Good times and bad times made these theater veterans even stronger | ET REALITY

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It’s challenging enough for an actor to play 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 López plays the lead role, which is based largely on the childhood of the show’s director and co-choreographer, Graciela Daniele. Or at least, Daniele noted in a recent conversation, it is “a version of me. A better version.”

When the two stage veterans sat together last week, a day after performances began at Lincoln Center Theatre, they laughed continuously and launched into conversation with the enthusiasm of born entertainers. They imitated pranks they once played on their co-stars, hummed tunes from long-forgotten shows, and punctuated their stories with enough sound effects to make a Foley artist jealous.

There may also have been a little crying as they recalled their decades in the trenches of Broadway (Lopez is 75, Daniele is almost a decade older) and reflected on the new project, a memory musical based on Daniele’s childhood in Buenos Aires after the Second World War.

She and the book’s lyricist, composer and writer, Michael John LaChiusa, have worked together several times, first when he directed her 1994 Off Broadway musical “Hello Again” and then on the Tony-nominated “Marie Christine” (1999), and Their conversations stimulated him. “I remember all the stories she told me about her childhood in Argentina,” LaChiusa said. “A lot of them had to do with how a woman became a dancer, and then a dancer, choreographer and director. And all of that was on her own terms and on her own talent.”

LaChiusa thought this trip would make a good musical, but his friend balked. Daniele finally relented, under one condition. “One day I said, ‘If you want to write something about my life, write about the three women who created me,’” he said. “And it’s not just me: someone always has someone. I think that’s why he’s so emotional. You don’t connect with my story, but with what you have inside, your experience.”

López intervened: “We are all Anuncia in one way or another. When my husband watched the show last night, he said, ‘It’s your story too, Priscilla.’” Daniele’s formidable support group consisted of his mother (played on the show by Eden Espinosa), his aunt (Andréa Burns) and his grandmother (LaChiusa regular María Testa). Kalyn West plays the young Anuncia, while Enrique Acevedo and Tally Sessions take on the various male roles. They were all in the world premiere of the show at the Old Globe in San Diego two years ago; López joined the cast in New York, replacing Carmen Román.

For LaChiusa, Lopez was an obvious choice. “On the one hand, she has pedigree and she wanted a 70-year-old to play this, or even older,” she said. “And she is a star, and Graciela is a star: she shines when she walks into a room. “When Priscilla is on stage, you can’t take your eyes off her.”

The two women didn’t talk much about the project itself in one of the first meetings. “We spent an afternoon exchanging family stories,” Lopez said. “We talk about our lives, which are…”

“Very, very similar,” Daniele replied. “I started as a dancer and then I participated in shows, and then she became a star and I became a choreographer and director.”

Daniele’s early years were spent in Perón’s Argentina, where she studied ballet as a child. Her dancing career eventually took her to Paris and then New York, where she made her Broadway debut in “What Makes Sammy Run?” in 1964. Two years later, López, 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. López, despondent, accepted the first job he found: in a Miami Beach club. Accustomed to risqué showgirls, the locals didn’t like what Lopez described as “a very wholesome, all-American revue” and began shouting for more skin. “I was mortified,” he said.

When composer Bob Merrill told her about his new musical, “Henry, Sweet Henry,” she flew back to New York to audition. The choreographer of that 1967 production asked her if she would like to swing. “I had no idea what a swing was,” Lopez said. “I thought a swing was like sitting on a swing.” (She and Daniele shouted in unison.)

“Henry, Sweet Henry” turned out to be another flop, but that choreographer was none other than Michael Bennett. A few years later, López 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 based on López’s time at the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan.

It is to those formative years that, once again, López goes back when asked who his driving forces were. First it was her mother, who said that young Priscilla had worked too hard to get into the elite school and she shouldn’t quit. Another early supporter of his was her acting teacher Vinnette Carroll. “As horrible as Mr. Karp was, that’s how wonderful he was,” Lopez said, referring to the teacher who makes memorable running appearances in “Nada.”

Bennett also played a key role in Daniele’s life. He saw her dancing in “Promises, Promises” in 1968 and took her under his wing. She incorporated some of her suggestions into “Coco” the following year and made her one of her assistants in “Follies” (1971). She also played young Vanessa in that production, but her increasing responsibilities did not interfere with her mischievous humor. One of her dance partners, Steven Boockvor, was driving her crazy with his pranks, so she decided to fight back with the number “Loveland.” “We spent a long time staring at each other,” Daniele said, “and one day I was…” A thread of saliva hangs from her lips. “Michael said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I had a problem with my mouth and I was drooling.'”

In the 1970s, Lopez and Daniele participated in “The Milliken Breakfast Show,” a series of industrial musicals driven by artists such as Ann Miller, Robert Morse, Gwen Verdon and… Michael Bennett. One year, López was Chita Rivera’s substitute. “It was a rehearsal and she had a date or something,” López said. “Michael said, ‘Priscilla, come up here. Do it!’ I went (to a happy tune) “bump-bump-bump.”

As for Daniele, Bennett encouraged her to choreograph one of the Millikens and she never looked back. She would earn a total of 10 Tony nominations for choreography and direction, including for her work on “Once on This Island” and “Ragtime,” and in 2021 she received a special Tony Award for lifetime achievement.

Announces mentions such an award, but for the most part the new show is about the women who surrounded her and looking back at the twilight of her life. Living memories are an essential component of history, along with the recognition that there are some we may want to modify.

When asked if he had any memories he would like to change, Lopez couldn’t think of anything at the time. Daniele, however, raised her father, who abandoned the family when she was 6 years old.

“I wish I could forgive him,” she said. “I’m 84 years old and I can’t. There is nothing I can do about it. That was too much pain for my mother, for my family, for everything. So she is still there.”

In the program, the older Anuncia intervenes when That Man hits his mother, admonishing her: “There is 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, Priscila.”

“So I finally got it right?” Lopez asked. They laughed with joy.

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