It’s challenging enough for an actor to portray someone who is alive and well. But can you imagine the extra scrutiny that comes when your model is sitting in the director’s chair?
In the new musical “The Gardens of Anuncia,” Priscilla Lopez plays the title role, which is largely based on the childhood of the show’s director and co-choreographer, Graciela Daniele. Or at least, Daniele pointed out in a recent conversation, it’s “a version of me. A better version.”
When the two stage veterans sat together last week, a day after performances began at Lincoln Center Theater, they laughed continuously, and threw themselves into the conversation with the full-bodied gusto of born performers. They mimed pranks they once pulled on castmates, hummed tunes from long-forgotten shows, and punctuated their stories with enough sound effects to make a Foley artist jealous.
There might also have been a little bit of tearing up as they reminisced about their decades in the Broadway trenches — Lopez is 75, Daniele is almost a decade older — and reflected on the new project, a memory musical based on Daniele’s childhood in post-World War II Buenos Aires.
She and the show’s lyricist, composer and book writer, Michael John LaChiusa, have worked together several times, first when she directed his 1994 Off Broadway musical “Hello Again” and later on the Tony-nominated “Marie Christine” (1999), and their conversations spurred him. “I remember all the stories she was telling me about growing up in Argentina,” LaChiusa said. “A lot them had to do with how a woman became a ballerina, and then a dancer, a choreographer and a director. And that was all on her own terms and on her own talent.”
LaChiusa thought this journey would make for a good musical, but his friend was resistant. Daniele finally gave in, under one condition. “One day, I said, ‘If you want to write something about my life, write about the three women who created me,’” she said. “And it’s not only me: Always somebody has somebody. I think that’s the reason why it’s so emotional. You connect not to my story, but to what you have inside, your experience.”
Lopez chimed in: “We are all Anuncia in one way or another. When my husband saw the show last night, he said ‘It’s your story, too, Priscilla.’” Daniele’s formidable support group consisted of her mother (played in the show by Eden Espinosa), her aunt (Andréa Burns) and her grandmother (the LaChiusa regular Mary Testa). Kalyn West plays the young Anuncia, while Enrique Acevedo and Tally Sessions handle the various male roles. All of them were in the world premiere of the show at the Old Globe in San Diego two years ago; Lopez joined the cast in New York, replacing Carmen Roman.
For LaChiusa, Lopez was an obvious choice. “For one thing, she has pedigree and I wanted to have a 70-year-old play this, or even older,” he said. “And she’s a star, and Graciela is a star — she shines when she walks in a room. When Priscilla’s on the stage, you can’t keep your eyes off her.”
The two women did not talk much about the project itself in an early meeting. “We spent an afternoon trading family stories,” Lopez said. “We talked about our lives, which are —”
“Very, very similar,” Daniele picked up. “Starting as dancers and then going into shows, and then she becoming a star and me becoming a choreographer-director.”
Daniele’s early years were spent in Perón’s Argentina, where she studied ballet as a young girl. Her career as a dancer eventually took her to Paris, then New York, where she made her Broadway debut in “What Makes Sammy Run?” in 1964. Two years later, Lopez, who grew up in a Puerto Rican family in New York City, landed her first Broadway show — the musical adaptation of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
That production’s claim to infamy is that it closed after four previews. A dejected Lopez took the first job that turned up — at a club in Miami Beach. Used to saucy showgirls, the locals did not take well to what Lopez described as “an All-American revue, very wholesome,” and started shouting for more skin. “I was mortified,” she said.
When the songwriter Bob Merrill told her about his new musical, “Henry, Sweet Henry,” she flew back to New York to audition. That 1967 production’s choreographer asked if she would like to be a swing. “I had no idea what a swing was,” Lopez said. “I thought a swing was, like, you sit on a swing.” (She and Daniele hooted in unison.)
“Henry, Sweet Henry” turned out to be another flop, but that choreographer was none other than Michael Bennett. A few years later, Lopez would be one of the dancers whose stories formed the backbone of his classic show “A Chorus Line.” She originated the role of Diana, who sings “What I Did for Love” and “Nothing” — the latter drawing from Lopez’s time at the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan.
It’s to those formative years that, once again, Lopez reaches back when asked who her boosters were. First was her mother, who said that young Priscilla had worked too hard to get into the elite school and should not quit. Another early supporter was her acting teacher Vinnette Carroll. “As horrible as Mister Karp was, that’s how wonderful she was,” Lopez said, referring to the teacher who makes memorable running appearances in “Nothing.”
Bennett played a key role in Daniele’s life as well. He spotted her dancing in “Promises, Promises” in 1968, and took her under his wing. He incorporated some of her suggestions in “Coco” the following year, and made her one of his assistants in “Follies” (1971). She also played the young Vanessa in that production, but her increased responsibilities did not interfere with her impish humor. One of her dance partners, Steven Boockvor, was driving her up the wall with his jokes, so she decided to strike back in the “Loveland” number. “We were looking at each other closely for a long time,” Daniele said, “and one day I went …” She lets a string of spittle dangle from her lips. “Michael said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I had a problem in my mouth and I was drooling.’”
In the 1970s, Lopez and Daniele participated in “The Milliken Breakfast Show,” a series of industrial musicals bolstered by the likes of Ann Miller, Robert Morse, Gwen Verdon and … Michael Bennett. One year, Lopez was Chita Rivera’s understudy. “It was a run-through and she had some appointment or something,” Lopez said. “Michael said, ‘Priscilla, get up here. Do it!’ I went [to a jaunty tune] bump-bump-bump-bump.”
As for Daniele, Bennett encouraged her to choreograph one of the Millikens, and she never looked back. She would go on to earn a total of 10 Tony nominations for choreography and directing, including for her work on “Once on This Island” and “Ragtime,” and in 2021 she received a special Tony Award for lifetime achievement.
Anuncia does mention such an award, but for the most part the new show is about the women who surrounded her, and about looking back in the twilight of your life. Living memories are an essential component of the story, along with the acknowledgment that there are some that we may want to tweak.
When asked if she had any memories she would like to change, Lopez could not think of anything on the spot. Daniele, however, brought up her father, who deserted the family when she was 6.
“I wish I could forgive him,” she said. “I’m 84 years old, and I can’t. There’s nothing I can do about it. That was too huge a pain to my mother, to my family, to everything. So it’s still there.”
In the show, the elder Anuncia intervenes when That Man is hitting her mother, admonishing him: “No forgiveness for you. Never.” For Daniele, it’s a cathartic moment. “I love when Anuncia says ‘Neveeeeeer!’” she said. “I live it in you. Thank you, Priscilla.”
“So I finally got it right?” Lopez asked. They cackled with delight.