There was a melody, or a fragment of one, bouncing in my head after watching the world-premiere musical Los Otros, which opened June 10 at the Mark Taper Forum and runs through July 1. Yet the musical fragment wasn't from the show I'd just seen.
Composer Michael John LaChiusa's dissonant, operatic score doesn't permit such indulgences. (LaChiusa is one of America's preeminent young composer-librettists for opera and musical theater, known for works such as The Wild Party and See What I Wanna See.) The song in my head was a different musical entirely, perhaps the consequence of some longing for something that lingers after an evening of musical theater. For a reason I can't explain, the melody dancing in the brain was from Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd — the central character's jaded, withering love song to a daughter snatched from the protagonist in years gone by, the reprise of "Johanna."
The first part of the song is like a helium balloon, soaring with a snippet of melody sung by a romantic suitor and Sweeney Todd's friend, Anthony, as though borrowed from Rossini: "I feel you, Johanna...."
Then beneath that lugubrious lament comes a kind of gentle chugging rhythm, like the clickety-clack of a train, against which Sweeney thumbs his nose at the sentimentality established at the start of the song. And so romanticism rolls into emotional pragmatism as that train chugs from the 19th century across a long border into the 21st: "And though I think of you, I guess, until the day I die/I think I'll miss you less and less as every day goes by, Johanna...."
In retrospect, the comparison of Los Otros (commissioned by Center Theatre Group, which controls the Taper) to Sweeney Todd seems apt, despite their being from different genres. The former is a song cycle performed by two and only two actors (Michele Pawk and Julio Monge), one in each act. The performers depict idiosyncratic characters who sing their way through Ellen Fitzhugh's book and lyrics, reflecting upon people and events in their lives that have come to make them feel like outsiders.
The first part is the story of Caucasian Woman (Pawk), who, in a negligee and around a battered couch, sings of her youth in National City near San Diego, and her lifetime enthrallment with the Mexican culture. She tells of a childhood memory in 1952 of illegal immigrants having parked themselves in caves near the ocean, and of her determination, and that of her friends, to deliver food and gifts. She sings of her life in Burbank in 1967, when she's now divorced and a mother of two, and her Latina housekeeper, who entered the United States under suspicious circumstances. She later sings of being an alcoholic and of her intoxicated attraction to a young man she's determined to "de-virginize," in an abandoned warehouse. During this seduction, plucked from Lady Chatterly's Lover, she's followed by the young man's friends, presenting a potentially diabolical outcome.
In Act 2, we meet the gay Latino Man (Monge) in the shower, claiming to be 75, reflecting on sexual repression and sexual expression in a story that slowly, finally weaves Woman back onto the stage.
The impulse of book, lyrics and music is introspective. Sweeney Todd is in the style of a 19th-century revenge melodrama, a study in the abhorrent behaviors of a man callously wronged by his society. And though the score in Los Otros may be comparatively "operatic" in the musical tradition of Arnold Schoenberg, Sweeney Todd comes closer to the sweep of 19th-century, melodramatic, Italian, German and Russian opera.
The question about Los Otros that keeps simmering is the point of using the vehicle of musical theater or opera to depict the ruminations of characters who are smart and sensitive and eloquent, but who haven't been wronged in any fundamental way by society or by destiny in order for the music to carry them, and us, to the stratosphere of emotions where mere words are left behind.
There were many times when, in Los Otros, I wished that Pawk, a vivacious and excellent actress, would stop singing and just tell her character's story. Not only did the music sound like an imposition, despite the able support of a nine-piece orchestra, it was so damnably intricate that Pawk could barely keep up with it, lending the distinct impression that half of her act was sung off-key.
Monge fared better in Act 2, though I can't fathom why.
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LaChiusa's music is assertively intellectual and alienating, shattered motifs and shards of sound that depict warblings rather than songs. This may be a valid musical expression of the angst underlying Los Otros' two outsider characters. If so, that's a terribly heady approach to a musical in a theater needing to sell 700 tickets a night. Sweeney Todd is similarly an outsider, almost unbearably so, having been robbed of his family and shunted from London to Australia. But Sondheim's music, while never as commercially viable as that of, say, Richard Rodgers, John Kander or Andrew Lloyd Webber, still contains a pull and push of emotion, drawing us in with threads of sentimentality before spinning those threads into tapestries of sophisticated musical juxtapositions that appeal to the brain as much as to the heart.
In Los Otros, LaChiusa's score pushes back without having offered any kind of invite, as though to say, "No sappiness allowed: We're beyond that." No, we're not. On the performance I attended, patrons were fleeing after Act 1. Just a little sap could keep more of the audience invested. Just a drop.
In the hands of these two fine actors, directed by Graciela Daniele, the entire musical is a retrospective accounting of lives lived, of subtle regrets and subtle satisfactions, the nuances of race and gender relations that defy some stereotypes but not all. The story is not only plausible but truthful. And yet telling such delicate truths, in retrospect, may be enough for a poem or a short story, but it's insufficient for a work of musical theater, which is, almost by definition, larger than life. It's a vulgar form, where the kinds of sensitivities underscored in Los Otros evaporate after the curtain call.
LOS OTROS | Book and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, music by Michael John LaChiusa | Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through July 1 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org