Monday, November 14, 2011

Opening Tomorrow: The Provocative, Seductive "Hello Again"

The Musical Program at Illinois Wesleyan's School of Theatre Arts has a reputation for being remarkable. I'm still telling people about their "Urinetown" from back in 2005. Yes, IWU has performed classics like "Of Thee I Sing," the Gershwin/Gershwin/Kaufman/Ryskind show from 1932, and "Once Upon a Mattress," the "Princess and the Pea" musical from 1959, with music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer and book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer. But they've also tackled more edgy, challenging material, like the afore-mentioned "Urinetown," as well as "Passion," the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine collaboration that asks whether the depth of one moody, sickly and unappealing woman's obsessive love can overcome resistance from a handsome soldier; and last spring, "Lucky Nurse and Other Short Musical Plays," a collection of short pieces by Michael John LaChiusa, whose work I called "relentless, discordant, fragmented music and sharp, pointy lyrics that jab us repeatedly with his bleak world view," when I wrote about "Lucky Nurse" back in April. Definitely challenging material.

Now IWU and director Scott Susong, Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts and Head of Music Theatre, who also directed "Lucky Nurse," brings us "Hello Again," LaChiusa's full-length musical that looks at intimacy, both sexual and emotional, and how those don't always overlap. "Hello Again" is based on "La Ronde," an 1897 play by Arthur Schnitzler, which shows us ten characters paired up in different liaisons. (You'll see all ten in the IWU poster shown at the top of this post.) Schnitzler built his play to open with two characters, one of whom moves into a second scene with a third character, with the third person moving into the next scene with a fourth actor, and so on, until the last scene, in which Actor #10 is paired with Actor #1, circling back from the first scene. (And, again, the poster image illustrates that.)

LaChiusa uses that same "ronde" structure, although he adds another wrinkle. LaChiusa uses a different decade of the 20th century for each scene, varying the style and tone of the music for each scene to fit the new pair of lovers. It's ingenious and engaging, all at the same time, and it means that LaChiusa's characters may be aboard the Titanic in 1912 in one scene, but move to a 1970s disco in the next.

To preview "Hello Again," I posed some questions about the show to Scott Susong. He gave me such good (and complete) answers that I decided it would be a shame to try to paraphrase him or chop it up. So here are Susong's musings on what "Hello Again" is and why it needs to be seen. I think you'll agree that his words are much more interesting than mine would've been! The bolding is mine, however, as I wanted to highlight some particularly good points. (Susong also told me quite a bit about the Music Theatre program at IWU, but I am saving most of those remarks for another piece. Again, quite fascinating to get a behind-the-scenes look at how they do such remarkable work at IWU.)

First, Scott, can you talk about what draws you to LaChiusa? How would you describe his strengths as a composer?

From the time that I was introduced to his work with the success of the 1993/94 Lincoln Center production of “Hello Again,” I have felt that his music speaks directly to me as an artist and as an audience member. It's as if you don’t need anything other than his composition to understand the subtext of any given scene. I think he is my generation's Stephen Sondheim. Like Sondheim, LaChiusa has made a career by defying audience and critical perceptions of what makes a musical. Where other contemporary theatre composers have a tendency to gravitate towards nostalgic recreations of popular films, MJL finds inspiration in the unforgiving human condition. His work creates and inhabits worlds that would be appropriate for playwrights like Harold Pinter, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams or Eugene O'Neill -- but are realms that most musical theater composers and librettists would not dare enter. It is so inspiring to have these complex subjects and characters to delve into as both an actor and certainly as a director.

How does “Hello Again” fit into the overall picture of IWU Music Theater?

Doing a show like this is an actor’s dream. The density and the nuance that exists in all of LaChiusa’s work is both daunting and inspiring. You really want to come up to the task. Aside from the emotional truth of the characters' lives (every actor plays one character living in two different decades but with similar given circumstance causing a liminality that is demanding but kind of awesome) as well as several ensemble roles so just changing your clothes and moving set pieces and being where you are supposed to be is a test of focus and endurance.

The structure of “Hello Again” makes it stand out, both the “ronde” aspect where one character moves forward into the next scene, and the fact that LaChiusa chose to change decades and musical styles with each new couple. Why do you think he was attracted to the Schnitzler piece?

