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“Oddly enough,” adds Kendt, “when I saw it later [in Los Angeles] at the Ahmanson, despite its barn-sized lack of intimacy, it knocked me out. I’m not sure that L.A. in particular made that show shine anew, but I’m pretty sure that being outside of New York, where there’s a powerful sense of conformist pressure mingled inextricably with scarifying financial stakes, made that musical’s nontraditional voice a lot stronger.”
As a playwright, I once had an agent who asked me, “Can’t you look around and see what’s being produced, and start writing like them?” Such advice is any writer’s nightmare, putting the cart before the horse and then kicking the horse. Yet that’s the way agents and producers are wired, and it explains the generic similarities of new works that emerge from new play festivals, as they seek out the next Mama Mia, Pump Boys and Dinettes, Urinetown or anything that can defy the economic tempests of Broadway. The great paradox of the theater producer is a hunger for the new offset by a fear of what’s different. When it comes to our latest wave of writer-composer-lyricists, it could be the combination of geographic distance from Broadway and their insulation from the professional theater (either by their career trajectories as indie musicians, or by the power of their will) that accounts for the fearless originality of so many new musicals on L.A.’s smaller stages.
“This is not a marketing exercise for anything. This didn’t come out of a focus group,” says Jake Broder, co-writer-performer with Vanessa Claire Smith of Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara. Asked if New York was on their mind, Broder replied that they were just happy to make it through opening night at the tiny Sacred Fools Theater in East Hollywood.
“I didn’t spare a thought on [New York],” Broder explains. “I was absolutely focused on what we were doing to an audience; the success of what has gone before was totally irrelevant.” Of the story of lounge singer Louis Prima’s almost Greek-tragic exile from fame on the Las Vegas strip, via a divorce and a coma, Broder says, “I didn’t want to do a happy thing. I wanted to have the audience snapping their fingers [to the era’s scat and bebop ditties] and weeping — the energy of the music and the sadness of the love story.”
Yet Broder and Smith’s concept was not without influences or precedents. “Look at things like All That Jazz, Amadeus [Broder played the title role in Peter Shaffer’s biographical drama on Broadway], you have all that swinging stuff, you have music and darkness side by side, the juxtaposing of upbeat music with wrenching emotions.”
From the other coast, Rob Kendt concurs, but with some cautions. “It’s a popular art form, you do want people to see it, then there’s the slippery slope of how many people will want to see it. When you’re working in musical theater, whatever the subject matter is, it’s a form that you have to be constantly tweaking, you need to keep people’s interest, even if it’s a down show, you need to keep it up-tempo.”
But that impulse introduces the challenge of matching the musical style with the subject matter. A musical coming soon to Broadway, Next to Normal, has dark themes similar to Louis & Keely and Lovelace: one woman has a psychotic break, and another is supporting two kids. But Kendt found that as soon as the drama gets interesting, “the music comes in and kills it. I’m hearing electric guitar and it sounds rock, and this is a domestic drama. Sometimes it’s a matter of hitting the right tone.”
That’s precisely the challenge that Caffey and Waronker found themselves addressing through the long and winding development of Lovelace: A Rock Opera. It was originally television producer Jeffrey Bowman’s idea to do a musical about the life of Linda Lovelace. The female indie rockers were brought onto the project in 2002 as composers.
“It didn’t really work as a musical,” says Waronker. “The dialogue and the music didn’t gel. They staged a workshop production in New York and received what Waronker describes as some “brutal” feedback. The problem, says Waronker, stemmed from Bowman’s impulse to do a musical based on a very dark story while keeping it “uptempo.”
“We had to keep infusing lightness into it through the music because the story was so dark. It started out almost campy. He was taking the view that it should be fun for an audience. But you can’t graze rape. You can’t graze abuse. It doesn’t add up.”