Almost everyone, sometime, has felt the sting of being treated like the Other. The members of the creative team behind the new chamber musical “Los Otros,” which will have its world premiere Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, are no exceptions.
Growing up in western New York state, composer Michael John LaChiusa heard racist slurs against his Italian American family. Graciela Daniele, the show’s Tony Award-winning Argentine director, remembers people using an ugly epithet for Latinos when she moved to New York City years ago.
“I spoke very little English,” Daniele said, “and I laughed with them because I didn’t know what it meant.”
Ellen Fitzhugh, the semi-autobiographical show’s writer-lyricist, ditched her Arkansas accent when her Dust Bowl migrant parents moved to California, “because there was hard feeling against Okies and Arkies.”
“It’s all so crazy when you look at the whole picture of who’s prejudiced against whom and why,” Fitzhugh said. “I mean, what the hell is that?”
The whys and whats of tribal thinking are matters close to the heart of “Los Otros,” which is Spanish for “The Others.” But the Taper-commissioned show, whose only characters are a gay Mexican man raised in Carlsbad, Calif., and a San Diego woman reared in a Mexican community, isn’t a treatise on victimization.
It’s an exploration, through dramatic staging and lushly poetic song cycles, of the common life experiences that bind seemingly unrelated human beings together: wars, love affairs, work, mortality. The show’s touchstones of empathy and cross-cultural curiosity are dramatized through Fitzhugh’s dialogue and the movements of the two actors, Michele Pawk, a Tony Award winner for “Hollywood Arms,” and Julio Monge (“Twelfth Night,” “The Capeman”), who almost never share the stage at the same time.
Those sentiments also pervade LaChiusa’s score, a characteristic melange of classical, pop and other genres, with elements of Mexican mariachi and regional folk music. Part of the post-Sondheim generation of musical-theater composers that includes Adam Guettel and Jeanine Tesori, LaChiusa has employed floating harmonies and quick-cut rhythms to create ground-breaking scores for unconventional Broadway shows such as “Marie Christine,” a Creole re-imagining of “Medea,” and “The Wild Party,” an orgiastic requiem for Jazz Age decadence.
Like those shows, “Los Otros” is musical theater for audiences who don’t need to be whacked over the head every five minutes with show-stopping belters and characters based on superhero comics.
“It [“Los Otros”] is strange and magical and surprising, which most of the musical theater, except for just a few, like ‘West Side Story,’ it doesn’t happen,” Daniele said during a recent rehearsal lunch break.
“Los Otros” extends LaChiusa’s affinity for Latin music and culture, which the composer previously nurtured with the one-act musical “Bernarda Alba” (2006), based on Federico García Lorca’s 1936 play “The House of Bernarda Alba,” and in his 2009 three-act musical “Giant,” inspired by Edna Ferber’s borderlands novel, which premiered at the Signature Theatre in suburbanWashington, D.C. He and Daniele worked together on “Bernarda Alba” as well as the Spanish-accented dance-drama “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” based on the 1981 novella byColombia’s Gabriel García Márquez.
The live orchestra for “Los Otros” comprises guitar, percussion, viola, cello, bass, two reeds and a mariachi trumpet. “Everybody lumps Latino music altogether,” LaChiusa said, “and you often hear that when you go to see something like’Evita,'which is very ersatz to me. You want to do the real thing, but you also want to be true to some of your source material.”
The composer credits his longtime friend and collaborator Daniele with bringing him closer to Spanish-language culture. Earlier in his career, LaChiusa also got some useful advice from George Wolfe, the esteemed director-playwright, about how to create art outside LaChiusa’s ethno-cultural comfort zone.
“He [Wolfe] told me, ‘You know, if you don’t start writing roles for people of other ethnicities and race, then the kids are not going to go to school and study them,’” LaChiusa said. “And that hit hard on me to really look and see. It’s not like a mission or something like that, but it just was like, ‘Gosh, if there’s an opportunity to, and it captures my interest, why not write those kind of stories and seek those stories out?’”
For Fitzhugh, many of the stories in “Los Otros” didn’t require seeking out but rather excavating her own memories. Known simply as “Man” and “Woman,” the show’s two characters sketch a vision of California in the years during and after World War II, their separate tales gradually overlapping. Some of the Woman’s reflections draw heavily on Fitzhugh’s Southern California youth.
“I was 9 or 10 when we moved to San Diego. And then I was in classrooms where it was about half Anglo, half Mexican American kids.” said Fitzhugh, whose work has been produced both on Broadway (“Grind”) and off (“Herringbone,” “Paper Moon,” “Myths and Hymns”).
Asked for more details about the show’s real-life roots, Fitzhugh offered a tongue-in-cheek kicker: “I would go into more detail about that, but I’m frankly terrified of what Rush Limbaugh would say about me.”
Kidding aside, the show’s creative principals evince a sense of quiet confidence and mutual support derived from their shared past. Daniele was LaChiusa’s mentor when he first started writing at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop in New York. Fitzhugh met the composer after hearing him perform at a BMI class — where, she admits, she was frankly jealous of his talent.
“And so I took my Salieri moment with me, back home, and thought about it for a couple of days,” Fitzhugh said, laughing. “And it was really the impact of his music and his words on me was so strong that I thought, ‘Oh god, Ellen, this is so unworthy, you really can’t do this.’ So I called him and I said something like, ‘I’ve decided that I can either have a milk train run over you or do whatever I can to help.’”
Today Daniele and Fitzhugh call LaChiusa “our baby,” and he refers to them as “my two mommys.” Michael Ritchie, artistic director of Center Theatre Group, said that LaChiusa, Fitzhugh and Daniele work together so closely that it’s hard to say where one’s influence ends and another’s begins.
“All three people in the [rehearsal] room are very cooperative, which doesn’t always happen,” Ritchie said. “It’s much more of a conversation in how they approach the show.”
Cooperation has a way of overcoming Otherness. During one rehearsal, Daniele pointed out that if you change the “l” in los otros to an “n,” you get nosotros, Spanish for “us.” The team hopes that hidden meaning will ring out at the end of their new work.
“I think that’s what we have to try to aim for,” LaChiusa said. “A nosotros moment. Because it’s a tricky beat. And that’s what I want to go for.”
“Los Otros.” Mark Taper Forum. Opens Sunday, through July 1. Tickets: $20-$65. Information: (213) 628-2772; https://www.centertheatregroup.org