A conversation with the creative team behind Los Otros. Director Noah Himmelstein, Composer Michael John LaChiusa, Book/Lyrics Writer Ellen Fitzhugh.
Johanna Gruenhut [JG]: This is an autobiographical piece. How close to home do you get? Is anything off limits?
Ellen Fitzhugh [EF]: Well, the piece is autobiographical in nature, if not in detail. Certainly there are things that are manufactured in there, but the ones that really are autobiographical are things that I hope people will think are manufactured because it’s a little sensitive sometimes.
JG: So what is it like to invite another person, or in this case another two people to help edit and shape your own story and experiences?
EF: When other people, likes these two [Michael John LaChiusa and Noah Himmelstein] help to edit and shape I am forever grateful ‘cause that doesn’t always come easily.
Noah Himmelstein [NH]: It is sensitive. For a long time when we were working it was on the phone or over email, and you want to be careful about how you edit. So, it’s great to be all together when we are working, or from my point of view, shaping. The really wonderful things are the most unusual things, and one of the things that make the piece so authentic and revelatory and different than most things you’ve seen before, that’s where the good stuff is. And that it is based in truth is what is wonderful about it.
You know, working with Ellen’s work is an extremely pleasurable experience as a composer because she writes the most extraordinary lyrics. I think she is the best living lyricist we have working in our country today.
Michael John LaChiusa [MJLC]: You know, working with Ellen’s work is an extremely pleasurable experience as a composer because she writes the most extraordinary lyrics. I think she is the best living lyricist we have working in our country today. And also to the nature of her story telling appeals to me in such a visceral, very potent, magical way that it’s next to impossible not to look at her words and not want to musicalize every single one of them cause they sing and that is a real gift that Ellen has and one that I’ve learned from her over the years since she is my mentor. And knowing her for as long as I have and deeply as I have, it’s wonderful to go into her work and be her heart, because that’s what music is. It’s the heartbeat of the show. And for her to give me the gift of allowing that to happen is a joy and a pleasure.
EF: ‘Allowing’ isn’t exactly the word I would use about having you as composer on this show. For me, it was mandatory. Because not only are you this brilliant composer and lyric writer and book writer and imaginer, but also because you know me so well, you know where the words come from. And when you bring the music in, it’s always for me, more than I ever could have hoped for.
NH: Ellen also has an incredible understanding of how music is set. And what wants to be sung. You know, this piece goes in and out of speaking and song. And that’s an extraordinary talent. And it’s enormous high praise—Michael John, for many of his shows has written book and lyrics, and to have such deep respect for another writer, and it being Ellen, and Michael John teaches at NYU, he teaches lyric writing and composing.
JG: How does the collaborative process begin? Do you write the words and then just hand them off? Do you talk about the emotional qualities you’re looking for?
MJLC: We don’t talk about anything.
EF: Oh no. I wrote whatever the initial work was and then I sent it to him and that was it.
MJLC: And I did it.
EF: He just did it. He did it!
People think, “oh, you wrote a musical!” But the real writing happens in the room, with the actors and the director. That’s when you are really a writer.
MJLC: Well, we’d look at it; there’d be a bunch of rewrites. We might have some questions. But really, the BIG thing that happened, the big step that happens is the handing it over. I mean, we do our writing. I mean, people think, “oh, you wrote a musical!” But the real writing happens in the room, with the actors and the director. That’s when you are really a writer. It doesn’t happen when we’re at the piano or the typewriter. The real writing happens when you’re tailoring for the actors. And that’s when it becomes really exciting and we go: “oops, we really fucked up” or “wow we really did good.” But we only know that when we hear the actors singing and the director staging. That’s the only time that I really feel like I’m writing.
EF: Michael John is excellent at seeing when something works and when it doesn’t.
MJLC: We’re both good at that.
EF: I tend to want to cling to things a little bit more than he does, saying, “oh it’ll work, it’ll work…we can make it work.” But he really has a sense of ‘nuh-uh,’ which when writing is a really precious gift.
NH: Are you able to name, consciously or unconsciously, when you read a lyric “ah that’s this?” When you receive a lyric from Ellen, how do you know, emotionally, physically, mentally, what needs to happen?
MJLC: Well, the first thing to know is “what is the character feeling in that moment?” You know, is the character in love? [Thumping his chest] Bum, Bum, Bum. Is the character scared? [Thumping his chest] bumbumbumbum. Because it all comes from the heartbeat of the moment. So, that’s what I respond to. And also Ellen’s so smart about how she puts words together, the rhythm. It’s natural what you’re going to do musically, it sort of spells itself out. I mean, I screw-up sometimes, but then I go and fix it.
