A Conversation with Graciela Daniele
November 10, 1999
Lincoln Center Theater's Platform series presents conversations with artists working at LCT before an audience of interested theatergoers. Admission is free and open to all. Platforms are held in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The following is a transcript, edited for clarity, of the November 10, 1999 Platform with Graciela Daniele:
THOMAS COTT: Good evening everybody. I'm Thomas Cott from Lincoln Center Theater. Welcome to our ongoing Platform series. For those of you who have not been here before, the Platforms offer a chance to meet some of the artists working on LCT's productions.
Our moderator tonight is Ira Weitzman, Associate Producer of Marie Christine. Ira has helped to develop many new musicals by such writers as Stephen Sondheim, William Finn, Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty, and of course, Michael John LaChiusa, the author of Marie Christine.
And to his right is our featured guest, the director and choreographer of Marie Christine: Graciela Daniele, a 10-time Tony Award nominee... [audience applauds] ...yes, please applaud.
GRACELA DANIELE: Thank you! I like the applause!
TC: In fact, people have been applauding Graciela Daniele for many decades. I remember especially her work going back to The Pirates of Penzance and Once on This Island... all the way up to her current shows, Annie Get Your Gun and Ragtime. Graciela is an Associate Director of Lincoln Center Theater and has directed and choreographed a number of musicals here, including A New Brain, Chronicle of a Death Foretold and Hello Again. We're delighted to have her and Ira here tonight, and without any further ado, let's turn it over to Ira.
IRA WEITZMAN: Thanks, Tom. Graciela, we go back about ten years, but I am fascinated by your roots. I think other people might be interested in knowing, too. So let's start with: "Where were you born?"
GD: Well, I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In December 1939, which means on this December 8th, I'm going to be sixty! [audience applause] I'm going to make it to adulthood, finally! [she laughs] Anyway, I studied at the Theater Colon Buenos Aires, which used to be, at the time, like a convent. You came in at age 7, and if you survived, you graduated at age 13 as a ballerina. That's what I was: a ballerina in Argentina.
I left my country with my mother chaperoning me in Europe when I was about 15 years old. I was all over Europe, working in ballet companies. That was my world: ballet. I was brought up in classical theater. Opera, ballet...I did not know what musical theater was at all. I did not know what American stage musicals were about, but I did see some musical films. Fred Astaire, of course, and all of that. But that was not my world. Until I was in Paris in 1960 or so and I saw West Side Story. Which is a musical that, now I know, changed many lives. It certainly changed mine.
I remember going to the last performance of West Side Story in Paris. I was coming from a ballet tour. A friend of mine said "you have to see this, you have to see this!" So I went and I spoke Spanish and French and Italian, but I didn't speak English. There were subtitles; in the theater they used to run subtitles in French. But within five minutes I wasn't reading anything. I was totally absorbed, mesmerized, moved, hypnotized by this piece. I remember, I walked about two hours by myself afterwards. I said, "I have to go to New York to learn how to do that!" Whatever 'that' is!
So I came. I came to New York City to study. With very little money. My intention was to learn and then go back to Paris where I lived. I was extremely lucky, because I immediately got jobs on Broadway.
IW: What was your first job?
GD: My first job was a very bad musical called What Makes Sammy Run? with Steve Lawrence, who was absolutely wonderful. The musical was not very good, but it lasted about a year and a half. I was playing the role of Rita Rio, a Latin American bombshell. I had mostly to dance. But what was interesting to me was that I came here thinking that all of the musical theater was going to be like West Side Story! [audience laughter] And guess what? It's quite different.
I mean, I learned that there is a big difference in the musical comedy versus what I was searching for, which was great literature work put into a musical. Into an American musical. I yearn for those things, and I keep on trying those things. However, I was extremely lucky. I worked with incredible people. First as a dancer, than as an assistant. I learned all my craft in the theater, being assistant to Michael Bennett who was a genius. Just a mere genius.
IW: When did you first work with Michael Bennett?
