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The Tony nominees and frequent collaborations talk about their latest project
"I learned my strength from the women in my life," says Michael John LaChiusa with moving sincerity. A prolific, triple threat musical theatre writer who has penned the books, lyrics and music for Hello Again, The Wild Party and Marie Christine, to name a handful, LaChiusa is known for crafting complex female protagonists in smart, intricate shows. He's done it again with The Gardens of Anuncia at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, a chamber piece inspired by the early life of LaChiusa's frequent collaborator, director-choreographer-dancer Graciela Daniele, who came of age in Argentina during the Perón regime.
Daniele isn't the only dear female friend of LaChiusa's involved in this production. The Gardens of Anuncia marks his fifth time working with Mary Testa, a beloved character actor known for her scene-stealing performances on Broadway (Oklahoma!, 42nd Street, On the Town) and beyond, particularly her award-winning turn in Queen of the Mist as Niagara Falls barrel daredevil Annie Edson Taylor, a part LaChiusa created expressly for her.
"When you find a collaboration that is so satisfying artistically and creatively, you don't say no," says Testa. "Nobody writes women like Michael John."
He's written several compelling female characters in Anuncia, a memory musical about the title character (a stage avatar for Daniele portrayed by Priscilla Lopez and Kalyn West at different ages) looking back with love on the formidable women who raised her: her Mami (Eden Espinosa), her Tía (Andréa Burns) and her grandmother, played by Testa. Known as Granmama, she is the matriarch at the heart of the family and shares her unconventional approach to life and love with Anuncia.
"There's that saying that there are only three types of women: a virgin, a mother and a whore," says LaChiusa skeptically. "That, of course, is a total lie." He's particularly keen on creating rich roles for older women, who are so rarely in the spotlight on stage. Four of Anuncia's seven parts are played by women over 40, and their characters are all complicated, vibrant and sexual—they tango and sing romantic duets and openly express their desires.
"Granmama to me is the most sensual character in the whole piece," says LaChiusa. "She is the earth in the show, which I think is the most sensual of all elements. Mami is the fire, the sunlight, and Tía is the water—the three elements that you need to make a plant grow."
In the show as in real life, Anuncia's grandmother lives apart from her husband, a sailor who sleeps with other women during his travels. ("Imagine the venereal diseases he brought back home to this woman!" Testa muses.) Their nontraditional marriage must have been shocking in a Catholic country during the mid-20th century, but it worked for them.
"Here's a man she loves to her core. And yet, she knows if she lives with him, she'll end up hating him," Testa explains. "It's such a dichotomy, but it's a great love story. I think it teaches Anuncia to get everything on her own terms, but also to be careful who she loves."
Even though Granmama lived decades ago, Testa finds her inspirational, a woman ahead of her time and ours. "It's a big thing as a woman to be alone," she says. "I thought I was an anomaly, but it's not the case. Women are able to have very rich, full lives on our own. We've always been fed that you're nothing unless you're married or you're in a relationship, and that is not true." LaChiusa adds that Granmama is happy alone. As she says in the show, "I have myself."
Of course, Granmama isn't really alone—she has her daughters and granddaughter. Similarly, Testa and LaChiusa point to each other and their other frequent artistic collaborators as a kind of chosen family.
"I would do anything for Michael John, any piece, small part, big part, it's always the most magical, wonderful experience," Testa says. "All you need as an actor is in his music. And I love that. It allows me to expand and create and feel free, and, at the same time, have a roadmap of where I need to go."
For his part, LaChiusa appreciates that while Testa has an impressive belt, she doesn't confuse power with poignancy. "It's easy to sing loud," he says. "But if you want her to sing soft, you know she can do it. As I wrote in one of my lyrics for Giant: 'True pianissimo is not the result of weakness, but of strength.' And that is something that Mary has." He also adores her fearlessness. "She doesn't back away from anything," he says, sharing an anecdote from Marie Christine. When they worked together on the Broadway production of that Medea-inspired musical, LaChiusa and director Daniele had Testa's character stand completely silent at the end of the show as she takes in the full horror of what Marie Christine has done to her children. It's a moment LaChiusa will never forget. "When you can trust a person to stand for ten minutes on stage and not do a darn thing but just be, that is artistry."
The Gardens of Anuncia is also frequently available at our TKTS Booths.