EF: You must have done all that correcting before you sent me or before I heard anything.
MJLC: Of course. I wouldn’t show you shit.
NH: You put your feet in the character’s shoes.
NH: And then think: what is that sound?
MJLC: Absolutely. I mean, when you’re working with a lyricist as brilliant as Ellen that’s there already. The character is already there. So, yeah, it’s just feet in, be in the heartbeat. That’s the beauty part of it all.
JG: Noah, what is it like to step into a collaboration that’s been ongoing? How do you create a space for yourself within the partnership?
NH: I’ve known Michael John for about ten years now. And a couple of years ago they had brought this piece to me. They had done it once before and they thought it might want to be seen again. So, immediately they asked me and put it in my hands and gave me complete freedom and said “we want to see what you can bring to this, you younger, you have a different perspective,” it was a very open door. It gave me complete permission. They said “nothing was precious.” That was a major thing. Make what you will of this. So about a year and a half of phone calls and emails and here we are at Everyman. I’m very sensitive to them, in the sense that this [pointing to Michael John & Ellen] is the creative art and that this [pointing to himself] is part of the interpretive part with the actors, so it’s always their piece, and we’re all just feeling our way in the dark to realize it in three dimensions so that audiences can feel the kind of excited banter you’re getting right now, about what is moving, the heartbeat. So I felt immediately welcomed into their space.
EF: I think Noah is giving himself short shrift because really he has done a lot to help shape this work in the new way that it presents itself now.
MJLC: He’s being a little humble.
EF: He’s being a little humble.
MJLC: Don’t be humble.
EF: It doesn’t suit him.
NH: I have incredible respect for the different actors and directors who have crossed through this piece to where we are now. It’s all kind of building on top of each other.
JG: Like a life.
EF & MJLC: Like a life.
MJLC: That’s what it is. That’s the key. It’s wonderful working on the piece at a theater called Everyman…
NH: Because everyone is involved in some way…
MJLC: Because the humanity is the very theme. It is like putting a life on its feet.
EF: It is like that. A renewed life. And Noah has always, from the beginning, has had a sense of what he wanted to do interpretively and he’s always found a way to get back to us without demanding, without naming exactly what it is he wants, but to give us a feeling of what he might need at a certain moment in order to get something he wants to accomplish.
JG: This piece is not linear storytelling and that’s tricky for a director. There had to have been discussions about how to make it two spaces at once, the present, past, memory, fantasy…
NH: …Which is actually much more true to life than most naturalistic theater we see. I mean the conversations we have on a daily basis are the stuff of dream and fantasy and memory; and when I’m talking to you I’m filtering through my family, my school life, my living in New York. And that’s the stuff of great storytelling, as old as Shakespeare or the Greeks. That is what drew me to the piece, that it operated on various levels—like life. And, yes, it is a great challenge for the actors and myself. How can we make the spaces clear so we can be as imaginative as possible? I mean, when you have musical theater, you’re already taking a wonderful leap. There is this soul happening musically. Michael John might say that it is a complete thing when he receives it, but it’s not, because Ellen leaves these wonderful windows that she allows him to fill. The music gives us so much information. In Wagner it says, ‘music never lies.’ So, the actress may be saying one thing very flippantly or having a one-night-stand, which happens in the piece, and the music is just godlike. There is something much deeper happening underneath that. So, we’re trying to figure out how all these things work, how it all goes together, the poetics of the piece, and they do.
EF: And it is a wonderful thing to have Judy McLane and Philip Hernández, who just in the short amount of time that I’ve been able to meet them, and listen to them, and watch them, they are just… It is like they are spooning this up into themselves. They are wonderful. It’s a great joy.
NH: And they bring so much of their own lives and depths of where they’ve been, that we could never imagine or plan for. And that’s the unfinished thing that happens when we’re all in the room bringing it to life.
JG: With this piece I’ve noticed there are a lot of repeated musical phrases. What are these repeated motifs telling us?
MJLC: The architecture of the piece is based on the architecture that Ellen presented it in lyric form. The repetitions that happen really came from Ellen and the architecture she created out of the piece. So where she has an A section or sometimes a B section. And we come back to that A, maybe later on in the piece. And it’s the same meter, same rhythm, so therefore I can write the same music. And so it has very profound effects, because when you start hearing it in repetition it has its own meaning after a certain point. So when we get to that A section again, it means something similar, even though it’s being sung by a different character and has a different feeling or a different impetus. Sometimes I play around with the meter, too, though. Like maybe the same meter happens in the B section, but because there’s a gay Latino accountant, I can write a fabulous gay Latino accountant rhythm for it.