GD: It's actually a funny story. I was in a show that didn't last very long that was an adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden. The musical's name was Here's Where I Belong and as one reviewer said, "it doesn't". [audience laughter] So we closed the day after we opened! But Michael Bennett, who was just starting on Broadway at that moment, came to see a preview, liked me very much and called me. He sad, "do you want to be in Promises, Promises"? I said, "okay"! [she laughs] So that was the first show I did with Michael. I did Coco with Katharine Hepburn, and that's when I started as Michael's assistant. Then I did my favorite musical Follies—the original Follies—with him.
And then we worked on many other things, preparing things. He took me under his wing, and he thought that I had the a ability to become a choreographer, perhaps director. So I just jumped into the sea and started paddling. But I had great help from him, and from another genius, Bob Fosse, with whom I did the original Chicago in 1975. I learned a lot from him. Really a lot. They helped me, they nurtured me, they gave me jobs, they recommended me, they came and gave me notes—the things that we do in the theater when we are good friends and good people. Help each other. That's how my career started.
I always say that I always feel like it wasn't something I chose. I feel that most of my life was like I am at home and somebody knocks at the door. I open the door, and they say "Graci, do you want to come out and play?", and I go "okay"! [she and Ira laugh] And there I go into another adventure! Most of my life has been like that. But of course, it takes courage and work. but most of all, it takes great people around. Like this one here [referring to Ira Weitzman], who introduced to me to Michael John [LaChiusa], Bill Finn, Lynn [Ahrens] & Stephen [Flaherty] —all the people I have been working with in the last ten years, exploring new ways to do musical theater.
IW: Graci, when did you make the transition from dancer to choreographer, and then from choreographer to choreographer/director?
GD: It came in my mid-thirties. I was Assistant a lot. I was assisting Michael, I was assisting Bob. As I said, they encouraged me to take upon myself the job of choreographer. But I didn't know anybody. And there was an industrial show in those times called the Milliken Show. [To the audience:] I'm sure you don't know what that was, but it was at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel every spring, and it was for buyers. Milliken is a big corporation that sells...
GD:...fabrics and all that. There was this incredible man, Myron Saft, who was a producer, or an aspiring producer, for Broadway, and he created this industrial that played every year for only a month or so. We rehearsed for six weeks, and taped for two weeks. It was a breakfast show. You saw fabrics and you saw clothes; the fabrics were made into clothes. There were, like, ten production numbers. I think that he[Myron] had the mind of a Ziegfeld, you know? [she laughs]
He hired the best dancers, the best performers in New York...they brought them from Los Angeles. We had, in every show, stars like Ginger Rogers, Carol O' Connor, Ray Bolger and Tommy Tune. I mean, these were the stars. And, I don't mean one. There were about six, seven, eight stars in each show.
So I started assisting the choreographers in that. But after a few years, I knew the machinery so well, that eventually, when Michael stepped out, he recommended me to choreograph. And of course, I was so scared, I didn't know what I was going to do! But, on the other hand, I had the help of all my dancers, because I was one of them. We put it together, and that was a great showcase, because there was always a "gypsy run-through" which was not for the buyers, it was for the theater intelligencia. Everybody. Producers, directors, actors went to see it.
And that was what made me known as somebody who was capable of putting a show together. And those were my first experiences as choreographer, and then I started getting offers for summer stock and other things... and finally, Broadway. My first Broadway show was by one of my favorite writers, Chris Durang. It was a musical called A History Of The American Film. With that name, of course, it didn't last too long. But I thought it had one of the greatest scripts ever, don't you think?
IW: Oh, yes!
GD: It was fantastic. That was my debut on Broadway. From then I went on and...I don't remember anymore what I did! I mean, I did a lot of things!
IW: But, you also made a transition from being choreographer, to being a director/choreographer...
IW: When did that happen?
