Music and Lyrics: Michael John LaChiusa
Reviewer: Emily Garside
Michael John LaChiusa is a challenging and often divisive composer and the recording of his latest work First Daughter Suite following its staging at the Public Theatre (New York) highlights why LaChiusa is simultaneously critically praised but also seen as a challenging composer. The work is clever, intriguing and musically brilliant, but also difficult to engage with and listen to particularly in the context of a Cast Recording without the aid of the live performance to engage with.
This four-part oratorio is a sequel, of sorts, to Mr. LaChiusa’s First Lady Suite (1993). It is a reflection on power and powerlessness by those close to one of the greatest seats of power-the President of the United States. As the title suggests, taking the point of view of various First Daughter’s across a series of self-contained sections. In this, LaChiusa weaves the personal and political in a clever and witty series of narratives. The stories follow Patricia Nixon and daughters Tricia and Julie, Rosalynn and Amy Carter, Betty and Susan Ford, Patti Davis and mom Nancy Reagan, and Barbara Bush. Although a focused series of narratives, they are a challenge to listen to, particularly without context.
Musically and Lyrically the stories are cleverly woven, engaging and brilliant. LaChuisa is a truly a masterful writer, but it still remains a difficult listen. The subjects, as much as style, provides a challenge to the listener, requiring a focused concentrated engagement with the recording in order to understands and truly appreciate the writing. In taking on historical figures through the First Daughter’s there is a fascinating blend of history and fiction to be unpicked in the lyrics. Whether familiar with the history of the characters or not this complex but very human narrative challenges the intellect of a listener while also being emotionally engaging.
Taking on this series of vignettes is certainly a contrast, and some might say a refinement of La Chuisa’s usual broad, epic style. While his previous works such as The Wild Party (2000) or Giant (2009) have been broad and sprawling in narrative and musical scope, First Daughter Suite feels more focused, more controlled – a challenge that the performers rise to.
There are some beautifully crafted numbers within the musical Rachel Bay Jones and Carly Tamer perform Daughters of a soft lament about daughters whose ‘dreams are not their own’ in a hauntingly beautiful duet. The variety of styles in the writing and performance are seen in Anita’s Song performed by Isable Santiago, drawing on Latin influences and folk songs. Meanwhile the finale Let Go performed again by Rachel Bay is a soaring and beautiful number.
First Daughter Suite is a challenging work to engage with on recording alone, but for fans or newcomers alike it’s a great introduction to LaChuisa’s unique style. Although not an easy or ‘background’ listen, this is an example of innovative and progressive musical theatre writing, fused with a fascinating twist on historical narratives.