Michael John LaChiusa’s 2003 musical Little Fish is a work that engages with the conditions of living in the postmodern age. This article analyses how LaChiusa manipulates the formal properties of the musical in order to express the disconnection and fragmentation of postmodern living. It examines the impact of this on personal relationships, as Little Fish is full of unsatisfying encounters between subjects. Finally, it considers its treatment of epiphany. The musical excels at the presentation of triumphant epiphanic moments. Little Fish, however, subverts epiphany at almost every turn. Ultimately, it is perhaps a twenty-first-century successor to Stephen Sondheim’s Company: a study of urban existence in these times.
Keywords: Little Fish, Michael John LaChiusa, Deborah Eisenberg, Jennifer Laura Thompson, David Harvey, Sondheim’s Company
Michael John LaChiusa’s 2003 musical Little Fish is a work that engages with the conditions of living in the postmodern age. The narrative follows Charlotte, a thirty-something short-story writer living in New York, who is in the grips of an existential crisis, paralysed by uncertainty and lack of motivation.
This article analyses how LaChiusa manipulates the formal properties of the musical in order to express the disconnection and fragmentation of postmodern living. It examines the impact of this on personal relationships, as Little Fish is full of unsatisfying encounters between subjects. It also considers its treatment of epiphany. The musical excels at the presentation of triumphant epiphanic moments, whereby a character bursts into song as they solve their problem. Little Fish, however, subverts epiphany at almost every turn. When it does finally arrive, it deliberately fails to deliver a triumphant catharsis for either the audience or the protagonist. Ultimately, Little Fish is perhaps a twenty-first-century successor to Stephen Sondheim’s Company: a study of urban existence in these times.
Michael John LaChiusa was born in New York in 1962. He is a composer, lyricist and librettist who writes musical theatre, opera and chamber music. He has been nominated for five Tony Awards over the course of his career and has produced musicals based on a wide variety of source material: plays, novels, poetry, short stories and historical events. His musical Little Fish is adapted from two stories in Deborah Eisenberg’s 1987 short story collection, Transactions in a Foreign Currency: “Flotsam” and “Days.”
Eisenberg is an American writer primarily known for her short fiction. In her collection, the two stories selected by LaChiusa are not sequential, but rather separated by three other discrete stories. LaChiusa had originally planned to set the stories as two separate shows, but found it difficult to make it work, and so with Eisenberg’s blessing, he combined the two (Shewey). On this front, the final product is remarkably successful. Eisenberg’s stories are well-fused in Little Fish, which dips in and out of both quite seamlessly.
The production opened at Second Stage, an Off-Broadway theatre in New York City, on 21 January 2003, directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele. That same year, the Dramatists Play Service published the libretto, and in 2008, a live cast recording of the Los Angeles-based Blank Theatre Company’s production was released by Ghostlight Records. The recording is also available on Spotify.
The work follows the solipsistic protagonist Charlotte, a thirty-something short-story writer living in New York at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In name and occupation, she is drawn from Eisenberg’s “Flotsam.” Charlotte is without direction, suffering a profound existential crisis. The crisis is seemingly sparked by her decision to quit smoking, and it is at this point in her life that we encounter her. So severe is Charlotte’s malaise that it has rendered her unable to function, to decide something as simple as whether she wants to eat lunch. Throughout the work, Charlotte searches for meaning in a plethora of ways. She tries to find it through relationships with lovers, friends and strangers, by going on vacation, taking up swimming, taking up running, amongst other things. Eventually, she comes to the realisation that she has been looking for something more than what there is, and that she needs to find peace in a life centred around habit and routine. For Charlotte, it proves more productive to accept she is just a little fish (as the metaphor goes) than continuing to try and fail to be a big one. As her friend Marco sings one point, “we’re only little fish, it’s safer that we swim in schools.”
The production was not well-received by critics, and it played only 29 performances before it closed. Ben Brantley, reviewing the show for The New York Times,wrote that Charlotte was a “black hole of a character,” that the supporting characters were “quickly sketched types than full-fleshed” and that by about halfway through, the show “starts to lose its shapely, sharp-edged contours and turn into a sentimental, well, blob”: a reference to a scene in which her vindictive, unfeeling ex-boyfriend Robert describes Charlotte as such.
