Tony Award-nominee visits college

By Shardae Smith

The musical “Bernarda Alba” tells the story of a newly widowed mother who is challenged by her five rebellious daughters. Columbia was able to bring its music composer to campus for the last week of the college’s production.

The Theater Department welcomed famed New York composer Michael John LaChiusa to screen its adaptation of his musical during a sold-out show at the Getz Theatre, 72 E. 11th St., on March 2.

LaChiusa’s show focuses on the fascist movement and dangers associated with sexuality and lust.

The production is alive with singing and flamenco dancing and is based on Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1936 play, “The House of Bernarda Alba.”

According to musical director of the Theater Department, Andra Velis Simon, it was a quick e-mail transaction that led LaChiusa to Chicago.“It was surprisingly easy,” Simon said. “I e-mailed him, and he e-mailed me back within the hour. I’ve been a huge fan of his work for some time, and Columbia students are huge fans of his work.”

A panel discussion followed the March 2 performance and featured LaChiusa; Kimberly Senior, producer of the college’s production; Coya Paz, an assistant professor in the Theater Department; Rosetta Magdalen, flamenco consultant for Flamenco Chicago; and Stephanie Shaw, senior lecturer in the Theater Department, who also played the role of Bernarda Alba.

LaChiusa said he loves musicals because they are “funny creatures.”

“It has a lot of laughs for it to be a tragedy, and it has a lot of comedic lines,” LaChiusa said. “It’s a lot of silly stuff coming out of these girls’ mouths. You guys got [it], and I love that.”

According to LaChiusa, musicals can come from any source, such as films, poems and Greek legends. But he said the adaptation to musical theater from performance is tricky.

The idea to transform “The House of Bernarda Alba” into a musical was brought to him. He said he was scared because the original is considered a classic production.

According to LaChiusa, he was interested in the dance aspect of the play, which featured faux-flamenco.

He said he was inspired by Jerome Robbin’s choreography in “West Side Story,” and the dancing in that play wasn’t real mambo but Robbin’s version.

“What we try to do in the music business is to bring out our own, and filtered it through ourselves,” he said. “So this is version of the play in my filter.”

Shaw described LaChiusa as a “hot young composer” whose work isn’t for the simple-minded.

“His work tends to examine those deeper, darker places, where musicals don’t usually take you,” Shaw said. “You don’t usually go to a musical and have to think about the complicated side of life.”

LaChiusa said he didn’t name his adaptation of the play after the original “The House of Bernarda Alba” because it’s not the same. He said as he watched the Theater Department’s performance, he wondered if he gave away too much of Bernarda Alba.

“For a musical, we have to coin into the internal lives [of the characters],” he said. “I wanted to go inside of Bernarda Alba not apologize for her or explain anything but [to show] she is part of this and the heart of the house because of these issues. It’s very clear fascism sucks, and this is what happens if you close the doors.”

Theater Department Chair John Green said the department’s ability to organize LaChiusa’s visit shows the passion in which the college approaches its work.

“It enables our program to really make a connection with contemporary composers,” Green said. “[I hope] we can now build into the future where that becomes a mainstay of our program, where we are helping composers and working with composers to develop a new work and, therefore, expanding the whole literature of musical theater in the 21st century.”

LaChiusa thanked the college for noticing his efforts with the message he wanted to give with “Bernarda Alba” but said he isn’t solely responsible.

“Musicals are not written alone,” LaChiusa said. “They are written by a group of people inspired by the actors you are working with, directors and choreographers.  None

of this was done on its own. It’s a very collaborative thing. All of the things that make for the electricity [in a show], that will hopefully keep a show living.”