GD: I think it's almost like a natural progression. For somebody who has been in the theater as I have, since I was 7 years old, not doing anything else, not knowing how to do anything else except theater... It was sort of a natural progression to arrive at a certain point in which I was choreographing on Broadway and doing terrific shows. Wonderful shows like The Rink with Chita [Rivera] and Liza [Minnelli], and Pirates of Penzance, which was one of my favorite shows that I loved so much with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt.
But it got to a moment in which I felt that my needs to choreograph were not totally fulfilled for the Broadway stage. Again, it was like somebody knocked on my door. I was giving a little speech at Intar, which is a theater company on 42nd Street, a small organization near Playwrights Horizons, which deals with Latin authors.
I was giving a little speech on musicals there, and the Artistic Director, Max Ferrar, a wonderful Cuban man, said to me "is there anything you would like to develop?" Of course, nobody had ever asked me that before. Usually they send me scripts, or directors ask me if I want to choreograph the show. The normal thing is my agent calls me. But, nobody had ever said to me, "what do you want to do?"
It's almost like opening a door to a 747. A 747 in mid-flight! You see the entire world. I didn't know exactly what. There's so much I wanted to do that I didn't know what to say. But eventually, with my friend Jim Lewis who was a dramaturg at Intar, I focused on something I wanted to develop, which would have music by Astor Piazzolla who is a great Argentinean composer. From there, we developed a small dance theater piece called Tango Apasionado, which ran at the Westbeth Theater downtown, with great artistic success.
I choreographed it. I directed it. I had no idea what I was doing, but I did it anyway! It was successful, and I think that that was what made the rest of the theater community believe that I could actually do it. That I could direct, that I could take charge. And that's what prompted me into directing. Again, it was not something that I said "I must do it! this is what I have to do." It just came naturally to me.
IW: That actually brings us right to the time when we met, because right after Tango Apasionado, which I saw and remember being completely spellbound by, we were developing a show at Playwrights Horizons called Once On This Island... or rather it came later to be called Once On This Island. That's where we met.
In the ten years and many shows I've done with you, the shows have varied in subject matter and writing. But there's a common thread that runs through them, which is about the art of storytelling. I've been meaning to ask you this for a long time, but we don't do interviews everyday, so I'm curious: what appeals to you about storytelling?
GD: I think that comes from my grandfather, who was a Merchant Marine. He used to go away, and then he would come back after months and months of not seeing him He would sit me down—I was a little, little girl—and he would sit me on his knees, and he would start telling me his stories about his travels. The different countries where he was. He would sing. He would play the accordion and dance for me.
And that's theater. It goes back to the beginning of time. Somebody went out to hunt a dinosaur, came back, and then as everyone sat around the fire, that person said, "guess what? I saw a dinosaur, and I killed it!" And everybody's spellbound by this story this person is telling.
To me, that's the very special thing about the theater. As much as I love movies—I don't particularly like making them, but I like watching them, and I certainly watch television like everybody else—no other medium has a group of people who choose to be in a room listening and participating somehow. Not just voyeurs. You have to put your emotions... especially in musicals, you have to listen very carefully.
There is something about it that, to me, is almost like a primal ritual that continues... It will always be there, for as long as there is theater. And I think theater will always exist in spite of the notions of some people—especially the New York Times!—that theater is dead. I don't agree.
The theater might go through changes, but I think that it will always be alive for as long as there are people like you [the audience] and me. You're sitting here for some reason. You belong to theater, you love the theater. You're curious about it. For as long as that happens, there will always be a storyteller, I think. There will always be some people listening carefully to it. That's what appeals to me about the theater.
IW: Does anybody have anything they'd like to ask Graciela?
AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: Can you compare the experiences working on Marie Christine, which is written by one person and working with a larger creative team on Ragtime, which had a separate lyricist, book writer, composer and director?
GD: I don't think there's that much difference in the creative process. I think there are just many more voices to hear, that's all! [laughs] It's like a bigger family. I adore and I admire and I am in awe of Michael John. I can't even imagine that one person is able to do so much. But it's still the same collaboration with one person as it is with many different people. I think it all depends on the people. How aware we are that what is important is the baby, and the baby is the play. It doesn't matter if you have five parents, or two parents. What matters is the play.
