Old Globe’s world premiere musical ‘Gardens of Anuncia’ a love letter to Broadway legend’s roots
Writer-composer Michael John LaChiusa based his show on the early life of his longtime friend, collaborator Graciela Daniele
Over the past 28 years, Broadway veterans and longtime friends Michael John LaChiusa and Graciela Daniele have looked for opportunities to work together on new shows. But when LaChiusa made his latest pitch for another collaboration about three years ago, Daniele didn’t bite.
“Michael John told me, ‘You’ve had such an interesting, tumultuous life, I’d like to write a musical about you.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to live my life twice,’” said Daniele, 81, who will be honored Sept. 26 with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2021 Tony Awards.
But LaChiusa didn’t give up. About six months later, he brought up the idea again, and this time Daniele relented, with one condition.
“I told Michael John it should not be about me but about the women who created me: my grandmother, my mother and my aunt,” she said. “Their personalities were so extraordinary, and they infused this one little girl with all of the things they believed in. I’m a mélange of these women.”
The result is “The Gardens of Anuncia,” a 90-minute musical that will make its world premiere Friday, Sept. 10 at he Old Globe. The Globe-commissioned piece will feature a book, music and lyrics by LaChiusa and stage direction and co-choreography by Daniele. Her husband of 47 years, nine-time Tony winner Jules Fisher, will design the lighting.
The musical traces just the early years of Daniele’s life, where as a young girl in Buenos Aires, she was abandoned by her father at age 6 and then lost her beloved grandfather a year later. Sharing an apartment with her mother, grandmother and aunt, she developed an inner strength and drive, an insatiable curiosity, a love for storytelling and music, and a passion for ballet, which she began studying in earnest at age 7. Eight years later, she moved alone to Paris to join a ballet company, which eventually became her springboard to Broadway. The story is told as a loose-form memory play, narrated by a fictional older woman named Anuncia, who looks back on her life as she tends the garden at her country home.
LaChiusa, 59, said he’s grateful for the opportunity to create this musical for Daniele, who has been like a second mother to him since their first collaboration, Lincoln Center’s 1993 off-Broadway musical “Hello Again,” which he wrote and composed and she directed and choreographed.
“It’s a chance for me to thank these women for the gift of Graciela. It’s the fulfillment of a dream to make her happy,” he said. “Then it became an even larger chance to thank all of those women and men in our lives for the triumphs and successes we do have. It’s good to remember those who have passed and cherish their memories.”
In early 1960s Paris, Daniele was working as a touring ballerina when she saw the film musical “West Side Story” and was stunned by how Jerome Robbins’ jazz choreography expanded the storytelling ability of dance. Eager to learn this theatrical form, the 23-year-old ballerina moved to New York in September 1963, was spotted in a dance class by a Broadway choreographer and within two months was in rehearsals for her first Broadway show.
In 1981, she choreographed her first show, “Pirates of Penzance,” and earned a Tony nomination. Eight more Tony nods would follow in the categories of choreography, direction and musical book for shows, including “Ragtime,” “Once on This Island,” “The Rink” and “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” a 1996 musical she co-wrote with LaChiusa and choreographed.
“Chronicle of a Death Foretold” was LaChiusa’s first Tony-nominated musical. Since then, he’s earned four more Tony nods and 13 Drama Desk nominations for shows that include “The Wild Party” and “Marie Christine,” the latter of which was directed by Daniele.
Over the years, Daniele said she and LaChiusa have worked together on seven shows, but “Gardens” may be her last, although she admits she’s been threatening to retire for the past 20 years. She describes LaChiusa as the son she never had.
“I really feel that if I had a choice of a child, I would choose Michael John. He has all the qualities that I love,” she said. “We have an extraordinary relationship, and I depend on him for everything, not only in work but in daily life. It’s just like we’re inseparable right now.”
LaChiusa said the reason he loves working with Daniele is because they have a such a “beautiful, simpatico relationship.”
“We often think the same thoughts at the same time,” he said. “To be able to make her smile and make her feel creative, there’s nothing better. Theater is a highly collaborative sport. You can’t do it alone. When you’re able to produce work that inspires your collaborator and comes back to inspire you to be better, that’s a really exciting dynamic to have.”
“The Gardens of Anuncia” started rehearsals at the Old Globe in early August, where Daniele and LaChiusa have both worked in the past. Daniele choreographed “The Snow Ball” there in 1991 and directed and choreographed “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life” there in 2005. LaChiusa wrote the music and lyrics for “Rain,” which made its world premiere at the Globe in 2016.
LaChiusa is a prolific songwriter who estimates he’s written hundreds of musicals over the years. After Daniele gave him the OK to write the show a few years back, he had composed the opening song within 24 hours. But since “Gardens” began rehearsals last month, LaChiusa said he has written several new songs that seem to fit better as the show finds its shape. He praised the Globe and its artistic director, Barry Edelstein, for their openness to the creative process and change if something isn’t working.
“It feels great to be given the freedom to express myself in the way I feel best, without the 1,001 roadblocks that many theaters put up,” he said. “The Globe is remarkably adept at making this a very fertile environment for everyone.”
The “Gardens” cast includes Mary Testa as Granmama (grandmother), “Rain” star Eden Espinosa as “Mamí” (mother) and Andréa Burns as Tía (aunt) . The younger Anuncia is played by Kalyn West and the older Anuncia is played by Carmen Roman.
Daniele said seeing fictionalized versions of her family members often brings her to tears during rehearsals. She describes her own “mamí” as the strong, hard-working father figure of the household and her grandmother as her caregiver who served as the “roots in the trunk of the tree and we were the branches.” But it was her “tía” who introduced her to music and art.
“My aunt was only 12 years older than I was, so she was like an older sister. She adored classical music and after dinner, she’d turn on the radio and we’d lie on the floor and she’d say, ‘Close your eyes and tell me what you see.’ If that’s not the learning of creativity, I can’t imagine anything better than that. She was the one who started baking my brain to tell stories,” Daniele said.
While Anuncia is modeled after Daniele — particularly her passion for nature and gardening at the 18th-century stone-walled house in New Jersey that she and her husband share — she said audience members should not expect to hear about any of her career achievements in “The Gardens of Anuncia.”
“This musical is about emotion. It’s about relationships,” she said. “It’s about how humans get influenced as a child and how they help her to realize her dreams and push her to have strength and clarity and courage and love for the work for the future.”
“The Gardens of Anuncia” will open the Globe’s indoor season in the main Old Globe Theatre. The Globe has instituted a new vaccine and mask policy to protect theatergoers, staff and artists from the surging COVID-19 Delta variant. Details can be found at theoldglobe.org/plan-your-visit/covid-19-policy/.
“The Gardens of Anuncia”
When: Preview performances Friday, Sept. 10 through Sept. 16. Opens Sept. 17 and runs through Oct. 17. Showtimes, 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, with some exceptions.
Where: Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego.
Tickets: $37 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
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