Writer-lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh remembers exactly when composer Michael John LaChiusa first got her attention. “We were both participating in a Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop oh so many years ago,” she says.
“Actually, Ellen was the star of the Lehman Engel workshop,” LaChiusa interjects.
“I was taken by this young man’s originality,” Fitzhugh continues undeterred. “Well, he was being snipped at by other members of the workshop, as always happens. And I remember, afterwards, regretting I hadn’t said anything. I hadn’t come to his defense. That bothered me, the more I thought about it. So, I contacted him and told him I would really like to work with him someday. And here we are.”
At this moment, Fitzhugh and LaChiusa are sitting in a Center Theatre Group rehearsal room in downtown LA, following a full day of rehearsals for the premiere of their two-hander musical, Los Otros (“The Others”), anticipating this evening’s first preview at CTG’s Mark Taper Forum. “This has been an amazing collaboration,” says LaChiusa. “This is a huge, panoramic work, spanning decades; yet it has been so intimate, working with Ellen; our director, Graciela [Daniele]; and two phenomenal performers, Michele [Pawk] and Julio [Monge].”
Collaboration is certainly a concept familiar to Fitzhugh and to LaChiusa. As both a scripter and lyricist, Fitzhugh has united her talents with such disparate tunesmiths as Larry Grossman (Tony-nominated Grind, Diamonds), Walter Edgar Kennon (Off-Broadway Herringbone), Adam Guettel (Myths and Hymns), Marc Blitzstein (Juno), Mary Rodgers (The Griffin and the Minor Canon), William Finn (Muscle), Henry Mancini (Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective) and even Johann Strauss II (Paradise Found).
Previously, LaChiusa has joined creative forces with George C. Wolfe (book co-writer on Tony-nominated The Wild Party), Jim Lewis and Daniele (Tony-nominated Chronicle of a Death Foretold), Sybille Pearson (Giant) and John Strand (The Highest Yellow), among others. On his own, LaChiusa has proven to be a triple threat (music, lyrics, book) with Obie-winner First Lady Suite and Hello Again, as well as Little Fish (helmed by Daniele).
“Los Otros developed from an idea I had a few years back about a woman living in Southern California,” Fitzhugh recalls. “I grew up in Southern California, and I guess that is what stimulated the idea. Then I was approached by [CTG artistic director] Michael Ritchie, who was interested in developing stageworks that were California-based. CTG commissioned me, and off I went. So, the idea I had tucked away in the back of my psyche just started to work itself forward, focusing on this woman and a Mexican-American man whose lives move through latter 20th century life in Southern California. Somewhere along the way, I knew I wanted it to be a musical.”
LaChiusa chuckles. “And me being an Italian boy from Buffalo, New York, I was the perfect choice to be the composer.”
Fitzhugh nods. “Actually, he was,” she says. “John has done spectacular work, always so inventive and surprising. I know this would be a perfect project for us to do together.”
Los Otros can be likened to an episodic song-cycle, the first section chronicling three defining moments in the life of the Woman (Pawk), each of which involves chance encounters with Mexican immigrants in Southern California. The second section focuses on the Mexican-American Man (Monge), following his journey from 12-year-old migrant farm worker during World War II to a 75-year-old who is starting to lose his mental faculties. “There is no real intermission separating the two sections,” Fitzhugh reveals. “It is more like a brief pause.”
“Developing this work has been a remarkable amalgamation of talents,” LaChiusa says. “I have worked with Graciela before on several shows. She is from Argentina, an amazing choreographer and director. And she works so well with performers. And with this show, that is so important.”
Fitzhugh concurs, “In some ways, as Graciela points out, it is a lot more exhausting to work with just two actors because you get so focused in on the individual person you are working with, you are sending out everything you have to him or her. You don’t have the option to switch your attention to something else happening that might offer a welcoming distraction, even for a moment or two. And for the actor, it must be the same thing. There is no place to hide. “
LaChiusa nods. “It is very naked relationship,” he says.
Both creators feel they have put together a dream cast. Pawk is a 2003 Featured Actress Tony winner for the Carol Burnett bio play, Hollywood Arms, and has starred in such Broadway fare as Hairspray, Losing Louie, Mamma Mia! and Cabaret (Drama Desk nominee). Monge’s Broadway credits include Twelfth Night, Paul Simon’s The Capeman, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Fosse, Man of La Mancha and Victor/Victoria.
As much as LaChiusa is involved with melodies, harmonies and rhythms, he is equally intrigued by the dialogue. “One of the fascinating aspects of this work is the use of words, the way the characters use words to describe this and words to describe that,” he says. “It has been fascinating to me to develop the character of the Mexican-American man, chronicle the experience, what’s that like to be him and how does that experience sing.”
But the pair seems unwilling to reveal much about instrumental accompaniment for two ethnically diverse onstage characters evolving within the same environment. “John is having a lot of fun with that,” is all Fitzhugh will share.
“We really have a luxurious situation with the accompaniment,” LaChiusa says, beaming. “We have a nine-musician ensemble. It is wonderful. We have some strings in there. I have my mariachi trumpet player. We have a guitarist who is playing four different instruments. We have great Mexican drums [Latin percussionists]. The musical texture is wonderfully enveloping.”
Now that previews are beginning, La Chiusa and Fitzhugh are looking forward to finally having an audience tell them where the beats are working and where they are not working. “It is exhilarating and exhausting,” says Fitzhugh. “We rehearse from 10 am to 6 pm and then sit through previews. The next day is the same process, incorporating what we learned from the night before.”
“There is actually another project Ellen and I are working on, but we haven’t talked much about it lately,” says LaChiusa. “This has been so involving.”
Los Otros, presented by Center Theatre Group. Opens Sunday, June 3. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA 90012. Plays Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:30 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 pm and 6:30 pm, through July 1. Tickets: $20-$65. Call (213) 628-2772 or visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
***AllÂ photos by Craig SchwartzPrint