Michael John LaChiusa’s music is like other great works of literature; the more you read the lyrics and consider what is happening in the story, the more greatness you see in it. You may not laugh much, but you do think and feel. “People Like Us” from Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party is a great example of a LaChiusa song, one highlight in a show filled with riches.
The Wild Party is a musical about people searching, craving, needing abundance and decadence to hide and medicate their emotional emptiness. Honestly, the show sadly always reminded me of many students I met during my first teaching position, which was in a small outer-ring suburb where the kids felt like there was nothing to occupy their free time other than drinking, smoking, and drugs. There was the fair share of happy-go-stupid partygoers who went, no doubt, for a good time, but it was also a school filled with brokenness, so many kids who struggled with paternal abandonment, divorce, and emotional distance from parents, kids who did drugs and inhaled alcohol because there was no one there who cared enough to stop them.
“People Like Us” is an intriguing song for a number of reasons. First off, it plays like a passion-filled love song, and at its heart, it is a song not all that different from “If I Loved You” or “Make Believe” because it is a song in which two characters fall in love. The subtext is bonding and emotional attachment through like circumstances; however, the actual words reveal the why.
Queenie begins with a melancholy remembrance of what brought her to the city, a verse which young Nadine will later sing with glee—“Always wanted to see the lights of Broadway / I always wanted to hear the traffic roar . . .” But before she can finish it, she breaks down, and opens up, telling Black, “I was that girl. I’m all of them. Trapped in a room full of shadows and not enough light.”
The title could refer to Queenie and Black themselves, but what they say—“People like us. We take lovers like pills. / Just hoping to cure what we know we can’t fix.”—actually applies to everyone at the party—Kate’s constant conquest of younger men, Madeline’s instantaneous love for Sally, Jackie’s flippant desire for both Oscar and Nadine. What unites Queenie and Black is the mutual realization of what they’ve become, the fact that of all the people in the room, they alone realize that they are “people like us.”
That is not to say the song is all about honesty. Queenie sings, “People like us: We sure get our kicks: / And we heal awful fast and we don’t even scar,” which shows her own delusions. The fact that she’s with a man like Burrs illuminates how scarred she’s become.
Because of “People Like Us,” we can actually have hope for Queenie and Black, because her attachment to Black isn’t out of pure emotional need or sexual desire. The light that bathes her at the end (perhaps the enlightenment about her own self) signifies her entrance into the real world, the real world which she’s struggled to know throughout the show (as indicated in Black’s lyric, “It feels like a dream / But it’s too hard to tell / Where the dream begins / And the real world ends”). This isn’t another case of “Because we’re attracted to each other, we’re in love” type of love; these are two characters who are able to and willing to confront their own inner demons in order to live a life different from the one they’ve known.
So, not many laughs, but one heck of a score.
the Broadway Mouth
July 11, 2008