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A special Tony Award, a new musical about her: At 81, Graciela Daniele finds life abloom

Graciela Daniele stands amid blooming flowers.
Graciela Daniele wouldn’t let her friend Michael John LaChiusa write a musical about her unless it focused on the women who raised her. The show opens at the Old Globe a week before she receives a lifetime Tony Award.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A girl lies on the floor listening to music. “Close your eyes,” her aunt says, “and tell me what you see.”

Choreographer-director Graciela Daniele was that girl. She’s 81 now and revered for her work on such stage productions as “Ragtime” and “Once on This Island,” but memories of those listening sessions remain as vivid as if this were still the 1940s and she was still in Buenos Aires being raised by her mother, grandmother and aunt after her father left the family and her grandfather died.

“I would invent stories, and she would help me to continue — listening to the music, interpreting the music through imagery,” Daniele recalls of her aunt’s coaxing. That sparked her creativity, as did her grandmother’s commanding personality and her mother’s work ethic.

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Daniele has long perpetuated their example by telling people about them. Whether chatting with colleagues or talking with journalists, she has enthusiastically described the vitality and intelligence of the women in her family, as well as their resilience during the darkest days of the Perón dictatorship. After years of heart-to-hearts, her composer-librettist friend Michael John LaChiusa knew the details so well that when he set about writing a musical about her, he already had all the source material he needed.

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The result is “The Gardens of Anuncia,” commissioned and being given its world premiere by the Old Globe in San Diego. It opens Friday, a week before Daniele is presented a lifetime achievement Tony Award — announced, serendipitously, the first day of rehearsal.

Daniele began as a ballet soloist in South America and Europe, then headed to Broadway, dancing in the original companies of “Promises, Promises,” “Follies” and “Chicago.” Mentored by Michael Bennett, she became the much-sought choreographer of such shows as “The Rink” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” then added directing to the mix with such productions as LaChiusa’s “Hello Again” and “Marie Christine.”

“The Gardens of Anuncia” draws from this résumé; most everyone on its all-star team has a connection to Daniele or LaChiusa. The lighting is by Jules Fisher, who is Daniele’s husband, and Peggy Eisenhauer. Costumes are by Toni-Leslie James. Orchestrations are by Michael Starobin. The cast includes Eden Espinosa and Mary Testa. Daniele directs and co-choreographs.

Sitting for an interview before a recent rehearsal, Daniele was warm, open and vital. Echoes of Argentine pronunciation and cadence lent music to her voice, as did rich, throaty laughter. Her hands, used to underscore her thoughts, traced balletic curves through the air.

LaChiusa wrote “The Gardens of Anuncia” as a love letter to her, “and I’m so thankful for that,” she said. The musical eavesdrops on a choreographer as she procrastinates over a sad task in her garden and warily ponders the glamour and fuss of a lifetime achievement award. But this is not a typical bio-musical; there are no greatest-hits re-creations.

“My career is over, for Christ’s sake,” Daniele said, laughing. “I’ve been in the theater since I was 7 years old. I adore it, but it’s not important for me to talk about the shows that I did.” Instead, she asked LaChiusa to give star turns to her mother, mother’s mother and mother’s sister. “They’re the reason I’ve had such an extraordinary life.”

A young woman in white dances while her mother looks on and her older self recalls the memory.
In “The Gardens of Anuncia” at the Old Globe, Carmen Roman as Older Anuncia, left, remembers a moment from her girlhood, with Eden Espinosa as Mamí and Kalyn West as Younger Anuncia.
(Jim Cox Photography)

So most of the action unfolds in girlhood memories from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Maternal instruction and after-chores merriment transition into songs in which Argentine sounds commingle with good ol’ theater music.

The script labels the material as “based on” Daniele’s stories, and her younger and present-day stand-ins are called Anuncia, not Graciela. Still, events are true, if sometimes heightened for dramatic effect.

At the core of Daniele’s girlhood lies a mundane but momentous occurrence. A doctor suggested ballet as a strengthener when she complained of pain in the arches of her feet, and the household mobilized to make sure she got to lessons. When she fell in love with the art form, the women encouraged her to pursue it as far as her dreams could take her.

Dance, to her, is “freedom.” She opened her arms wide. “Not only physical freedom. Freedom of expressing joy or sadness or laughter, whatever.”

But she grew up in uneasy times. Her family lived only about seven blocks from the Casa Rosada, where Argentina’s iron-fisted president Juan Perón and his wife, Eva, ruled under a cult of personality. Opposition was brutally squelched. “When things went bad, we could hear shooting,” Daniele recalled.

In this dangerous atmosphere, her mother took a job as secretary to the Perónist governor of the northeastern province of Chaco. “She was not a Perónista at all, totally the opposite,” Daniele said, “but it was a good salary.” Only much later did Daniele’s aunt tell her that Mamí passed information to Perón’s opposition. As his power waned, she was detained and questioned for several hours.

“She had such incredible power.” Daniele said. “Constantly, I feel her.”

Fisher, Daniele’s companion of more than 45 years, became part of the family and attests: “Each one of the women felt an obligation to raise Graciela.”

Graciela Daniele and Michael John LaChiusa embrace in a rose garden.
“She is, like her name, very gracious,” Michael John LaChiusa says of his friend and frequent collaborator Graciela Daniele.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Qualities they instilled in her, he said, include passion, imagination, dedication and focus — all of which she carries into the rehearsal room where, on their shows together, he has seen her create a nurturing environment where people are ready to do their best work.

LaChiusa said he’s learned from Daniele “a sense of morality, a sense of grace. Determination. Heart.”

“She gives so freely of herself. She is, like her name, very gracious.”

As the musical’s title indicates, Daniele is an avid gardener. An acre and a half in western New Jersey is her verdant domain. Toward the end of the rehearsal schedule she got to spend her days in set designer Mark Wendland’s abstract approximation of it, ethereally lighted by Fisher and Eisenhauer, but she deeply missed the real thing.

“That’s my paradise,” she said. “I talk to the tomatoes, I talk to the flowers, I talk to the deer.”

Soon to join her back home is a certain statuette. Daniele has been nominated for 10 Tonys, stretching back to 1981, but her lifetime award is the first she’ll receive. She joked that now “I don’t have to play with my husband’s nine Tonys. Now I have my own one to play with.”

She said, though, “The greatest award that I have had in my life is working with people who gave me inspiration, taught me, pushed me forward” — people like Bennett, Bob Fosse, Matt Mattox, Margo Sappington, Jack O’Brien and Joe Papp.

It all circles back to the girl on the floor and the women who taught her to listen, imagine and learn. “They showed me what life could be,” Daniele said.

'The Gardens of Anunica'

Where: The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends Oct. 17
Tickets: $49-$108
Info: (619) 234-5623, theoldglobe.org


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