Stalked By Tennessee Williams  //  by Michael John LaChiusa

Composer and writer Michael John LaChiusa conjures Tennessee Williams from beyond the grave.

When Jack Cummings III asked me to underscore his production of Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams, I enthusiastically and immediately said “yes!”  At least I think I did.  I kept telling myself I did while in the midst of composing the music cues Mr. Williams so meticulously demanded, as he does in all his plays.  Each time I thought I could change––maybe, possibly, why-not-the-playwright’s-dead––one of his musical ideas, Mr. Williams was suddenly in the room with me, scowling, smirking, scoffing.  Each time I’d start angrily cursing him about the need for this selection of music or that, I’d be met with cold disdain: think about why I chose this long-forgotten song, or this random snatch of Spanish music, Mr. Williams would drawl in my ear, there’s a reason, boy.  And, of course, there always was, if I thought long and hard enough about character and motive.  But it was annoying––and concerning: so present was the playwright in my mind I thought I might be having some sort of psychotic break. 

Mr. Williams wasn’t to be messed with, I learned.  The use of music in his plays is exact––never arbitrary, never without reason.  It’s meant to compliment or contrast the spoken poetry his complex characters speak.  Not only did the playwright listen closely to the inner life of a troubled spinster, or the wounded soul of an alcoholic, but he listened closely to the outside world, the world his characters feel so desperately detached from. 

Writing music for Summer and Smoke made me very aware of how our lives are constantly being underscored: the sound of screaming ambulances, church bells noting the time of day, a saxophonist practicing in some nearby apartment, a baby crying; underscore that might seem indifferent to whatever personal struggles we might be having, or that might even seem like sardonic commentary––laughing at our sorrow or pain, blasting a comic raspberry at our significant or (usually) insignificant private tragedies.  The sound of the world underscoring your life is not always arbitrary, Mr. Williams said to me.  That random salsa beat blaring out of someone’s car right outside your window, just as you’re settling in to read for the night might not be random.  The outside world is trying to reach you, annoy you, communicate with you, intrude on your inner world, which has its own, unique underscore.  The melody of the world is attempting to speak to the melody of your conscience.  You can choose to ignore it or you can choose to listen to it.  Summer and Smoke became for me a meditation on this idea.

After I’d finished the final edits and handed the sound cues over to our sound designer, my work was done.  As I watched the final dress rehearsal, taking in the magnificent performances of the entire cast, I wept—not only because the production was so profoundly beautiful, but because I felt a terrible loss.  Mr. Williams wouldn’t be waiting at home for me that night, to chide me, to warn me, to teach me.

About the author:

Michael John LaChiusa is a five-time Tony Award–nominated composer, lyricist, and librettist for his Broadway productions of The Wild PartyMarie Christine, and Chronicle of a Death Foretold. LaChiusa’s acclaimed Off-Broadway musicals have been seen at The Public Theater, Lincoln Center Theater, Second Stage Theater, Playwrights Horizons, and Transport Group, among many others, and include First Daughter Suite, GiantQueen of the Mist (Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical), Bernarda Alba, See What I Wanna SeeLittle Fish, Hello Again, and First Lady Suite. His work has been produced and/or commissioned by The Old Globe, Everyman Theatre, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, among others.  LaChiusa’s awards include an Obie Award, a Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla Award, a Kleban Prize, and two Daytime Emmy Awards. LaChiusa teaches at New York University and is a resident of New York City.