Entertainment » Movies

Only Connect (Sexually) with Songs in 'Hello Again'

by Frank J. Avella
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Nov 14, 2017
Audra McDonald in "Hello Again"
Audra McDonald in "Hello Again"  

Stage-to-screen musical adaptations are a lot less frequently produced today than they were a few decades ago. And when they are it's more likely to be a big studio production of a beloved work ("Into the Woods," "Les Miserables," "The Lion King," currently in pre-production), which is why the stunning new indie film version of Michael John LaChiusa's 1994 off-Broadway show, "Hello Again," is such a rarity as well as a treat.

Originally produced by Lincoln Center Theatre, the piece is adapted from Arthur Schnitzler's 1897 classic play, "Der Reigen (aka: "La Ronde)" which has seen numerous incarnations of all kinds over the last 120 years. The work follows the sexual passions of ten different but intertwined characters, from all levels of society, through ten separate but consecutive scenes.

LaChiusa took these love affair vignettes, messed with time, and added a gay element to his stage presentation.

Celebrated director, Tom Gustafson and screenwriter Corey Krueckeberg ("Were the World Mine," "Mariachi Gringo"), who also happen to be partners in life, have taken what was a fascinating curio onstage and adapted it into a beguiling cinematic experience where the visual and aural elements compliment one another. They've also expounded on LaChiusa's gay content by including a lesbian couple as well as adding a gender bending twist. And they do not hold back on depicting intimate situations.

The remarkable cast includes, Cheyenne Jackson, Tyler Blackburn and T.R. Knight, playing the gay characters, Martha Plimpton and Audra McDonald portraying the lesbian couple and Sam Underwood in a role that's been gender reconceived. Rounding out the cast is a superb Rumer Willis, Nolan Gerard Funk, Al Calderon and Jenna Ushkowitz.

"Hello Again" has been featured in over 40 International Film Festivals and will be released, via Screenvision Media, on November 8.

EDGE recently spoke separately with director Tom Gustafson and actor Cheyenne Jackson about this ambitious new work.


Nolan Gerard Funk in "Hello Again."

EDGE: Tom, why make "Hello Again" now and how did you go about connecting with Michael John?

Tom Gustafson: We had been in touch with him about another project of his that we hope to bring to the screen some day. That project is much bigger and is definitely going to take more time. We've always admired Michael John's writing style. He really lets the momentum of the character drive the song. That already feels very cinematic...We got excited by the idea that in every chapter the actor is the star of [his/her] 20-minute musical. There isn't a movie out there like that. The non-traditional structure interested us. Doing an indie musical is already hard but then putting in 10 time periods and 10 'stars' in the movie was such a huge, ambitious project that it really excited us. And bigger than that, Arthur Schnitzler's 'La Ronde' and the history of the adaptations of 'La Ronde' onstage and onscreen, it was exciting to be a part of that long tradition.

EDGE: Jane Fonda was in an adaptation, 'Circle of Love' back in the 1960s.

Tom: Yeah! The controversy with the billboard in Times Square of her on the bed being banned! That's one thing with this movie is that you can't do anything nowadays that was as controversial as it was back in the day -- back 100 years ago when he wrote the play or Max Ophuls' film or the one Jane Fonda was in-there's nothing that's really shocking that way anymore. So that wasn't a thing that we wanted to do. We wanted to approach the sex and the music in a different way.


Tyler Blackburn & T.R. Knight in "Hello Again."

EDGE: You changed the sex of the Whore and the Senator adding to the LGBT content. Who made that decision?

Tom Gustafson: It's something we decided. Corey and I are gay filmmakers. We're a couple, together for 20 years. With all of our films we are always interested in telling stories that reflect our life and connect with us (as) gay artists, so when we decided to adapt it we knew we wanted to switch some things up. And, right away, the Senator seemed like the perfect role to do that with...We loved the idea of having the Senator be a female and having a lesbian affair, which really wasn't in the original, although Michael John did have some hints of it with Leocadia and the Wife. But we went bigger with it. And it seemed timely and political and that was exciting.

And with Leocadia, we knew that we wanted to do something different with it and we weren't completely sold on what that was so we were auditioning across the boards, females, men, trans. We were trying to figure out what that could be. But we knew that we wanted to play with that as well.


Audra McDonald and Martha Plimpton in "Hello Again."

EDGE: How did you assemble such an amazing cast?

Tom Gustafson: This one was really challenging. The first person we did have attached was Audra. And having Audra and Michael John and their incredible talent obviously opens the door to many different people... But it was a puzzle. The actors are appearing in two pieces. We're shooting out of order so it was a major scheduling problem. And they have to sing. We did (shoot) all the singing live on set. That was the most important thing, finding actors that were up for the challenge with the sexuality and, also, who could really sing the complex and challenging score that Michael John had written. Piece by piece we started finding people.

EDGE: Cheyenne, how did you become involved?

Cheyenne Jackson: We shot it two years ago. I was just finishing up 'American Horror Story: Hotel' and got the call. I think maybe somebody else was cast and either they dropped out or -- I could tell they needed an answer quick. They said we have this part, Michael John LaChiusa's 'Hello Again.' They told me the people in the cast and I said absolutely, let's do it.

EDGE: Tom, you don't shy away from nudity and showing intimate situations. Was that always a part of your vision and did anyone try and talk you out of it?

