See What I Wanna See, presented by the Blank Theatre Co., opens April 17; plays Thurs.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through May 23. Tickets: $30-$34.99. 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; 323.661.9827 or theblank.com.
Michael John LaChiusa’s See What I Wanna See is, according to the five actors in the Blank’s West Coast premiere of the upcoming musical, a complex piece. It can confuse. It can entice. It examines murder, faith, redemption and more, and is based on three short stories. These stories span centuries, from medieval Japan to 1951 New York to the days after 9-11.
Lesli Margherita, who received the 2009 Laurence Olivier Award for her West End performance as Inez in Zorro, suffered from nightmares in early rehearsals. “It’s because the show was so complex. I had a dream that I went up to the music director, David O, and said, ‘Let me get this straight. You’re telling me I’m finding my first note from a rain stick?’ And he said, ‘Yes, absolutely.'”
How do you find a note when it sounds as if you’re clearing your throat in the middle of the Negev?
Actor Jason Graae, from the original casts of Forever Plaid and Forbidden Hollywood, describes the show as “a series of events seen through different people’s eyes.” Graae admits this is the most difficult piece he’s ever worked on. “For the first week, we didn’t touch the music. We sat around talking about the play and trying to figure it out. It was so helpful to try to get everyone on the same page because we all had different versions of what was happening. And we’re still trying to figure out what happens.”
When directing a musical, Daniel Henning commonly attacks the book first. Then, a week later, he says, “the music gets layered on top of the truth we have already discovered.”
“We play different characters,” Margherita says, “but they’re all maybe different versions of the same people in different lives. Reincarnations of the same person.” I ask if that’s clear to the audience. She exhales. “I don’t know!”
Perry Ojeda plays multiple characters. His Broadway credits include On the Town, Blood Brothers and Imaginary Friends. He says, “This show borrows a lot from opera in that our characters have distinct themes. There are different melodic figures and different harmonies that come back and return and intertwine. It’s very satisfying ultimately when you get to the end.”
Suzan Solomon, who was in Bubbling Brown Sugar and in TV’s Pushing Daisies, adds, “This show has many different layers and different stories, through-lines, and yet they all connect.” The music, they agree, mostly mitigates some of the complexity. “It ties it in beautifully, like a score does to a film. Each character has a specific tone in the music,” she says.
Yet it’s hard to pin everyone down on just what the show is. Thus you truly see what you want to see. But if that’s true, then what does the audience take home?
For Margherita, it’s the “who done it” question of Act One. For Graae, it’s how moved the audience is in the second act. Solomon believes the audience will discuss philosophy on their way home, spurred by “all of the philosophical ideas and impressions that are going on.”
All this talk makes Doug Carpenter, most recently Lancelot in David Lee’s pared-down production of Camelot at the Pasadena Playhouse, laugh. “I’m laughing because everyone’s going to have their own truth about this show.” There’s a chorus of See?? You See What You Want to See! “Everyone’s going to have a completely different view of the show,” Carpenter adds. “Some will love it, some will hate it. Some will find deep meaning. Others will just say, ‘Oh, what a fun song that one was.'”
If that sounds like bad P.R., it only proves the actors are doing what director Henning wants: approaching the show with honesty. “To me, the truth is the truth. If you are telling the truth, your piece should ‘play’ the way it is supposed to.” As to Henning’s own sense of honest directing, “Each rehearsal process takes me and the cast on its own unique journey. I try to let the piece tell me how it wants to be realized as opposed to how I want it to be realized.”
In this case, Henning had seen a previous version of the show in New York. He, and the actors, Graae in particular, are familiar with LaChiusa’s work. Previous Blank productions include First Lady Suite, Hello Again, The Wild Party, and Hotel C’est l’Amour.
