Reviewed by David Spencer
All through the first act of Michael John LaChuisa's latest, See What I Wanna See, at the Public, I was prepared to cut him new slack. To say, well, you can't make the boy be what he's not, he's recently been quite public about what he sees the mission of musical theatre to be, and though he'd surely welcome commercial success, he seems bound and determined to pursue it without embracing the structural elements that almost always accompany such success, so rather than rail against his muse, accept it as his thing, and treat the piece as "music [rather than musical] theatre," an offshoot of modern opera.
Really, truly, I was all set to just give up, give in, tolerate and admire the work on its own terms, as much as I could, as much as anyone could.
And then he flummoxed me, the bastard. Because then came act two. And I thought, Son of a bitch, he does have it in him to cross the line! He just did it without meaning to!
To make sense out of that progression, you have to know that while See What I Wanna See is conceived as a full musical evening, it is not a single musical. Rather it is two one acts -- beautifully acted, solidly directed by Ted Sperling -- each introduced by a conceptual prologue.
The conceptual prologue Kesa & Morito, is set in Medieval Japan, Kesa's bedroom. She (Idina Menzel) and her lover Morito (Marc Kudisch) are about to "do it" for the last time -- for at the climax, she will kill him. Well, that's how it goes introducing Act One. In the version introducing Act Two, he sings about the passion to come, and the death upon coming, only this time it will be hers, by his hand.
Act One is an update-to-1951 of the Rashomon concept (first introduced in a short story by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, the basis for the 1951 Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa; later dramatized rather differently in English by Fay and Michael Kanin; then updated from feudal Japan to the post-Civil War American southwest border for a movie directed by Martin Ritt, screenplay also by Michael Kanin). It concerns a murder. The body was found by the Witness (Henry Stram), and the three participants -- one of whom will be the victim -- are the Thief (Aaron Lohr), the Husband (Kudiscch) and the Wife (Menzel). All tell their view of what happened (as if to a police interrogator) -- with the victim's interests being represented by a Medium (Mary Testa) who channels the ultimate testimony.
Stylistically, this act represents LaChiusa business-as-usual: unsatisfying as musical theatre per se, no characters to root for, no foursquare songs, yet intriguing -- no, more than that, essential -- as a model for modern opera. Very few modern opera composers and librettists truly explore theatrical values, coherent musicality, or even have the chops to attempt it, but LaChiusa, with his idiosyncratic dramatic structures, esoteric dramatic themes, often through-composed scores, genuinely and valuably points the way; and his stuff, much of it, belongs in an opera house, because that's really the form he's renovating; I think it would shake up the classical world good and proper, blow all kinds of fresh air through that part of the industry, and have wide-reaching consequences in terms of bridging audience and genre gaps.
And, as indicated earlier, I was just about to make my peace with that. The storytelling and pacing in the Rashomon act (titled R Shomon, after a movie theatre marquee display with a vowel missing) are brisk and clear, admirably avoiding schematic repetition as the different perspectives are dramatized, and the music is best described as noir arioso, and I thought, Fine: if this is what Michael John must be, time to just accept him on his own terms, and no longer bemoan his self defeating penchant for rarefaction and esoterica.
And then came Act Two.
Present day. In a post 9/11 world, unable to explain to his parishioners why inexplicable tragedies happen, a frustrated priest (Stram) secretly loses faith. He has finally started to believe that what his ultra-Liberal, atheistic surrogate mom, Aunt Monica (Testa) has been telling him for years is true. That it's all a crock. Wanting to prove this, he anonymously starts a rumor: on a certain day, at a certain time, at a certain spot in Central Park, there is going to be a miracle -- the arrival of Gloryday. The rumor takes hold, and in encounters the priest has with a homeless CPA (Kudisch), a down-on-her-luck actress (Menzel) and a Reporter (Lohr), he sees and encourages the building frenzy.
This is a near-perfect and gripping little one act, a beautifully plotted fable, with a perfect Twilight Zone twist ending, worthy of Zone's best writer, Charles Beaumont (sorry, Rod) in that it manages to be unpredictable yet inevitable, a flawless intertwining of both morality and moral -- even provocative -- and in the telling, all these things emerged:
* Real, well-shaped theatre songs. Not all foursquare, but you can latch on for the ride, easy.
* A larger-than-life character on a quest (the priest's self-image as a small man, even his small physicality in Henry Stram, is deceptive; this is a man who has hit his breaking point, motivated to conduct an impossible crusade).
* An utterly traditional musical. Oh, to be sure, LaChuisa employs his new age imprimatur, but that's as it should be. Yet he does it in the service of characters and a story that feed the requirements of "commercial" musical theatre, while also utterly, and without a shred of compromise or pandering, letting him do his thing. Proving conclusively that his outspokenness on what he sees as the creakiness of tradition misses the point. Tradition and commerciality are what you make of them. They are embodied by both Hello Dolly! and Sweeney Todd. They're present in Kiss of the Spider Woman as much as in Wicked. And now, chekkitout, kids, here it is in a LaChuisa musical too.
The irony is, I don't think, in that regard, Michael John actually knew what he was doing. I think he happened to devise a story that took him there, and he followed its path because it gave him no other choice. But someone needs to point it out to him. Because his talent is massive, and to see him At Last Get It Right is thrilling. Because if he can do it once, he can do it over and over again. The "traditional" and "commercial" template -- I hate those words for it, those very labels may be what LaChiusa finds so off-putting, yet they are the best words -- is a WIDE OPEN field, precluding neither experimentation, innovation nor risk. LaChiusa can have his cake and eat it too. Gloryday is proof and a half.
You've outed yourself, Michael John.
You have it in you to go the distance.
Why in the world would you ever again choose to settle for less...?