IW: I'll ask you a variation of that question. Ragtime is a musical in the commercial theater born of the commercial theater. You've worked probably an equal number of times in the commercial theater and in the non-profit theater. So what are the differences between working in a commercial venue versus working in an non-profit institution?
GD: I always hoped that there wouldn't be a difference. But there is certainly a very strong difference. Broadway has certain formulas that must be fulfilled. I don't mean to belittle that. I don't mean that the formulas are a wrong thing to have. I'm saying that there are certain conventions about a musical on Broadway that one must fulfill. Otherwise, if you try to do something different on Broadway—even if it's successful, even if it's artistically good—it will not be a hit. Because there are certain expectations that we must fulfill.
Now, personally, I'd rather have a non-profit theater, an original theater, where the freedom is such that the artists are allowed to explore new worlds. To make new attempts, open new frontiers. But I think there's good in both. That's the reason why I put one foot in one and one in the other, and try to balance in a split for so many years. [she laughs]
AM #2: Hello, Ms. Daniele. I'm here with a playwrighting class from NYU [New York University]. We've been involved in exercises adapting the Medea myth, and of course, Marie Christine does that, too. Can you talk about how you revisited the myth in approaching this adaptation with Mr. LaChuisa?
GD: That can be answered better by Michael John. Because the original idea of doing something about Medea, his choice of New Orleans, the society, the Creole culture, the time period of the 1890's, the racial problems...that really came out of his incredible head. I did not ask him to do that. I didn't have any reason to ask him.
The one thing that I learned—and Ira has taught me that through the last ten years, too—what I have learned working with writers as a director, is sort of the same thing that I try to do with my actors. Which is to allow them freedom. Freedom to go where... "angels dare not tread"? Is that the line? Especially when it's coming from something as epic as Medea.
That's what I do constantly with authors when we start working on a new project. But it was really up to Michael John He chose the time period. And I was just astonished and enchanted by his choices. All I did was nurture him and read a lot about the period. Because, I have to confess, I wasn't really that aware about what the Creole society was in this country. I had read some place it's similar to the Creole society in Argentina. But I had no idea how intense this culture was. How important it was in its time. I did research and started learning a lot about it. But I was not in any way responsible—in any good or bad way—for the choice of Michael John. I just encouraged him and followed his path.
IW: For those who haven't seen Marie Christine yet and who may be a little confused about what we're talking about, the show is set in the late 1890s in New Orleans and Chicago.
Graciela, let me ask a variation of the previous question. Although you didn't write the piece and didn't make a choice of where to set it and all of that, you created an environment in which the show is being presented, that in a way is influenced by—not only the Creole culture and Michael John's writing—but to my mind anyway, is also influenced by the Greeks. Was that a conscious choice that you made?
GD: Well...shall I tell the truth? [she laughs] Because this is fascinating always. I've talked to a lot of artists about where ideas come from. Do you really sit there and say, "this is what I'm going to do?" Most of them, like me, said yes. Half of the time. But half of the time is a divine accident, and you can't quite explain it.
I'll tell you why I'm saying this. We did a workshop of Marie Christine at Westbeth, which is a big huge room, totally empty of everything, except some chairs. That was our beginning, trying to put the show in some form of structure and 'putting it up on its feet'.
Usually in workshops, you work for 4 to 6 weeks. And the last three days, you invite some friends, people that you trust to tell you what the problems are and what they think. So you have to sit them in bleachers or something. When I first walked into Westbeth, which I knew very well because I had done a lot of work there, I thought, "oh my God, there are no wings, there is no masking, it's an empty room. Where am I going to put my actors while they are waiting to come onstage and perform"?
So I thought, I'm just going to put some chairs on the side bleachers and just sit them there. It's only a workshop. First day of rehearsals started, and I put them there, and I thought, "hmm, that's very interesting. These people become sort of a jury". It's almost like they are judging, just as the audience is sitting listening to the story and being moved or horrified or whatever, but somehow passing judgment on this woman—these actors are sort of doing the same thing.