“He’s a crazy genius,” Graae says of LaChiusa. “I have been a fan of Michael John’s for so long. I’ve seen his shows here at the Blank and in New York. He’s such a fascinating composer. We say his music adds to the confusion but it’s very specific in that he’s written all these different styles: the Japanese, there’s a kind of film noir sound at one point, then it becomes jazz, then very musical theater.”
While the cast is somewhat split on whether the music ties everything together, Graae finds this is one of LaChiusa’s most accessible scores. “And it’s been thrilling for all of us to work on it — more thrilling to actually master it. When I first heard it, it was ‘Oh my God, how am I going to learn all this?’ His music is so connected to his lyrics; it actually makes it pretty easy to learn these songs because it makes such sense dramatically.”
That music, Carpenter notes, is varied — and precise. “LaChiusa is very specific about every instrument.” Even rain sticks.
So, given the show’s complex notes, its loose ends and its score, can the cast agree on a sense of cohesion?
Graae, who plays a priest, finds Act Two cohesive. “The characters go through the same things. Act Two is so much about a person’s faith and their own personal belief system. There are more answers in Act Two. Act One is more subjective. Very much like the game Clue.”
“You know where the cohesion comes from?” Ojeda interjects. “It comes from Daniel and the way he steers us. I feel really strongly we are all in the same 1950s New York, you guys are absolutely in medieval Japan, and we’re in 2002 New York in Central Park. It’s very clear. We’re telling all the same style of story even though we have different points of view of the story we’re telling.”
For Carpenter, the cohesion is visual. “A lot of the imagery we use in the show is shown over and over. Look for that. I feel the arc of the characters happens over the entire show, not just in one act. Though, this is like the [TV show] Lost of musical theater, passing through time.”
“Lost” pretty well describes how the ensemble felt early on. The actors, however, discovered an unexpected resource. “Any question we’ve had about the piece, Daniel’s been able to go to Michael John and ask him what he thinks about this or that. Daniel comes back the next day and says what Michael John’s response was. You don’t usually get that,” says Margherita.
Carpenter nods, but questions the results. “When I think about this whole process, did we get any answers? I think every question we asked was answered with another question.” There’s laughter and agreement. “There were no answers which is the story of this whole show: there is no answer! You see what you want to see!”
“When we first started talking about the play and giving our opinions,” Graae remembers, “we were never wrong. And that made me feel good about myself. It’s been a very safe place. Frankly, I’m nervous about people coming to see it. We’re all very attached to it and it’s very personal.”
Why is it so personal? Graae explains. “You can’t do this show, we found, without a 2,000% investment in it and it taps into so much of our abilities and beliefs — it’s so much about our faith.”
Ojeda agrees. “You’re really mining your own experience. You’re acting something very personal, sharing something very intimate.”
“I’ve always wanted to see musical theater become that,” adds Solomon. “And suddenly I’m in a situation where that can happen — it’s actually encouraged to happen.”
For some, there’s nothing more intimate than nudity, and Carpenter once again finds himself in the buff. It happened in a new twist in Camelot. He jokes to a fit of catcalls, “I decided to make my entire career on getting naked and singing. Seriously, for me, this play is the first that has really touched on very personal things.” Margherita interrupts. “And you can’t hide, the audience is ‘right there.’ On a huge stage you don’t feel so exposed but it’s so different here.”
It’s Daniel Henning’s job as director to bring together the script, the score, the various interpretations, and to give each actor a safe, nurturing environment to explore. “I think any actor I have worked with would tell you our work was collaborative and they felt empowered to do their best work,” he says. “I try to take all the elements of a piece and fuse them together synergistically so the audience’s experience becomes greater than the artists’ individual talents. What I hear today are five actors who are at the top of their game, singing this difficult music with ease and living deeply in these characters souls.”
That’s what Henning hears. So what will the audience see?
“And isn’t that life?” asks Solomon. “You see what you want to see, there’s no real answer. Each question becomes another question, and that’s exactly what this is.”
Production photos by Rick Baumgartner
Article by Steve Julian