JG: Do the repetitions between characters influence your understanding of how it moves through space?
NH: Oh absolutely. I want the audience to be able to connect to the different repeating motifs so that they can make connections between the characters and see, “oh, this is a common emotion that’s happening between them, even though they’re in totally different situations.” It comes back to what are we saying in the grand scheme of things about that common human heart. I mean, when you have our piece which is seemingly about two very different people, who come from different sides of the tracks, where they interact and overlap in their experiences musically is—
MJLC: What’s most important is that Ellen’s story sings.
MJLC: You know, the story, in and of itself, is about how we learn about each other by telling our stories to one another, is how we can learn to love each other. And I think that’s one of the key points of Ellen’s story. And what we need more of in the world is love. To paraphrase Al David, what the world needs now. But if we learn to speak with each other and tell each other’s stories and have some understanding of what other people are going through, I think we would be in a far better place.
EF: I think there is absolutely a lack of this in our time now, certainly. What Michael John described isn’t even what I set out to do when I started writing it. I didn’t know we would come to this stage in this day and age, when people are so shattered and brittle and separated from one another, that they don’t take the time to say to one another “look, let me tell you about something that happened to me.” And when the other person hears that, they go: “oh, I never could have imagined that of you” or “oh, now I see why you behaved…” But we know each other through our stories and love comes from that, like Michael John says, not from the ripping and tearing apart and separateness that we’re all going through these days.
JG: The show began years ago, but do you feel it has taken on greater significance given our current events? And is there something you’re hoping audiences will come away feeling?
NH: There is so much anxiety now no matter what your political beliefs are. There is a lot of ‘not-communication’ going on, a lot of noise in the media, a lack of appreciation for one another and there is levity and lightness to these stories. Even though what they share are their personal histories, which can be messy and dark, they arrive at buoyancy and a levity with each other. That lightness, that joy is so needed now.
NH: What inspired you to bring in so many different styles of music?
MJLC: This piece spans decades, a lot of time and place. So, there’s the 1950s so you have a little soupçon, a little taste of something a little girl would have heard on the radio. And that little taste can become a little darker in a couple of places. Or, you’re in 1988 in California, in the suburbs of CA, and what does that smell like, and how do you put that into music—for me it was the Burt Bacharach moment, smiling through the palm trees. There’s also the hurricane that the young man is caught up in, in Mexico, so what does that sound like. That’s cool, too. That’s exciting when you get to go there. So, yes, there’s a lot of place and a lot of time, and music, I just find, is one of the best ways to explain that to people without having to project a date on a wall.
NH: But there is a delight that comes when you hear the music that is reminiscent of a girl group. Your body sort of says: “ahhh”—you feel like you’re in good hands because it reminds you… and you have your own associations and then you’re also given a story that you couldn’t possibly predict. And what is the juxtaposition of the thing that is familiar and then it goes in a different direction. It fulfills a sort of biological need for us with music that allows an audience to dig into certain stories if they recognize things from their own lives…
EF: Yeah, all I had to do was type 1952, and the music was there. Michael John is a master of finding his own way into musicalizing something that tells you instantly where you’re located in time and space.
NH: Which just sonically paints the landscape.
JG: There is a lot of going back to the innocence of youth in this play, and the memories that crystallized in their younger years. Is there a transformative power of the music when we talk about being young?
NH: That is something Ellen and I talked a lot about. And it was one of my ways into the piece. You know I have two young nephews who are eleven and seven, who don’t think about gender and race, and they just kind of live to play and read and draw. And it’s that sweet spot where both of our characters begin, where they’re just coming into their own and learning things, and seeing the other wide-eyed and realizing they can learn something, and then as they get older modifying how they feel and building prejudice, which is what happens at puberty, you start recognizing yourself in relation to everybody. So I think it’s a wonderful theme. There’s a certain magic to kids.
EF: Yea. Yeah. I think it’s important start with these two characters as kids. And again, the music grows with them. It expands and captures new things about them as they mature and get into different situations and spaces.
NH: And as you begin to tell your story with someone you remove the filters. You end up seeing the eleven-year-old, the wide-eyed soul, who wants to play.