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Michael John LaChiusa: Heaven

Our final subscription concert is set for March 17. It’s called The Art of Pleasure, a show I first devised at Wolf Trap and later repeated in Long Island. This time it will come out of our collaboration with Caramoor’s Vocal Rising Stars program, an annual art song zen-retreat in Katonah. I’ve just completed casting, and am extremely happy with the quartet of singers. I can’t go public with that info just yet, but you’re going to flip, I promise you. 

We are living through tumultuous, abrasive times, and I thought we all could use a reminder of life’s potential for sweetness and fulfillment. The program is wide-ranging, from Catalan art song to Tom Lehrer, from Rachmaninoff to The Kinks. Act I deals with romance, the delights of the seaside in the summertime, the restorative powers of sleep and dreams. Then Act II goes into guilty pleasures—those secret drives you might not want your parents to know about.

The program ends with a song by Michael John LaChiusa called “Heaven,” taken from one of his unproduced musicals. Composer/lyricist LaChiusa has written a slew of off-Broadway shows, including “First Lady Suite,” “Hello Again,” and “Queen of the Mist,” as well as two that played on the Great White Way, “Marie Christine” and “Wild Party.” His work may be a bit too arty for the mass appeal of “Les Miz,” but he is prized by some of our greatest exponents of musical theater including Audra McDonald and Mary Testa. It was Mary who brought me today’s song. Programming our recent gala in celebration of NYFOS’ 30th anniversary, I asked her to sing a contemporary song that she thought would still be around in 30 years. “Heaven” was her suggestion, and I fell for it instantly. I’ll be happy to keep this song alive for three more decades. 

Mary Testa, with orchestration by Michael Starobin

Michael John LaChiusa: Heaven

The Art of Pleasure ends with a section simply called “Peace.” The centerpiece is an unpublished song by Michael John LaChiusa entitled “Heaven,” which I first heard on Mary Testa’s album, Have Faith. When I was programming NYFOS’s 30th anniversary gala, all the songs had to have a “30” connection—for example, something I first played 30 years ago, or something that premiered 30 years ago, or something written in 1930. We also got a few songs by Sondheim, born in 1930. To vary the approach, I asked Mary to sing a song she felt would be a classic in 30 years. She sent me three possibilities. I listened to all of them and made a beeline for “Heaven.”

I met Michael John at the very beginning of his career, when his music tended to be all dots and dashes, written in a pointillist, conversational, Morse Code style. His musical theater scores have warmed up a great deal since those early days, while gaining in complexity and compositional depth. “Heaven” is from a revue called Hotel L’Amour. The songs in it, I believe, were either cut from past musicals or destined for projects that LaChiusa abandoned. Whatever its provenance, it never fails to move me. It’s been fascinating to go from Mary Testa’s salt-of-the-earth belt to Zoie Reams’ cultured mezzo-soprano. “Heaven” happily embraces both kinds of singing, stopping time and giving us all hope.

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