I think that many artists were looking at “La Ronde” in the late 80s and early 90s as it seemed a perfect lens to look at the AIDS crisis. Schnitzler wrote it a hundred years before to illustrate that syphilis didn’t know class or position and that regardless of who you are, you aren’t immune to the social disease of the day. But I think the choice to use “La Ronde” to talk about AIDS was too cliché or somehow would have diminished the devastating loss the artistic community was feeling at that time. Michael John always looks beyond the obvious and into the physiological world of his characters. Humans are messy and unpredictable and what they do and choose to express in the doing often defies understanding. I think he found himself much more drawn to the character study of why people look to physical intimacy to build themselves up or for self-satisfaction. Sex, like people, is messy and complicated but also universal. Without emotional intention, it is empty and basically meaningless. So I think he was really drawn to the lack of intimacy he found in a piece that is about ten sexually intimate encounters -- the lack of intimacy in intimacy.

These are not loving encounters and frankly they weren’t in the original source material, either. I think he is just addicted to exploring human nature and why we do such crazy things and don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. He is pretty faithful in his adaptation; I think he used the twist of jumping back and forth to different decades of the 20th Century so he could express his “Americaness.” He is an American artist and so, like most of us at the end of the 20th Century, really wanted to explore American Iconography. The piece that he wrote just before “Hello Again” was his “First Lady Suite.” Talk about exploring American Iconography.

I think he looked at the American decades and their prevailing social mores and decided where each encounter would have the most punch. An unfaithful young wife is far more thought-provoking with a 1930’s wife than in, let’s say, the 1970s ideal. This allowed him to explore musically what the subtext of each encounter's story is and to use musical motifs to comment and make connections. I feel it is genius, but it does ask a lot of the audience.

LaChiusa’s work is not something that can just wash over an audience passively; he demands that one interact and wrestle with all of the possible meanings. He gives so many opportunities for you to find your own experience in bits and pieces of each encounter while keeping you at just enough distance to also see the social relevance and the political possibilities.

A scene from IWU's production of "Lucky Nurse."
(Photo by Josh Levinson, BFA MT '13)

I know you’ve directed “Lucky Nurse,” but have you performed in or directed other LaChiusa pieces?

“Lucky Nurse” is usually presented as just the four chamber pieces “Lucky Nurse,” “Break,” “Eulogy for Mister Hamm,” and “Agnes.” I wanted to bring Michael John to the IWU campus for our Music Theatre Workshop class, but unfortunately his schedule prevented him from coming. When I still thought he was coming, he and I had e-mailed about the possibility of doing one of his unpublished works, “Hotel C’est L’Amour.” Generally Music Theatre Workshop does a new or unpublished piece with the writer in residence for a portion of the time during the course. It just didn’t work out and it was at such a late date that I felt I still needed to do LaChiusa because the students were so excited to work with his compositions. So I took the four chamber musicals and mixed them with two from “First Lady Suite” and both sides of “Kesa and Morito” that open each act of “See What I Wanna See.” This way we were exploring a variety of his works (many not yet recorded and the students were banned from listening to the ones that had been recorded until after the presentation so that it would be like working on new pieces with nothing to go off of) but we could still fit it into an evening. Michael John was very supportive and kind to let us do it.

Personally, I have sung and presented snippets of his work, but it was all so new when I was still performing (he is only 6 years older than I) that it wasn’t really available. Since I started directing and teaching it has been a waiting game. The music is rhythmically very tricky and it asks for very rangy singers who can safely negotiate multiple octaves in scores of styles and you don’t often find enough of them at any one time. We are fortunate that we have some killer musicians in our program right now who also happen to be strong actors. It is a dream come true.

Is it challenging doing “Hello Again” with its mature themes and complex score with student performers? Are they enjoying doing the show or finding it a little daunting?

Yes. I would love to just leave it at that, but I know this is actually the question I am asked most. I actually have colleagues from other Music Theatre programs flying in to see the show because they also what to know how it is working. Yes, the students are enjoying the work very much. It is intimidating, but actors on this level love the bravery it takes to tackle difficult subject matter and they feel safe and protected and cared for at all times. It is so important that as educators we give them the opportunity to experience these things while they are sheltered and when they don’t have the distraction of career or fame getting in the way. It is easy to say “I won’t do nudity” or “I won’t simulate sex” until your agent calls and says it is for a hit television program, feature film or Broadway. In an educational environment they get to experiment and figure out what they really want to do and are comfortable with without it having an impact on their career.

