First Lady Suite
World Premiere Recording
Michael John LaChiusa's First Lady Suite opened in New York in the fall of 1993. Now, ten years later, this "behind the scenes" look at Jackie Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, and Eleanor Roosevelt has been preserved on disc by PS Classics. In February of 2003, Robbie Rozelle spoke with Michael John about the creation of the piece.
RR: Tell me about First Lady Suite. What first drew you to write the show?
MJLC: I don't know, I began collecting books and materials on the First Ladies early on. I was fascinated with the unelected political role in our government-it really captured my imagination. When I was a kid, there was Rosalyn Carter. She interested me, particularly in terms of feminism in the '70s, because she made great strides in that arena, although she was terrifically put down and criticized for it. That fascinated me. I wondered, "Well, there she is, the President's wife, and no one seems to like her very much for trying to make things better." Eventually, I had amassed so much information on the subject of First Ladies, I said, "Well, you do write musicals... maybe you should use all this trivia that you know."
RR: What drew you to these particular characters?
MJLC: Well, Jackie had always amazed me. But more importantly, I had read an autobiography by her personal secretary, Mary Gallagher. I believe it was right around the time of Jackie's marriage to Onassis, and there was an uproar about Jacqueline Kennedy marrying this Greek billionaire. Mary Gallagher came out with a book, and it was such a delight to read-her character literally jumped off the page, this woman who worked in Jackie's shadows. I thought, "This is a fascinating subject. What would happen if..." I think that rather than doing a bio-drama on the First Ladies, I felt I had to go at it at a different angle. I thought maybe if I took it from a sort of oblique view, I could actually be more free, in terms of theatre, to put that subject onstage, and to talk about the role and the character of the First Lady. I don't think that bio-pics work, necessarily, onstage. They don't hold my interest. I wanted to do something that would be a little bit more in a dramatic context.
RR: How did the Public Theatre become involved?
MJLC: It was George Wolfe's first season there, and he offered to produce it. We had tried out two of the vignettes, "Where's Mamie?" and "Over Texas," at an off-off-Broadway venue called Ensemble Theatre. We did "Over Texas" one year at their one-act festival, the E.S.T. One-Act Marathon. The next year, we did "Where's Mamie?" And I thought, "Let's put it all together," and I wrote a third piece, and I wrote a little Olio to open up the second act, and we began work at it. We had a terrific cast at the Public... Maureen Moore, Alice Playten-who won the Obie for it, the remarkable Carol Woods. I loved them all. There were also some terrific opera singers in it: Priscilla Baskerville, who had done Aida at the Met, and Carolann Page, who had sung Pat Nixon in Nixon in China, the John Adams opera. That was really quite ironic. So that was the wonderful cast of this piece-a group of First Ladies of the Theatre. Kirsten Sanderson directed it, and she was instrumental in helping me develop these vignettes.
RR: What changes were made to the text in the ten years since it premiered at the Public Theatre?
MJLC: I don't think that musicals are ever completely finished. It's a living entity in a lot of respects, because it is theatre, and it goes through changes. I always felt that First Lady Suite needed a ribbon to tie up all the stories... some overall bookend effect. I tried out a prologue at the Hoopskirt Theatre in Philadelphia. Then I got together with Daniel Henning in LA. Daniel is the Artistic Director of the Blank Theatre. It's a great little black box. They've done some terrific stuff, they did my Hello Again, which I thought was really well done and terrifically realized. Danny came to me and said, "Let's take a look at First Lady Suite." I thought it was a perfect match for him and his theatre. Again, with a remarkable cast of First Ladies. When I went out to see it, I was very happy, it was a beautiful version. We tried out an opening and a closing, and what we settled on is what's on the album.
RR: Do you consider this the definitive text to the piece?
MJLC: Right now, I'm really happy with it. It was a little strange for its time, as most of my work seems to be. But it defiantly grows on one. It was wonderful to see in LA and have captured on this recording. It was a joy to go back and work on it.
RR: Will the piece be republished with these changes?
MJLC: It's already published by Dramatist's Play Service. What's great is the piece will go out with the new additions, the opening and the closing.
RR: Are any major pieces missing from the recording?
MJLC: Just the Olio. It was hard to put on, because it's a very visual piece. It's Bess Truman with her daughter at a Christian Democrats Lunch. Margaret is singing a folk song, "Old Missouri," and her mother is upstaging her-and choking on her lunch-while Margaret tries to get through this number. It was such a visual thing, we thought we were better off not recording it, because it's not always pleasant to hear choking sounds and an old lady coughing on CD.
RR: Recordings of regional productions are rare. How did this cast recording come about?
MJLC: I believe the LA offices of Image Entertainment, who distributes PS Classics, saw the show in LA and were very fond of it. They called Tommy [Krasker, of PS Classics] and said, come see this, see if it's something you want to do. These are hard times right now for cast recordings. And First Lady Suite is like so many shows that don't get recorded the first time out-if you're new on the scene, new to writing, very often that doesn't happen. So to have a recording now is really quite a lovely thing.
RR: Do you feel that Hello Again, which opened that same season in New York, overshadowed the original production of First Lady Suite?
MJLC: I don't know. First Lady Suite had a short run, it was a small show. It was around Christmastime. We opened Hello Again immediately after that. I think Hello Again got more attention. Then again, First Lady Suite won an Obie along with Hello Again, and won an Obie for Alice Playten. So, it wasn't completely overshadowed. I usually end up doing two things at the same time-it happens almost every year, two projects back to back.
RR: Since you are such a First Lady nut, what are your thoughts on the current First Lady, Laura Bush?
MJLC: I think she has a lot of grace, and a lot of patience. Obviously! I'm reading through a new bio on her, Laura: America's First Lady, First Mother. She seems a little shy, but she did very well during the great tragedy of 9/11. I'm sure she will be very instrumental in helping guide the President's hand in some of these decisions that have to be made coming up. I hope that she has some influence on him, if indeed she is patient and generous and compassionate. How's that?
RR: That's great! Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing what else you have in store for us.
MJLC: Thank you.