"Whoever I am is because of these extraordinary women who created me, educated me, loved me, and sent me into the world with all of their extraordinary good things," says legendary director-choreographer Graciela Daniele. "And some of the naughty ones, too."
Daniele—who counts the landmark musicals Once On This Island, Ragtime, A New Brain, and The Visit on her résumé—is talking about her mother, aunt, and grandmother, the three women (she calls them her "goddesses") who raised her. Growing up in 1940s Argentina, it was an unusual upbringing, but one that shaped her profoundly. "They were very different from each other—all of them loving me, and educating me, and being sometimes firm with me in order to make a good person out of me," she remembers.
And now Daniele's goddesses have inspired her latest musical, The Gardens of Anuncia. The work is currently in previews Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater; it's headed for a November 20 opening night for a run until December 31. Daniele, who's 83, says it will be her final show before retiring. Tony Award winner Priscilla Lopez and Kalyn West plays Daniele's stand-in, Anuncia, in the show—at different ages.
Appropriately, Daniele has kept Gardens a mostly family affair. Her longtime collaborator Michael John LaChiusa wrote the work, and was the one who convinced Daniele to do it. As for the cast, Daniele and LaChiusa turned to a mainstay from their previous works, putting Mary Testa in the role of Daniele's Grandmama.
"She is a volcano," Daniele says the three-time Tony nominee, "just the most extraordinary actress in the musical theatre that I have ever worked with." The duo previously worked together on A New Brain Off-Broadway and Marie Christine on the Main Stem, the latter also with LaChiusa.
But their connection goes back even further. In fact, Testa credits Daniele with giving her a career. Among her first major Broadway credits was being the standby for Liza Minnelli in The Rink. “When I auditioned, Grazi said to the stage managers, ‘There is no one on the stage with star quality except for her,’” Testa recalls. “That’s the reason I got the job.”
When Gardens was to make its world premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe in 2021, Testa, who had been developing the role for some time, was reticent to go out of town—particularly with the COVID pandemic still in the air. “I don’t like going out of town, and I never do,” Testa says. “Graciela called me, ‘If you don’t do the show, I will kill myself.’ She’s the only one who could get me to leave my home in New York.”
For her part, Andréa Burns hadn’t worked with Daniele before joining the Gardens cast—she built her own career starring in the original Songs For a New World Off-Broadway and the first national tour of Parade, along with such Broadway shows as The Full Monty, Beauty and the Beast, In the Heights, and On Your Feet! But starring in a Graciela Daniele musical, she says, felt like it was a long time coming. “I’ve been waiting to work with her for 30 years,” she says. “I moved to New York and I saw Once On This Island and said, ‘Whoever made that, I just want to be working with that person.’ I’ve seen everything she ever did and have loved her so much.”
That love for art makes Burns especially suited to play Tía. With an age difference of just 12 years, Daniele says her aunt was really more of a sister figure in her life. And she credits much of her artistic brain to the time they used to spend together. Daniele remembers being five years old and laying on the floor listening to her aunt's beloved classical music on the radio. "It was a game we used to play every night after dinner," Daniele shares. "She would say, 'Grazielita, close your eyes and tell me what you see.' I would close my eyes and listen to the music and say, 'I see a horse galloping through the plains.'" Daniele says being inspired to make pictures out of music, to focus on storytelling based on what it made her feel, was the beginning of her career in dance, expression, and storytelling. "Thank God there was no television," she says, laughing.
Luckily for Burns, she didn't have to look far for real-life inspiration. She says that her Tía is just as much a tribute to Daniele's beloved aunt as it is to her own Aunt Eileen, her father’s sister. “My aunt could celebrate me all the time without exception,” says Burns. “She was joyful—her middle name was Joy. She always lit up when I walked into the room, and a child never forgets that.” From her own Aunt Eileen to Daniele’s Tía, Burns calls it “a cycle of gratitude.”
Eden Espinosa, another Daniele newcomer, is also looking to her own family tree to play Daniele's Mami, the most directly parental of the trio. The character is the one most often laying down the law, as it were. Playing the role, Espinosa shares, has given her new insights into her own upbringing.
“It’s given me a lot of compassion for [my mom's] strictness when I was younger,” she shares. The former Wicked and Rent (and soon to be Lempicka on Broadway) star says her own mother was all about rules: stand up straight, don’t leave the house without nylons, practice your piano, wipe down the piano when you’re done. “Playing this role has shown me that she just loved me so much. It helps you to zoom out and see generational themes, the unusual ways people show love when it’s the only way they know how.”
Daniele says her own mother had a novel way of disciplining her even when she was a very little girl. Rather than yelling and screaming when she'd misbehave, Daniele's mom would sit her down for a chat. "My mother used to say to me, 'OK, Graziella. Let's talk woman to woman,'" Daniele remembers. "She made me feel like I was a woman enough even at six or seven years old to respond to her questions. And they weren't punishments. They were, 'Why do you feel you did this?'" Daniele says she has similar chats with herself even now as upsetting life events crop up.
These days, Espinosa describes herself as a “bonus mom” to her partner’s child, which has given her particular inspiration in the more communal parenting setup that Gardens displays from Daniele’s upbringing. “It takes a village,” she says, echoing the familiar axiom. “I wish we had that more here, people stepping in to help. There’s not enough time. There’s not enough anything. How do I do all these things—pour into you, nurture you—while also trying to do that for myself and my partner?"
But as Testa sees it, that village was what helped Daniele become a theatrical powerhouse: “They gave [Daniele] independence of thought, that she could do it without having to rely on anyone else.” Testa saw that same strength in her own mother. Testa’s father travelled a lot for work when she was growing up, giving her a front-row seat to watching her mom hold the house together when he was gone. “As an adult, I was fine being independent because my mother was fine. It gave me a sense that it was OK to not have anybody around.” Testa says it was also her mother who taught her to harmonize when she was still a little kid.
But even if Daniele's upbringing was somewhat unusual, Gardens of Anuncia is ultimately a tribute to family in its myriad configurations, to the way we inspire others and pay forward what we learn from our own journey through life to the next generation. Appropriately, that's happening within the theatre family of Gardens of Anuncia, too. Espinosa had tears in her eyes as she reflected on the impact her co-stars have had on her life throughout the process of developing the musical and bringing it Off-Broadway. “These two women have helped me in how I carry myself in a room,” she says. “To know my worth, to ask for what I need. It is a lesson every day, a profound influence that I will never forget. I learn from them every day.”
And maybe that's why they are so well equipped to bring this particular story to the stage, so much so that Daniele the casting felt almost pre-ordained. “They don’t look like my three goddesses, but they are the spirit,” says Daniele. “They own these characters. I know that the spirits of the dead ones, my women, are sitting watching themselves and applauding these actors. I am so happy with them. So proud.”
Daniele says the whole experience is so moving that she regularly has trouble taking notes during performances through her tears, something the cast has been dealing with onstage as well. “We cry every day,” says Testa, tearing up even during the interview. “When you come to see the show, bring Kleenex.”