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ACT II: A closer look at area stages — “Happiest Song Plays Last”

Armando Riesco (right with SandrMarquez) plays Elliott “The Happiest Song Plays Last” Goodman Theatre. |  LIZ LAUREN

Armando Riesco (right, with Sandra Marquez) plays Elliott in “The Happiest Song Plays Last” at the Goodman Theatre. | LIZ LAUREN

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When: Through May 12

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $14-$45

Info: (312) 443-3800;

Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

Updated: April 21, 2013 3:00AM

Talk about being an over-achiever. True, this might be the very last term playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes would use to describe herself, yet the evidence suggests it could not be more accurate.

Consider this: Hudes wrote the book for the Broadway musical “In the Heights,” which received the 2008 Tony Award for best musical, earned her a Tony nomination for best book of a musical, and was a 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Meanwhile, she was already at work on what would develop into “The Elliot Trilogy,” three plays about war and the quandaries of family, including: “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue,” about three generations of soldiers in a Puerto Rican-American family (first staged in a 2006 Teatro Vista-Rivendell Theatre production at the Steppenwolf Garage); “Water by the Spoonful,” the story of a soldier who returns from Iraq and struggles to find his place in the world, and the work that earned her the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (it is set for its Chicago premiere next season at Court Theatre); and finally, “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” now iin its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre, in association with Teatro Vista.

This new drama, directed by Edward Torres (“The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity”), spins a split-screen story as a Puerto Rican-American soldier who has served in Iraq finds himself in an ancient Jordanian town at the dawn of the “Arab Spring,” forging an entirely new and unexpected career as an action film hero, while at the same time his cousin, back in Philadelphia, is feeding and housing the needy in her economically distressed neighborhood. (Accompanying the story with jibaro — Puerto Rican folk music — will be fabled cuatro player Nelson Gonzalez.)

And oh, yes, Hudes, 35, is married (to a public defender who works with Legal Aid in the Bronx), and the mother of two children — a six-year-old daughter, Cecilia (born a few days before “In the Heights” opened), and a son, Julian, not yet 4 months old, who has been with her throughout rehearsals at the Goodman.

I rest my case about over-achieving.

Hudes grew up in West Philadelphia — the child of a Jewish father and a Puerto Rican mother. Although she wrote poems and stories from earliest childhood (her first play was produced by Philadelphia Young Playwrights when she was in 10th grade), early on she also studied piano and began composing.

“My aunt [on her father’s side] was a composer who created many of the eclectic scores for the Big Apple Circus, and I would visit her in New York on weekends,” Hudes recalled. “She took me to the theater, and dance performances and music clubs. I got my undergrad degree in music at Yale, and then went back to Philadelphia where I did loads of session gigs between 1999 and 2002. But at one point my mom just looked at me and said: ‘You are a born writer. That’s what you should be doing.’ And there was no turning back from there. By that Fall I was in the M.F.A. playwriting program at Brown University, studying with Paula Vogel.”

Though she had written musicals in college, it wasn’t until she was at Brown that she wrote her first full-length play.

“Paula [Vogel, now 61] is touched by light and youth,” said Hudes. “She is eternally six years old, and still believes that writing is a wondrous thing. Her joy is infectious and helpful. And more than how to write a play she taught me how to live life as a writer.”

So how did “The Elliot Trilogy” begin?

“I knew I wanted to deal with our country’s wars, with my family’s participation in them, and with the notion of what soldiers bring back from those experiences,” said Hudes. “Then, as our recent wars dragged on, I also wanted to explore civilian culture, and how we are so often shielded or isolated from the onging trauma. I was one of those people. But I have a younger cousin, Elliot Ruiz, who signed up for the Marines at 17 and served in Iraq. We are close, so we talked — first in 2004, after he’d just gotten out, and then again last year as I was working on ‘The Happiest Song’.”

“Elliot is tall and handsome and charming and smart — a real guy’s guy. And when he got home he headed to California, thinking he might try acting or making commercials. Somehow he made a connection with a British filmmaker who was working on a docudrama about the 2005 incident in Haditha, Iraq, and he was cast as an extra. Mostly they wanted someone with military expertise, so he found himself on location in Jordan, giving the actors a sense of authenticity.”

As Hudes noted: “In many ways the military was good for Elliot. It got him out of a bad neighborhood where he had no prospects. And it allowed him to pay for some of his mom’s health care, and go college with government help. But there also was a loss of innocence. He saw things that were darker than he can shake, though I think being in Jordan gave him a chance to connect to Arab locals in a different way.”

Hudes is already at work on her next project.

“It’s a musical called ‘Daphne’s Dive’,” said Hudes. “And it’s about a corner bar in North Philadelphia where seven regulars have gathered over a period of 20 years.”

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