The problem is we only do 6 performances so, with something like nudity for instance, the actor becomes very relaxed in rehearsal and with the cast and then the crew and then they are faced with the audience and instead of having weeks of previews to get used to it again, they generally get comfortable again around Friday or Saturday and we close on Sunday. But if it isn’t gratuitous, it is such a great learning opportunity. They learn the union rules around such things and what they can expect if asked to do this legitimately. They ultimately learn if they really are at ease with it or if they just thought they were. Anything like this is always announced prior, fully vetted, and no show is cast based on the willingness of a person, but on their talent. If the most talented person who fits into the casting puzzle is unwilling to do whatever and it doesn’t compromise the author’s intent, we will always take it out. We don’t add these things to scripts, but only deal with them if they are in the printed licensed text.

With “Hello Again” it is sexual simulation and very adult material, but there is nothing in the script about nudity. The original Lincoln Center production didn’t employ nudity in the production, but was more along the lines of what I have done with the piece. The 2011 revival did employ nudity but only with all of the men (odd) as all of the women remained completely clothed. I found this strange and thought it inherently muddled the purpose of the sexual simulation. I have also altered some of the encounters -- not to soften them for our audience or for the students -- but to make them feel more like the score. I would say for the majority of the student actors the sexual simulation has not been the daunting part of the process (we have laughed a lot at how silly sex can be) but it is the emotional lives of these characters and how desperate they are for connection that has been such a challenge for young performers -- this is tough stuff for a 42 year old much less a 22 year old.

The big issue is that it is a musical so everything is scored to the music…every sexual act…every moment of contemplation… It is a bit like Ginger Rogers having to do everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in heels. Every actor choice has to be so precise and technical but appear believable. If I have any point of pride in this production it is the wonderfully mature way that all of my actors have handled this delicate work and how much it matters to them that they find the right tone for the story they are participating in telling.

What do you think is important about “Hello Again” that audiences should definitely experience?

I think all of the best theatre is a reflection of society. We hold up a mirror and say look, find yourself in this story, find your family, your community, your country, your world and look at it honestly and see if you like it or if you feel you don’t how can you change. It is all the human condition and sometimes it is ridiculous and we laugh and sometimes it is heartbreaking and we weep but it is always worth examining.

Do any songs stand out for you? Anything in the show that we should look for if we’re coming?

Well, that is a hard one… Audra McDonald recorded both “Tom” and “Mistress of the Senator” on her debut album “Way Back to Paradise” (from LaChiusa’s “Marie Christine”). They are standouts because they are songs and he often writes musical scenes that don’t follow a song format but feel a bit more like “20th Century Music.” I have always loved the title song “Hello Again” sung by the Whore and “In Some Other Life” sung by the Nurse, but working on the show I have become really enamored of the men’s songs: “Listen to the Music,” “Safe” and “The Bed Was Not My Own” all come to mind.

I would hope that audiences will come open and ready to wrestle with the rollercoaster of these people’s lives and how much they need to find an authentic connection without understanding the inequality of sex and love. There are so many thing that are nonlinear and different about the storytelling and while the acting may appear at times realistic and at other times magical there is always a liminality about time and space that ask the watcher to set significance instead of spoon feeding implication. I have tried to give some touchstones and elements to guide the audience through, but ultimately the experience is highly personal and one that I think like sexual encounters is singularly individual.

"Hello Again" opens tomorrow night, Tuesday, November 15th at IWU's McPherson Theatre. For ticket information, click here.


  1. As a parent of a student currently investigating college MT programs, I would very much like to know which schools are visiting this production and considering producing this type of material, for a number of reasons.

    First, if a student prefers not to do this material, and only two main-stage musicals go up every year, then the student has a severely limited chance at casting that year. Is that fair? Most of the musicals auditioning now on B'way do not involve nudity; why should a large percentage of a school's shows in any year involve nudity?

    Broadway has not been successful keeping videos off of Youtube; any student in these shows needs to be perfectly happy with being seen on Youtube at some point, for as long as the internet continues. It will happen. A college won’t be any better than B'way at preventing this.

