It's little surprise that composer/lyricist Michael John LaChiusa
found himself drawn to the sweep and grandeur of Edna Ferber's 1952 novel Giant
, chronicling the life in a Texas clan over the course of nearly three decades. It's a book, that like LaChiusa's musicals themselves, places the dreams, the struggles, and the loves of its characters into the context of the historical and sociological realities of the times in which they are living.
Audiences first encountered LaChiusa's fascination for examining - with often laser-like accuracy - at his characters' cares in a broader sense with his 1993 musical First Lady Suite. In this one, he explores the worlds and experiences of first ladies, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy, by mingling fact and fantasy. Ultimately, the short tuners that comprise this show provide a cunning depiction of what it means to be the woman who stands alongside the nation's commander-in-chief.
More recently, his 2011 musical Queen of the Mist
plunged audiences into the first years of the 20th century as Anna Edson Taylor set out to be the first woman to shoot Niagara Falls in a barrel. On some levels, the show's a tribute to the can-do ethic of an ordinary American, something that might have appealed to George M. Cohan. Yet, LaChiusa takes Taylor's tale further than Cohan ever would, and, after she has succeeded in her goal, the musical looks, to heartbreaking effect, at what happens subsequent to a person having achieved his or her 15 minutes of fame.
It's pretty epic stuff and you might expect that it could inspire dry, overly esoteric musical theater. But in LaChiusa's hands, the dual nature of his interests result in works that can thrill as the epic and intimate intertwine in both the narratives and the music itself.
To experience the breadth of the aural tapestry LaChiusa can weave, just listen to the first four and a half minutes of Ghostlight Records' new cast album for Giant. The disc starts out with the sound of a lone guitar and a single male voice singing. The number, "Aurelia Dolores," may sound as if it a bittersweet ode to a long-lost love, but it's not. Instead, it's a quiet, deeply felt paean to the hardships and heartbreak of history of the land the character calls home.
LaChuisa follows this delicate sequence with the soaring "Did Spring Come to Texas?," where the show's central character, Texas rancher Jordan "Bick" Benedict (Brian d'Arcy James), joyously enthuses about the trials he's endured at the hands of time and nature and then, humorously adds one new hardship to his list, waiting for his new bride, Virginian blue-blood Leslie Lynnton (Kate Baldwin). Unlike what's preceded, this number surges with the kind of bombast that you might associate with the works of Aaron Copeland, but at its core, it's curiously a very private sort of reflection or interior monologue that's become public.
This kind of dichotomy throughout Giant and LaChiusa's shrewd writing is enhanced by Bruce Coughlin's orchestrations for a 16-member ensemble which blend acoustic simplicity with symphonic extravagance for LaChiusa's score that's concurrently period and contemporary.
So, dive in, savor the performances of the A-list talent assembled for this Public Theater production, and get swept along for this moving and provocative musical journey.