Everyman Theatre prepares to unveil a timely, revised musical, "Los Otros," with lyrics and semi-autobiographical book by Ellen Fitzhugh, music by Michael John LaChiusa.
With all the talk about a certain border wall and a certain country paying for it, the arrival of Everyman Theatre's production of "Los Otros" ("The Others") this week looks extra timely.
The 2012 musical, in an extensively revised version commissioned by Everyman, looks at the lives of two Southern Californians — an Anglo woman of very modest means and a Mexican-born man who comes into the country as a boy to find a better life. The show explores how each character deals with the surrounding world of the "other."
"There is an element of surprise that we happen to be doing this now, with what's been going on socially and politically," says Ellen Fitzhugh, who wrote the book and lyrics for the musical. "But it's exactly the right time to be doing it."
Not that relations between ethnic groups (or countries) were much rosier five years ago, when "Los Otros," with a score by Michael John LaChiusa, had its first outing in Los Angeles.
The current climate, though, is bound to provide fresh spice to a show that references illegal immigration and the complexities of cultural assimilation, not to mention sexual orientation and other issues.
"It's relevant to our broader world because it's so real," says Noah Himmelstein, Everyman's associate artistic director.
Himmelstein, who's directing "Los Otros," had the idea that the company should approach Fitzhugh and LaChiusa about revisiting their musical. The result is a much different piece, honed during a workshop in New York last fall and given additional tweaking during rehearsals at Everyman.
The roots of "Los Otros" go back to 2008, when Fitzhugh and LaChiusa collaborated on a one-woman musical, "Tres Ninas." The piece included an episode from the woman's childhood, when she encountered a Mexican family leaping from a train near San Diego, and the time when, older if not necessarily wiser, she seduced a teenage Latino laborer.
"We had this one-act show based on Ellen's life story," LaChiusa says — "Sort of," the California-born Fitzhugh quickly adds — "and we tried to expand it to a larger piece because it seemed to deserve it."
This led to the first version of "Los Otros," which retained the essence of "Tres Ninas" and added the character of a Mexican-American man. He reminiscences about working in California plum fields the summer World War II ended, exploring his sexuality with a fellow worker and eventually settling down with a partner.
Now, through a series of flashbacks that take them from childhood to mature years, the characters of Lillian and Carlos alternate in relating their lives and their cross-cultural or culture-clashing experiences. The parallel scenarios give "Los Otros" a distinctive structure.
"It's hard to describe to an audience expecting your usual musical format — song, book, song, book," LaChiusa says. "This is very much a lyric play."
"I like that — 'a lyric play.' The music and dialogue are just woven together," Fitzhugh says. "I give credit to Michael John for that."
Fitzhugh, now 74 and living in upstate New York, and the 20-year-younger LaChiusa, who was born in upstate New York and now lives in New York City, are longtime friends. They met at a workshop when he was starting out and she was mentoring new talent.
"I heard him play some of his songs, and it was my Salieri moment," Fitzhugh says, referencing the scene in the play/movie "Amadeus" when composer Antonio Salieri first recognizes Mozart's talent. "I could tell how unusual he was."
Although both have worked on separate projects — the composer's credits include "Giant" and "The Wild Party"; the lyricist's credits include "Grind," which had a pre-Broadway tryout in Baltimore — they developed a lasting bond.
"It's kind of scary to work together on a piece with someone you have such a friendship with, such love," LaChiusa says. "Show business has a way of killing all of that. There's a lot of roadkill on the way to creating a musical."
Adds Fitzhugh: "I didn't want to work with anyone who didn't love me."
That affectionate connection between the musical's creators impresses the actors in "Los Otros."
"It's as if one person wrote it," says Philip Hernandez, who plays Carlos. "The music and text are so integrated with each other. There's an amalgam of styles in the score — '40s, '50s, '60s, a lot of Mexican music. The styles are part of the storytelling, the journey through time."
Judy McLane, who plays Lillian, considers "the music another character in the piece." As for Fitzhugh's dialogue and lyrics, they are "so specific," the actress adds. "She says so much in a few words."
McLane has been rehearsing those words in front of the woman who was at least partly a model for Lillian.
"It was a little intimidating," says McLane, a Broadway veteran who performed the lead role in "Mamma Mia!" for the show's last three years. "But Ellen has been so receptive."
Seeing aspects of her life portrayed by someone else can be "difficult," Fitzhugh says. "Yes, there are autobiographical incidents in the piece. People do things in their lives, take chances, maybe get a tiny bit lawless. This is all part of the [picture] that goes with all the blessings they've had," the writer says.
The musical's male character is likewise not entirely fictional.
"There has been in my life for a long time a very dear person who is the model for Carlos," Fitzhugh says.
McLane and Hernandez, the only man to play both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in "Les Miserables" on Broadway, have not just been rehearsing "Los Otros" for the past month. They've helped shape the new version of the musical.
"The actors have brought so much to the table," LaChiusa says. "There was a lot of rewriting. It's been a remarkably journey."
That word "journey" comes up a lot in conversation with the team getting "Los Otros" ready for Baltimore audiences.
"Through the piece, you get an idea of the process Carlos goes through coming to terms with how he's different from society at large," Hernandez says. "It's a beautiful journey, and it's something everyone can relate to. Every one of us feels at some point that they're different in some way."
As for possible socio-political implications in all of this, Hernandez sees something broader.
"The piece definitely has a point of view," the actor says. "But it's not 'Waiting for Lefty.' It's a piece about humanity, how you nurture humanity, how you practice that humanity."
"Los Otros" has preview performances Wednesday and Thursday, opens Friday and runs through April 23 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. Tickets are $10 to $64. Call 410-752-2208, or go to everymantheatre.org.