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Michael John LaChiusa and Ellen Fitzhugh on the many iterations of Los Otros
How did Michael John LaChiusa and Ellen Fitzhugh's musical monologue Tres Niñas transform into the two-hander Los Otros? It's a 14-year journey that harks back even further to Fitzhugh's childhood.
In 2008, the NYC-based theatre company Premieres launched its Inner Voices series of one-act, one-person musicals and Tres Niñas was the highlight of the bill. Featuring Victoria Clark as a flawed white woman of a certain age recalling her fraught interactions with Mexican immigrants, the solo show only told one side of a complex tale of culture clash and unexpected connection.
A few years later, when LaChiusa received a commission from Centre Theatre Group in Los Angeles, he asked book writer-lyricist Fitzhugh if she would be interested in expanding the piece, which was loosely inspired by her recollections of growing up in Southern California. After two developmental productions, the latest iteration of Los Otros is having its NYC premiere at A.R.T./New York Theatres Off Broadway.
"I hope we got it right this time out," says composer LaChiusa, a five-time Tony nominee whose credits include The Wild Party, Marie Christine and Chronicle of a Death Foretold. "It's been a lot of fun and puzzle-solving. How do you combine these stories and yet continue the narrative so that there's constant forward movement of action and discovery and adventure?"
Los Otros, which means "The Others" in English, centers on Lillian (Girl From The North Country's Luba Mason), a white, divorced mother and Carlos (Come From Away's Caesar Samayoa), a gay, Mexican immigrant and the surprising ways their lives intertwine. In the musical's first incarnation at LA's Mark Taper Forum in 2012, the characters' stories were siloed and separated by an intermission. "That did not satisfy me or Ellen," recalls LaChiusa. "We knew we could intersperse their stories and we began playing with that idea."
In 2017, LaChiusa and Fitzhugh debuted a new version of Los Otros at Baltimore's Everyman Theatre in which the characters' stories unfolded concurrently, though they didn't interact until the final scene. "As the piece developed in Baltimore, we realized it was really important for the audience to go on the journey of solving how these two are connected," says LaChiusa. "Gradually, you learn why they are telling their stories to each other—and to us."
The links between the characters are even deeper this time around thanks to structural changes and a reordering of songs and episodes. Although the show spans from the 1930s to 2000, it's made up of little moments, like Lillian as a girl in the '50s playing with paper dolls and sneaking food to a Mexican family, and Carlos picking plums with his family and other Mexicans on summer break. "It's the most mundane things—picking up a pen to write to your lover, walking home in the rain—that make up our lives, and that's what I enjoy writing about," says LaChiusa. "We all think we need big gestures, but we don't. It's the small things that add up after a while, and that, to me, is musical. Those things turn me on. That's a song."
Fitzhugh—who earned a Tony nomination for her lyrics for Grind and has cocreated several Off-Broadway musicals, including Broadbend, Arkansas, another expanded Inner Voices solo—has a similar artistic sensibility, which makes sense. The two have been collaborating for decades, ever since Fitzhugh took LaChiusa under her wing at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in New York. She calls him one of the "most important people" in her life, and he says writing music for her words comes naturally and quickly since "I know the voice because it's my mentor's voice."
They also share an affinity for Mexican culture. "Growing up in Southern California, Spanish was around me all the time," says Fitzhugh. "I love the language and I have found many opportunities to incorporate it into my work, and I was happy to be able to do that again with this show." LaChiusa is drawn to Mexican music. "I love the complex rhythms. I love the fun of it," he says. "There's an amazing amount of storytelling that goes into a song. The music has that wonderful drive, and you just cannot help but move to it."
Los Otros is about finding common ground, which feels even more urgent now than when LaChiusa and Fitzhugh began working on the musical a decade ago. "We end the show in the year 2000, happy Y2K, with these two characters hoping that this century will be better than the last," says LaChiusa. "It's that hope that things will get better that's been very important to us as we've gone through what we've gone through. You never know what's ahead and what will keep us together is community."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Los Otros. Go here to browse all theatre, dance and music offers.
Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Caesar Samayoa and Luba Mason in Los Otros. Photo by Russ Rowland.