I wish I could have said, "oh, the Greeks inspired me!" [laughter] But no, it was a divine accident, and my eyes were open enough to see it, and to realize that it was a very good choice. And to transform it into a concept. But, it did not start as a brilliant vision. It didn't! [laughter]
What I love about the theater is that it's not one person. It's a combination of minds and passions. I don't just mean Ira and the author. I mean the actors, the stage managers, the designers, the stagehands, everybody. You can't imagine the kind of pull-together every time I have a show... I'm astonished about the intensity of love for something. It's a lot of people. It's a family. It's a big family that makes it happen.
AM #3: Was it your idea to use those women prisoners as a kind of a Greek chorus?
GD: It was written that way. But I also had in mind the three Witches in "the Scottish play" [Shakespeare's Macbeth] and that's how I directed my actresses. They were, in reality, faces of Marie Christine. They were three women who identified with at least one of the colors, the dynamics.of Marie Christine.
There's one who is immensely maternal, and she totally empathizes and sympathizes with Marie Christine on that level. There's another one who's very strong and sexual and domineering. She empathizes with that side. The third one is more of a voodoo, more of a religious woman, more of a mystical woman.
When I directed them, what I said to them is that "each of you are a very important side of Marie Christine. When you're making comments, you have to make them very personal. Very individual. So there was a combination of influences... Shakespeare, the Greeks, I steal from the greats all the time. [audience laughs]
AM #4: Can you be more specific about the requirements of the commercial theater versus the non-profit theater?
GD: You need more money! [she laughs] No, I—
IW: Well, you talked about a formula, Graciela....
GD: I think there are certain formulas, yes. Like the "button" [big finish] of a song. I know how to give you that. I know how to make you applaud. Musically, there's a formula to do it. You hold a note, a very high note for sixteen bars. [audience laughs] Then you go BA-RUM-PUM-PUM!! [more laughter] Then you bring the lights down to the face of the star and everybody goes TA-DA! And you applaud! I applaud! Everybody applauds. That's formula. It ain't bad. I'm not saying it's bad. I'm saying that certain pieces demand it, and we should do it.
And then there are other pieces that feel terrible if you do it! I mean, I can't do that in Marie Christine. Mare Christine is a play! It's a tragedy. I can't do that. But there's something bigger than that. When I say "formula", I think that the Broadway musical demands to be more accessible to all people. Again, there's nothing wrong with that. But, it has to be accessible. And there are formulas to make it accessible.
These formula shows can be absolutely brilliant. I mean, some of the greatest people in the business use these formulas...but there are different needs in that kind of theater than in the kind of theater we do at Lincoln Center Theater or Playwrights Horizons or a regional theater.
AM #5: Can you explain what an assistant choreographer does?
GD: We choreographers, we can't see things in ourselves. We are like painters or sculptors. We can't do it to ourselves. We have to do it to somebody else, to another body. In order for me to create a shape, or a mood, or a combination of steps, or flying through the stage...if I do it, I'm seeing only myself. Besides the fact that I'm too old to do it, so I don't want to see myself! But if I do it, I'm only seeing myself through the mirror. There's no information on the feeling of that motion.
Another body. You need another body. The person, the dancers are the colors, the clay, the stone that we work with. Prior to rehearsal, when the time is very short, I mean, you have like six weeks to create an entire musical. And you have thirty dancers looking at you and saying, "okay, give me the step". Right? Prior to that, we choreographers go into a studio. We go in with the material and the dance music arranger. And then we have one exceptional person that we have known through the years, mostly. An exceptional dancer who, if you're lucky like I am, has worked with me for a long time. So they know my style. They know the way I move, or the way I feel things.