Tom Gustafson: The intimate situations are inherent in 'La Ronde' and 'Hello Again,' so people had to be comfortable with the sexuality of it. Nudity is a totally different conversation, especially at the independent film level. You're not going to get name actors to get nude for scale. (Laughs) There's two ways we could have made this movie, we could have done it with a European sensibility and really had the nudity just out there, but I just don't know if we would have attracted that cast that we did because obviously there's the gatekeepers in Hollywood that don't let that happen. But that didn't discourage us.

There's a lot of skin and a lot of sexuality in the movie and I find it extremely sexy but that doesn't equal nudity in the movie. And I think that that's totally okay... And it was always a challenge. Where's the camera going to be? What can you see? What can't you see? What is sexy in this moment? That was always a conversation [between] us and the actors.


Tyler Blackburn & Cheyenne Jackson in "Hello Again."


EDGE: Cheyenne, you went for it, in terms of the nudity and sexual situations.

Cheyenne Jackson: Thanks. I feel like I'm 42 and I work hard to look decent. And aside from the vanity aspect, if a part calls for something and if it's really germane to the plot -- especially something like this where the entire plot is about sensual connections poetically through time -- you gotta do it. And I loved Audra and Martha's stuff. They were super hot and committed.

EDGE: Tom, since everything is so interconnected with the songs, was the process more rigid than usual?

Tom Gustafson: It would depend. Some of the actors really wanted to map out the staging and the songs with the sex. And with others it was a collaborative process. The rehearsal process was extremely short. Most of the actors we only got one day or two before shooting... It really depended on each actor and how the chemistry was working between the two and how we approached the scene... Each chapter was shot in just two days.

EDGE: Two days to shoot? What was that like?

Cheyenne Jackson: It was crazy. It was really difficult. Normally on any kind of shoot, whether there'd be multi-cam or single-cam or even film, you get time. You get at least a couple of takes. You try to do maybe, at most, five set-ups a day? In terms of full on actual scenes, we were doing 20 pages a day, it was absolutely nuts. That being said, you just got to get it done. So it was kind of exciting, too, this guerrilla filmmaking -- one for all, all for one -- also, the type of movie we're making, the type of sexuality (explored) and the music aspect. That we were singing live on set and trying to hide our ear (pieces). And trying to hide our private parts. It was definitely a juggle... you're under the gun and sometimes that's when you get out of your head and do your best work.

Tom Gustafson: By doing 'Hello Again' with all the music live, I think that makes such a difference. When you're singing live on set and the actors have the music in their ear, it just creates a chemistry in the moment that you would never get if you were trying to lip sync. And that was the number one priority. Because this is a film all about relationships and chemistry, the music has to be done live and it has to live in that moment. And we're really proud that we actually pulled that off.

Cheyenne Jackson: I sing live all the time so the live part of it wasn't as scary for me. I just didn't know how it was going to translate... But I saw a screening a while back and I thought it worked great. It was really fun to see everybody else in stuff. And also to work with Tyler and Audra. You're all in the same boat. You all help each other. It was really collaborative. I'm very proud of it.


Audra McDonald and Cheyenne Jackson in "Hello Again."

EDGE: Speaking to Audra and Tyler and working with them. You all had great chemistry. What was it like to work with Tyler and Audra?

Cheyenne Jackson: In something like this where you have a finite amount of time, you have to drum up chemistry real fast. Luckily Tyler was just really lovely and sweet and totally game. He was a little nervous about the whole live singing thing, even though he does have a beautiful voice. It's just not his norm. It was a little more comfortable for Audra and I to do the live singing because that's what you do when you're putting up a Broadway show.

Working with Audra. We've been friends for a long time. We've been in concerts and benefits [together]. Our paths have always crossed. We have kids the same age. (Laughs) That being said, neither of us had ever done anything like this onscreen...You have to just trust each other and she trusted me and I trusted her. It was pretty graphic and pretty full-on but I think that's what the piece calls for and anything less would have been a cop-out. She's just amazing.

EDGE: You came out before it was vogue for even a Broadway actor to do so. And in the last few years there seems to be a move backwards politically but forwards artistically specifically when it comes to LGBT artists and discrimination. Do you feel that's the case?

Cheyenne Jackson: Good question. I feel it's a scary time for all of us who are LGBT. For a gay man like me who has kids now, it's a whole different thing. Your ears perk up a lot more in conversations that pertain to your well-being. In the entertainment industry, I feel it is moving in a positive direction. I feel like there are a lot more openly gay actors. It's less of a novelty. There used to be just a handful of us and now there's the younger generation. My little buddy Colton Haynes and Noah Galvin and so many younger guys who are just out and going for it. And I think that's how progress is made.

"Hello Again" is in limited release. For a list of theaters showing the film, visit this website.

Watch the trailer to "Hello Again":


Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for Edge. His film column can be read at newyorkcool.com. Frank is also a proud Dramatists Guild member having written a slew of plays including "Consent," which confronts bullying and homophobia and was a 2012 semifinalist for the 2012 O'Neill National Playwrights Conference, "Vatican Falls," a play set against the backdrop of the Catholic sex abuse scandal which received Special Mention at the 2013 O'Neill (and will be produced next season) and his latest, "Orville Station." Ten of his plays have been produced (seven in NYC). Frank is the recipient of a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts for his play, CONSENT.


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