LaChiusa’s work has often garnered this kind of criticism. Nathan Hurwitz has described his oeuvre as “widely eclectic,” and observes that he has been “accused of being cerebral to the point of being aloof” (A History 217–18). LaChiusa does not shy away from challenging audiences and been a prominent critic of “faux-Broadway,” a term he coined to describe what he sees as the formulaic, conservative offerings of the early twenty-first century that provide “no challenge, no confrontation, no art” (“The Great Gray Way” 33). He is innovative with his use of form and “tends towards the specialized and quirky” (Suskin) when it comes to subject matter. Moreover, as noted by Green, LaChiusa “doesn’t always structure and signboard the audience’s experiences with recognizable song forms and genre clues” (A6). Specifically, in relation to Little Fish, Hurwitz avers that LaChiusa’s “adamant refusal to consider traditional forms” (Songwriters n. pag.) in the showultimately detracts from its success. However, to quote Stephen Sondheim’s oft-referenced dictum, “content dictates form,” in taking up the themes of Eisenberg’s stories, LaChiusa is responding to source material for which the “traditional forms” associated with the musical are not well-suited to the postmodernist aesthetics of Eisenberg’s stories.
The stories in Transactions in a Foreign Currency evoke the “sense of diminishing control, loss of individual autonomy and generalized helplessness” that Charles Newman described as ubiquitous in postmodern literature. The stories form part of an aesthetic movement that seeks to depict “the flattest possible characters in the flattest possible landscapes rendered in the flattest possible diction” (qtd. in Harvey 58). Such features do not naturally lend themselves to musical adaptation. This article argues that the reactions to Little Fish are evidence of the perceived disjuncture between postmodernist concerns and the structure and function of the musical. It offers an alternate reading whereby many of the perceived flaws of the work can be read in terms of postmodernist tendencies.
David Harvey argues that the postmodern era has been an “intense phase of time-space compression” (284), whereby the rapid development of new technologies and modes of production has precipitated extraordinary changes in the human relationship to space and time. Little Fish reflects this by eschewing the book-musical format, whereby songs are interspersed within a linear narrative, in favour of “vignettes that flicker and flash, zooming back and forth in time,” as Don Shewey describes. Time is synchronic rather than diachronic. The setting of the brief vignettes changes frequently—locales include a dress shop, a nightclub, an art gallery, a movie theatre, a swimming pool and many more—and the stage directions frequently adopt words like “vanish” or “disappear,” which evocatively conjure the way that the scene transitions should feel like they occur. People similarly appear and disappear without fanfare or warning. It is often difficult to distinguish between the present and the past, as there are few clear scene divisions or other devices that demarcate time.
Occasionally, we are given a clue through a lyric, or an aside to the audience, but, for the most part, specificity is absent. There is no exposition to speak off. Charlotte wakes; makes a pronouncement about how difficult it is to quit smoking; and the opening number ensues. These elements combined assist to capture the speed of postmodern living and a society obsessed with “the virtues of instantaneity” (Harvey 286). As the company sing in the opening number, “Time means nothing, days get lost. Time means nothing, Days go by.”
The work is unapologetic about its lack of cohesion and makes little effort to draw its disparate threads together. For example, the genre of the music varies wildly, from frenetic rock to smooth jazz to 1980s synth-electro pop. This, combined with the flexible movement through time and space, produces a markedly un-unified effect, in-keeping with what Harvey regards as the most “startling” aspect of postmodernism: its “total acceptance of the ephemerality, fragmentation, discontinuity” of existence (44). Rather than attempting to transcend or counteract this state of affairs, he argues, postmodernism “swims, even wallows, in the fragmentary and the chaotic currents of change as if that is all there is” (44). The shared metaphor of water is striking here, and by way of its structure, movement through time and space, and musical genre, so too is Little Fish.
Time-space compression is also conveyed in the construction of the libretto, in that it moves flexibly between scene and song. Ordinarily in the musical, songs interrupt the action of the plot, suspending “book time” (the time of the narrative) and introducing a new order of time, known as “lyric time” (the time of the songs) (McMillin 9). In other words, songs force us to stop, press pause and engage in the moment, reveling in repetitive time, rather than focusing on the cause-and-effect of the plot.
In Little Fish, due to its fragmented structure, the effect of this convention is neutered, as there are few plot points to interrupt. Additionally, there are almost no moments for applause scaffolded into the libretto, applause ordinarily being an important marker of the transition between book and lyric time (McMillin 4), which makes for an atypical temporal experience. The consequence of this is that the differences between the two orders of time are flattened out, and this has a profound effect on the energy of the production. McMillin argues that it is the contrast between book and lyric time that gives the musical is “lift, its energy, its elation” (33). These elements are absent in Little Fish, as the songs do not provide such an effect.
Harvey suggests that time-space compression has had a profound impact on ways of “thinking, feeling, and doing” (285). Moreover, he argues that it impedes “our capacity to grapple with the realities unfolding around us. Under stress . . . it becomes harder and harder to react accurately to events” (306).