    On B'way, a performer can slip into the Times Square crowd and live anonymously. A student on campus has nowhere to hide; he/she must see classmates in English, profs in office visits, the servers at the dining hall, etc. I fear there could be trouble with campus odd-ball stalkers.

    And honestly, can we think of any performer who has done similar material professionally that attended an MT school where he/she "learned" this "skill set"? No? Then maybe it isn't necessary at school, with young people who are so eager to please and show a cooperative spirit that they are not thinking too well about possible consequences.

  2. I am not in any way associated with Illinois Wesleyan, but I do see a lot of their shows, so I am going to respond to this since a lot of people who might be in a position of knowledge seem unable to do so through Blogger comments.

    Anyway, if nudity is what you are concerned about, you will notice that Professor Susong specifically states that there is NO nudity in this production of "Hello Again," just as there was no nudity in the original Lincoln Center production. There has been no nudity in any production, mainstage or otherwise, that I have seen at Wesleyan this year. That includes the musicals "Big" and "Spitfire Grill" as well as the "Lucky Nurse" pieces and now "Hello Again." Last fall, the mainstage musical was "Once Upon a Mattress." I have no idea where your idea of a "large majority" of shows comes from.

    I have, however, seen on-stage nudity in college productions before, whether musical or not. "Our Country's Good," "Stop Kiss," "Bent," "M Butterfly," "Angels in America," "Equus," "Marat/Sade," "Six Degrees of Separation," "Spring Awakening," some productions of "Cabaret," etc. It depends on the actor, the director and the school, it seems, and what their mission is. In contrast, IWU performed "Rocky Horror" and "Passion" without the nudity you might see in other productions (including Broadway for "Passion," where Marin Mazzie was naked for most of the first scene. She attended Western Michigan University, by the way. No clue what their program is like.)

    And as for what Susong was actually talking about, which is sexually suggestive or sexually provocative material (NOT nudity), I do think most acting students see material like that in college productions, mostly because sexuality and the emotions that go with it are very important when you're 20, so material that looks at that appeals to college-age actors. No, I don't mean they're romping around having sex on stage. I mean, they work on plays that are frank and unabashed when they talk about child molestation ("How I Learned to Drive") or stalking ("Boy Gets Girl") or gay and lesbian issues in an unfriendly world ("Angels in America," "The Children's Hour," "Stop Kiss") or how young adults are desperate to find out about sex but their parents and teachers shut them down, causing terrible consequences ("Spring Awakening").

    Meanwhile, it seems to me that a lot of Music Theater students are auditioning for roles in "real" theaters (as opposed to ones at college) during their summers or off-time, where they may very well be doing "Spring Awakening" or "Hair" or "Rent" or other provocative musicals that have roles for people 18-22. "Sweet Charity" is about a hooker. "The Fantasticks" has a whole number about rape. "Chicago" is about murder and adultery and has all kinds of suggestive dancing going on. "Nine" has the "Call from the Vatican."

    In my opinion, students who attend MT programs in large cities are very likely to run into mature material when they audition for "real" shows on their off-time.

  3. Well said Julie. I also want to point out that Broadway is not the only place in the world to make a career in theatre. If this mom or dad is specifically training their child to go to Broadway, they need to know the chances of making it there are about the same as making it into the NFL. Regional theatres all over the country are producing powerful works with real life issues that reflect the human condition. Beauty and the Beast and Wicked are fun but that is not where most actors are artistically fed. Those gigs just pay the bills. I have a feeling those complaining about plays and musicals with adult themes have no issue with movies like Bridesmaids and The Hangover. Except in Hello Again the message is clear. Sexual encounter without emotional connection is painful and can destroy people's lives. That is a message I would like all young people to receive.

  4. @Parent with MT student currently auditioning. I find it facetious that you would worry about your child being cast in something this controversial, your child will be lucky to get into a program let alone be cast. They audition over 250 kids for 12 spots in this program which means 95 percent do not make it. Some of the larger programs have 800-2000 kids auditioning. It's not about the plays they perform at the school, it's about how they can grow from instruction, the process, the connections, the experience and by developing their talent. Many kids don't get a part until their senior year so you need to get your head out of your butt and focus on school where they will learn and develop their talent. This is an excellent school for that. Finally, I agree with the other posters, what planet are you from where Theater is not risque?