She Sings the Body Desperate for a Smoke: Michael John LaChiusa's "Little Fish"

ONE woman's comic and cosmic struggle for survival without nicotine provides the narrative backbone for "Little Fish," a new musical by Michael John LaChiusa.

"I had never known what I was like until I stopped smoking. By then there was hell to pay." The line comes from "Days" by Deborah Eisenberg, one of two of her short stories that are the basis of the musical, which opens on Thursday at the Second Stage Theater. 
Stripped of her slim white defenses, the character writhes in agony for weeks, weeping. Emotional volatility rules her waking hours. When a friend invites her to the Y.M.C.A., she views the gym as if visiting from an alien planet. She realizes that for years she has mistakenly believed Adidas to be an airline.

Swimming distracts from, but does not obliterate, the terrifying waves of self-knowledge pouring into her smoke-free brain. "It used to be that I never got angry," she says. "I would start to feel angry, but the moment I opened my mouth to voice my feelings, a cigarette would be inserted into it, and instead of expelling a stream of words, I would inhale a stream of smoke. . . . How I long to do that again!"

Ms. Eisenberg's detailed notes on the joy of smoking and the pain of quitting called out like arias to Mr. LaChiusa when he first encountered them. "A property that I'm interested in adapting has to sing to me," the composer said in a recent interview. "It might not be something as overt as an actual song idea, but a musicality presents itself, and I answer it. Passages from this story did that immediately, partly because I've stopped smoking three times in my life, and she captured the experience with excruciating accuracy."

Mr. LaChiusa is probably best known as the composer of "Marie Christine," the ambitiously operatic musical he wrote for Audra McDonald that was produced by Lincoln Center Theater, and "The Wild Party," which he adapted from Joseph Moncure March's Jazz Age poem with George C. Wolfe, who also directed it. Both shows opened on Broadway in the 1999-2000 season and earned Mr. LaChiusa Tony Award nominations for best original score (though he lost to Elton John's pop "Aida").

"Marie Christine" and "The Wild Party" were both large-scale musicals, whereas "Little Fish" is smaller (more akin to "Hello Again," Mr. LaChiusa's musical version of "La Ronde" by Arthur Schnitzler, which Lincoln Center Theater produced in 1994). And the genesis of "Little Fish" predates those big shows.

Mr. LaChiusa was commissioned to write a new musical by Second Stage's artistic director, Carole Rothman, after he had contributed a song to the theater's 1992 revue "A . . . My Name Is Still Alice." It was Ms. Rothman who suggested that he check out Ms. Eisenberg's tales.

Ms. Eisenberg has gained a following with her three collections of short stories, many of which were first published in The New Yorker. Her fiction is driven less by character or plot than by a sensibility that combines a Wittgensteinian scrutiny of minutiae with a decidedly off-kilter comic perspective. When Mr. LaChiusa picked up Ms. Eisenberg's first anthology, "Transactions in a Foreign Currency," he felt drawn right away to both "Days" and a story called "Flotsam," about a woman named Charlotte who flees a bad relationship in Buffalo and winds up living with a crazy roommate in New York. Since he himself grew up in Buffalo (well, nearby Chautauqua, to be exact) and moved to Manhattan at 18, Mr. LaChiusa related to the story's account of being young and overwhelmed by the big city.

He set the two stories to music separately at first. But when he put them together for a reading at Second Stage, something didn't feel right. "If you're going to do an evening of short stories, there should be 10 of them or something a festival!" he said. So with Ms. Eisenberg's blessing, he merged the two tales. He christened the unnamed narrator of "Days" Charlotte and made the events of "Flotsam" serve as her back-story.

True to Ms. Eisenberg's writing, "Little Fish" departs from any kind of traditional book-musical structure. Charlotte's tale emerges in vignettes that flicker and flash, zooming back and forth in time, held together on a narrative thread as tenuous as her nonsmoking sanity. Like many composers of his generation (he is 40), Mr. LaChiusa writes songs that skip from genre to genre, but "Little Fish" is even more eclectic than usual. "Since this is a show about New York now, I knew I had to reflect the hundred types of music you hear walking down the street," he said. "There's Latin, jazz, rock, there's pure urban noise."

In the musical, Charlotte is played by Jennifer Laura Thompson, who won a Tony nomination as Hope Cladwell in "Urinetown"; Lea DeLaria portrays her roommate. The cast also includes Hugh Panaro as the abusive boyfriend Charlotte leaves behind in Buffalo and Marcy Harriell as the friend who takes her swimming. Mr. LaChiusa has invented several characters, among them Marco (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), a friend of Charlotte's who is gay and shares the author's penchant for religious movies, and the Bodega Man (Ken Marks), who serves as Charlotte's unofficial therapist.

Mr. LaChiusa put "Little Fish" aside to work on other projects, then came back to it last year when Second Stage expressed interest in producing it. That's when he brought in the director Graciela Daniele, who collaborated with him on "Hello Again" and "Marie Christine."

"He always surprises me," Ms. Daniele said about Mr. LaChiusa, "and I love that. A lot of his work is cinematic in that it flows things fade out and overlap. This piece is not like that at all. It's more like MTV. It's about making a vivid impression in two or three seconds. Those quick cuts are hard to do onstage, but I like the challenge because it's a very contemporary way of representing urban life today."

Both the director and the composer spoke about Charlotte's struggle to quit smoking as a metaphor for the crises that force people to reconsider who they are and what is important. Mr. LaChiusa said the musical was his oblique response to Sept. 11: "After that happened, nobody was thinking about how to get rich and famous. You wanted to be around the people you love."

An essential element of Ms. Eisenberg's stories is that they resist turning into tales of heroic individual triumph. Mr. LaChiusa remains true to this. More than anything else, "Little Fish" is a paean to friendship.

"New York is a big city that allows you to be idiosyncratic and eccentric and all that," Mr. LaChiusa said. "But after you've been here a while, you realize that you don't always have to swim upstream and battle the elements. When you're little fish in a big pond, it's safer to swim in schools."

New York Times, February 8, 2003