We start with the music. And I just start moving a little bit, and this other person starts moving, too. And then we start playing with each other. And all of a sudden I go, "wait a minute, let me see that". And I stand back. I'm the choreographer. You're the assistant, and now we've been playing. And I stand back, and I go, "now show me what you just did". And you show me, and I go, "I like this. Okay, let's put it in this dance." An assistant choreographer, a good one, actually improves the choreographer. He or she makes the choreographer better. Because it's a great muse, you see. But it is really very much like a painter: using colors, brushes, canvas, or for a sculpture, the clay or stone...the assistant is the who you use to start sketching on.
AM #5: I'd also like to ask...you mentioned being influenced by West Side Story... how would your work have been different if you had gotten to work with Jerome Robbins? Or would it have been?
GD: I probably wouldn't have choreographed. [laughs] You know how when you have a hero, you are totally in awe of that person? In a weird way, even though I came to this country because of him, I am glad that I didn't work with him.
I have to tell you a story: I met him after many, many years. You have to understand, I just admire all of his work. Not only the musical theater. The ballet. Everything he's done, to me, he's my hero. I met him once, and he was charming. He shook my hand. He said, "it's so nice to meet you. I love your work!" And all I could say was...[she makes an undecipherable sound]. And he went, "okay, bye." [audience laughter] And that was it! And then he died not too long after that.
It's a good question. Because maybe if I had worked with him, I wouldn't have been so much in awe. But I wouldn't have been free to just discover myself. It's very interesting. I never thought much about it.
AM #6: Do you consider Marie Christine to be a "Broadway opera", and is it financially viable in this day and age?
GD: I've never heard of the phrase "Broadway opera", so I couldn't be able to say that it is! Frankly, I don't think it is a show for Broadway. I believe that sincerely. I wish it was! Because of the same reasons that I said before: it is not accessible to everybody. I believe that what makes the great income of Broadway—and believe me, I know, because I have Annie Get Your Gun running right now which is mostly for tourists. [audience laughs] I do not believe that tourists would sit and watch Marie Christine. They wouldn't know what the hell was going on. [audience laughs] I'm just being sincere here.
So I don't know that it is Broadway. Opera...I don't know. I come from a European background where opera is everything. It's our bread and water. I grew up with opera, and it was the same thing as musical theater is for you. But I have learned that in this country, opera is almost like a bad word in musical theater. Isn't it? [to Ira] You taught me this!
IW: That was Michael John!
GD: No, you know what I mean. That it's so pretentious. Doesn't it sound pretentious? Opera in America? No?
IW: There's seems to be a need to label everything. Marie Christine is actually in an in-between place, in my opinion. It's operatic in its epic nature and its use of music, and it's a play because it's dramatic and it has depth of character and plot. So in a certain way, calling it a "Broadway opera" is kind of appropriate. Simply because we are a Broadway-size theater and we're doing a piece that's kind of an opera.
GD: [to audience member] You also asked about the economics. Even though for Lincoln Center Theater it was very expensive, it is not really expensive according to Broadway standards. The budgets on Broadway are monumental amounts. So for Broadway, it's not terrible, no.
IW: I wish we had time for more questions, but we've got to ready for the show tonight, but I want to share with you something that I don't know if we've ever talked about. You mentioned your seeing West Side Story.
West Side Story, for me—like you said, I think for everybody in the theater, it was a seminal show. Michael John LaChiusa, about four or five years ago, after we wrote Hello Again!, we were sitting in my office, and he was in despair because he had nothing to work on. This is a young guy who writes a musical everyday. He's very prolific. I looked at him, and I was obsessed at that moment with West Side Story. I really wanted to see it. And I saw it as a kid, I saw the movie, and I was obsessed.
I just looked at him and I asked him, "well, why don't you adapt a classic?" I was thinking in my mind of Romeo and Juliet being adapted into West Side Story. So it's so interesting that all of us have been influenced by the same thing. And in a way we are beholden to West Side Story, and everyone that came before us who enabled us to do a show like Marie Christine. So if anybody hasn't seen it yet, please get your tickets. And thank you for coming tonight. [audience applause]
GD: Thank you for coming! Thank you!