Inability to react is a central theme of Little Fish. When Charlotte interrupts her ex-boyfriend Robert from his bedtime reading with a question he regards as agonizingly banal—she asks him what he is thinking about—he explodes into a rage. He likens her to the Blob (a reference to a science-fiction movie about an amoeba-like organism), and he charges her as being “as sentient as protoplasm” and “devoid of even taxonomic attributes.” He throws a series of harsh rhetorical questions at her: “Have you ever had an intention? Have you ever had a desire? Have you ever had what could accurately be described as a reaction?” Somewhat surprisingly, given this level of vitriol, the focus of the scene is not on Robert’s hatefulness, but on Charlotte’s history of failure to produce a response.
Throughout the scene that led to this moment, he has tried to bait her into reacting or defending herself, but she seems to barely register his vitriol, making only feeble and ineffective interjections in both book and lyric time—she is ineffective in both. And, while this exchange does finally prompt Charlotte to leave him, she does so without giving him a piece of her mind. She just packs up and leaves, moves to New York, without a word goodbye.
At another point, she fantasizes about how blissful it would be to be in a catatonic state in a song entitled “The Pool.” The numbness Charlotte feels is reflective of what Frederic Jameson describes as “the waning of affect” (11). Jameson notes that postmodern subjects have moved beyond anxiety and neurosis, and that they exist in a state of desensitization, where they have been liberated having to feel anything at all (15). Charlotte exemplifies this. This lack of affect was also noted in responses to Little Fish. A review of the cast recording by musical theatre scholar Stephen Suskin remarked that “I was at a loss to feel anything much for Charlotte or the show as a whole,” While Suskin undoubtedly intended this remark as a criticism, an alternate reading is to see the absence of affect on the part of both character and viewer as an integral part of Little Fish’s depiction of the postmodern condition.
Miriam Marty Clark suggests that the material for postmodern narratives emerges out of “the ruins of the public sphere,” in interactions such as the “doomed conversation, the harassing phone call, the dead letter” (“Contemporary Short Fiction” 150). Charlotte struggles to form meaningful connections with other people, and person-to-person contact is depicted as mostly disappointing and lacking in substance. In doing so, Little Fish evocativelystages the disconnectedness, the breakdown of community that is often attributed to postmodernism. Like the motif of water that runs so strongly through the show, characters float in and out of the narrative. Some engage with Charlotte in the present, others are ghosts from her past, others still merely figments of her imagination, or perhaps parts of her own psyche. In particular, most of Charlotte’s encounters with strangers are unfulfilling and harsh. The guards at the pool heckle her, the women in the change-room ignore her, her fellow runners give her unsolicited criticism of her running style, her room-mate alternates between ignoring her and goading her, and her lecherous boss takes her out for a drink and then tries to seduce her. Absent is the sense of community so prevalent in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals of the past, where choruses of townspeople sing together in harmony to reflect their wholesomeness and unity.
Song, and lyric time, is a unique way with which the musical can convey this breakdown of community. Characters rarely sing together in Little Fish, and there are no big ensemble numbers bar the opening number, “Days,” in which the ensemble act as Charlotte’s psyche, trying to encourage her to start smoking again. More often, lyric time is used by characters as a way to monopolise the conversation, to be able to reflect their point of view uninterrupted.
While many of the relationships in Little Fish leave much to be desired, the most extreme example is with her ex-boyfriend, Robert. Despite the fact their relationship ended in 1993 (Little Fish is nominally staged in the early years of the 2000s), he continues to plague her thoughts and impact on her life. A version of him that exists in her imagination continues to reappear and discourage her throughout Little Fish. Robert does this through both book and lyric time but is particularly pernicious in lyric time as through song “he can repeat himself, extensively and variously without being countered” (34). When Charlotte has taken up swimming, Robert appears in the pool to discourage her. After a brief dialogue, where she does try to defend herself—“I am trying to improve myself,” she says—without missing a beat, he responds with “You try. You fail. And fail and fail,” and then launches into song before she can get another word in, rendering Charlotte merely “a listener. She may indicate her reactions to the song, but she cannot speak for herself” (McMillin 34). The obnoxious song, entitled “Short Story” casts Charlotte as a little fish “who couldn’t swim,” mocks her profession as a writer, and advises her to “quit while you’re ahead.” Robert even brings a group of male backing singers with him to further assert his dominance and outnumber her.
A common occurrence in the musical is a song called the “11 o’clock number”—a song that appears towards the end of the work and generally contains an important realisation on the part of the singing character. For Miriam Marty Clark, one innovation brought about by the advent of postmodernism is that narratives “do not inevitably advance toward and can no longer be read in terms of epiphany” (“After Epiphany” 387). Little Fish does advance towards epiphany, as throughout Charlotte is searching for meaning in her life, but these moments of recognition are constantly undermined, and frequently rendered empty and disappointing.
