such shows as Hello Again and The Wild Party, how he continues to write highbrow, quirky musicals — without much popular success –in a commercial industry that exists for popular success. Kind of like his determined heroine.
As deeds of daring go, writing eccentric, highbrow historical musicals in a business that rewards hummable tunes and straightforward story lines may not rank with … shooting the falls. But it probably requires a similar degree of true, mad, deep dedication. It would be a pleasure to report that “Queen of the Mist” seems poised to become the popular hit that has so far eluded Mr. LaChiusa. But while it features some beautiful (and, yes, even hummable) music, the show suffers from the monotony that tends to accompany monomania.
Which puts Giant in an interesting light. Adapting such a big, classic movie is an obvious shot for a big, popular audience. But consider the timing: Forget about Dallas and think of what follows. Will Broadway theatergoers — let alone Public Theater theatergoers — really flock to a distinctly Texas tuner at this particular time? A musical about the kind of larger-than-life mythic Texas? A sweeping Texas musical about the rise of our universally admired oil industry? And with Rick Perry’s campaign reminding everyone daily of the Bush presidency — which, of course, was so beloved in New York?
The good news: Considering how slowly a musical production usually takes to get to New York (Giant isn’t even listed on the Public’s current 2011-2012 season), the co-production will likely open well after Perry’s campaign is over — or he’s headlines news everyday, campaigning directly against President Obama.