Many of the people Charlotte engages with are presented as potential sources of epiphany. Her friends Kathy and Marco offer her various strategies which she tries and then discards; the people who treat her poorly ought to shock her into action. She has brief, regular encounters with a character called Bodega Man: a bodega being a small corner store ubiquitous in New York City, commonly run by Hispanic Americans. The Bodega Man is reminiscent of the “magical negro” trope so common in film, which is, as Entman and Rojecki observe, a character that assists a (white) protagonist to achieve their objective by offering folk-style wisdom that might prompt a realisation (2001). The Bodega Man’s mysteriousness brings hope that each time he appears, Charlotte is getting closer to some sort of profound realisation. To this end, his advice frequently falls short. At one encounter, he offers her the following wisdom: “The person you stand next to may become your friend. If that person standing next to you speaks to you, don’t speak to her or him because you might become friends. So you must be careful who you stand next to.” While this is quite nonsensical, viewed through the framework of “folk-wisdom,” one is motivated to search for meaning within. However, this advice is immediately followed with the revelation that it “says so here in the Daily News. ‘How to Tell if Your Friend is a True Friend: Ten Questions to Ask.’” This undercuts the Bodega Man’s advice as it is found to be drawn from other sources. In other words, his philosophy is pure pastiche.
Just before the final scene with the Bodega Man, Charlotte is running on the track. A man, an executive, who is also running, slows down to tell her that she “looks beat” and to ask her how long she has been running. “Six months,” she responds, to which he replies “Really? You should be used to it by now,” and promptly takes off again. For the first time in Little Fish, Charlotte gets angry. She takes off after him, demanding to know what he meant. He ignores her, and she explodes in a growl of anger, grabbing him by the collar. After a tense moment, she lets him go. The track disappears, and dejected, she decides running is not working as a strategy, and that neither has giving up cigarettes. The Bodega Man appears, so that she can buy cigarettes, but to Charlotte’s surprise, he has been replaced by someone new. Charlotte asks after him: “The man who was here—he sold me cigarettes and the papers—where is he? I don’t know his name.” The New Bodega man is vague: “Oh yeah. Something with his little girl. Accident? Who knows?” The disappearance of the original Bodega Man seems to extinguish the potential for epiphany. At this key moment, where Charlotte has finally begun to be able to feel something, to react, to make a decision, he is not there to provide her with the advice she needs. He has not led her to enlightenment.
Yet, shortly afterwards, Charlotte does have an epiphany. She buys her cigarettes from the New Bodega Man and, through song, comes to an important realisation. She throws away the cigarettes and starts to sing. The song, “Simple Creature,” is an uplifting, inspirational ballad in a major key, where Charlotte outlines her new plan for life.
Charlotte decides all she can expect is to get through the week with a “modicum of pain.” She wants clear, air, shelter and “days and days of something called relief.” Then, the epiphany we have all been waiting for finally comes to her: “I want . . . I want to—I want to eat lunch.” And so, she does. Deciding that she wants to eat lunch suddenly frees her. Her demeanour changes. Joyfully, she sings: “And I instantly do, / What I set out to do, / At any given moment I choose.” Can this really be it? 90 minutes of watching a character grapple with profoundly existential questions and the outcome is that they decide to eat lunch? The tension for this moment of epiphany has been growing through the entire production, and the fact that when it finally arrives, it is so prosaic, is a clear repudiation of the convention of “11 o’clock number.” Notably, this moment of epiphany is not at all tinged with irony. As dramatically unsatisfying a conclusion as it is, Charlotte’s relief is genuine. Postmodernity does not call for a big, grand finale and a plot tied up in a neat bow. Charlotte has found a way to go on, and that is enough.
Finally, as so many postmodern works do, Little Fish borrows heavily from other texts. Much of the terrain it explores is touched upon in Stephen Sondheim’s Company, a concept-musical where the unapologetic bachelor Robert contemplates whether or not he should finally settle down and get married. Robert is the prototype for Charlotte. Bobby’s moment of epiphany at the conclusion of Company—the famous “Being Alive”is similarly oblique. And, as Ben Brantley noted, “Charlotte, like Mr. Sondheim’s Bobby, is a wistful, disengaged soul who is surrounded by people who advise her on how to live.” Yet, as he went on to say, “Bobby at least went to parties, picked up girls, had sex. When Charlotte retreats to bed, she’s alone.” This reflects the changed milieu and the further disintegration of social institutions and master narratives that has occurred in the three decades that separate the works.
Company is renowned as an astute commentary on a changing society where the power and influence of key social institutions (like marriage) are waning. It was also a landmark work in its rejection of conventional narrative structure. Little Fish engages in a similar level of social and formal critique, updated for its time.
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*Mara Davis is an Australian early-career academic who specialises in musical theatre. She is currently a Lecturer at the University of Wollongong, where she teaches into the Theatre and Performance program, and she is also a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, where she is writing about national identity in contemporary Australian musical theatre.