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Song and Angst: The Rise (and Fall?) of the New, Dark L.A. Musical

Down and doo-wop: Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder as the husband-and-wife team of 
Keely Smith and Louis Prima in 
Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara
Star Foreman

Click here for a list of L.A.’s current musicals.

Is that really Linda Lovelace, the misunderstood and misrepresented 1970s porn star, featured as the central character in one of L.A.’s heralded new musicals, Lovelace: A Rock Opera? Anna Waronker and Charlotte Caffey’s aim for Lovelace, which closes this weekend after a five-month run at the Hayworth, is to set the story straight, to give Linda the respect she deserves. But is it really about Linda (played by the hypnotically mercurial Katrina Lenk), or Little Red Riding Hood, an innocent lost in the woods of the porn industry as the wolves close in? Watch the baddest wolf, Linda’s husband and porn producer Chuck Traynor (Jimmy Swan), rescue Linda from an abusive mother who forced her stunned woman-child to give up her out-of-wedlock first baby. Watch the guise of Traynor’s kindness fall away, like the wolf’s bonnet, as he begins to snarl at and dominate his fiancée. Watch him invite his friends and business partners to gang-rape her on their honeymoon. When she has the gall to suggest that deep-throating strangers is not the kind of escape from her family she’d signed up for, he responds by punching, hypnotizing and drugging her. Lovelace: A Rock Opera is no grand guignol parody of human cruelty, it’s the genuine article, a saga of servitude and slavery set to pop music that slides into opera. Despite its redemptive finale, this is a somber, almost theological excursion into many hearts of darkness.

A truism heard around the country suggests that in times of hardship, people crave escapist entertainments. Yet over the past few years, L.A. has generated a wave of dark-themed musicals that have attracted local audiences for months — a development that suggests an openness to more serious, adult fare.

The action in Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara, Jake Broder and Vanessa Claire Smith’s hit musical homage to the 1950s lounge-act duo of Louis Prima and his wife, Keely Smith, starts with Prima on a hospital bed in a coma, dying. He awakens to relive the tale of his jealousy of the young woman he discovered and married, his control freakishness, the reasons Smith eventually left him, and his return, alone and abandoned, to his death bed. Throughout the play, Broder and Smith sing an array of pop ballads, scat, bebop and doo-wop ditties that scan the decades of Prima and Smith’s partnership, all accompanied by an onstage band. “Nothing lasts forever” was the slogan printed on the original program.

Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara opened at the Sacred Fools Theater last year, where it was met with a cascade of rave reviews and thrived for months with sold-out houses. Transferring “up” to the Geffen Playhouse last week with a new director, a new book, added characters and a journey far more psychologically complicated, the play, with its essences of God, music jealousy and death, has been muddied by the attempt to transform it into a bio-epic, the likes of comparatively formulaic musicals such as “Stormy Weather” (about Lena Horne) and “Ella” (about Ella Fitzgerald). Even the great line, “Nothing lasts forever” — clearly at the heart of the idea — no longer appears on the program cover. In a telling shift to the bigger stage, the musical’s darkness has been whitewashed by the replacement of at least three reflective ballads with upbeat ditties.

Then there’s Frank Zappa’s sex-saturated satire, Joe’s Garage, a megahit for the Open Fist Theatre last year. Joe (Jason Paige) is a garage-band guitarist, mesmerized by his capacity for creation in a suburb characterized by Orwellian conformity. Joe finds himself betrayed by his girlfriend (Becky Wahlstrom) and he is eventually arrested for accidentally short-circuiting a sexual-appliance robot during a golden-shower episode. He, like Lovelace, is gang-raped, but in jail and by former record executives as a chorus sings, “Keep it greasy so it goes down easy.” When Joe finally re-emerges into the “free” world, he discovers that music has been banned by the government. No worries: He lands a good job in a muffin factory.

It took a pop songwriter named Richard Winzeler to find the right operatic tone for Great Expectations. Margaret Hoornerman, Brian VanDerWilt, Steve Lane and Steve Lozier’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ story about the plight of an orphan, and about child abuse and human trafficking in Victorian London, played last year at the Hudson Backstage and Odyssey theaters. Finally, there was West Coast Ensemble’s revival of Assassins, the Stephen Sondheim collection of musical/psychological profiles of the men and women who attempted to murder various U.S. presidents.

These are just some of the works nominated for Best Musical in the 30th annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards (Monday night at El Rey). These musicals were all financed and presented, and drew their audiences, during the past 18 months, as we were slowly becoming aware that the economy was starting to slide. In that time there have been two noticeable changes on L.A. stages. New plays have certainly not gone away, but the quantity of new musicals being presented here is unprecedented.

And what’s described above doesn’t include the new musicals recently premiering in our midsize and larger theaters: The Drowsy Chaperone, 9 to 5: The Musical and Minsky’s — all at the Ahmanson; Vanities, Stormy Weather and Ray Charles Live! at the Pasadena Playhouse; Ella at the Laguna Playhouse; and Atlanta at the Geffen. Press releases rolling through the Weekly show a 12 percent increase in musicals opening in 2008, while the total of all theatrical productions has remained constant.

It must be noted, however, that the serious-themed musicals were presented on stages of 99 seats or less under economic circumstances — including token payments to actors — that are favorable to producers here, rather than in the financial pressure of New York. Producers there have concluded that dark-hearted musicals aren’t viable on Broadway or Off-Broadway; even our own larger theaters steer away from them, perhaps because they have Broadway on the brain. (Vanities and Stormy Weather both danced with nostalgia, while Minsky’s — about a burlesque house in 1930s NYC — revolved around the virtues of theater as diversion.) In fact, the economics of doing theater in New York are now so brutal, off-Broadway offers hardly any musicals at the moment, while Broadway musical fare consists of revivals and/or works that are comparatively escapist and lighthearted.

There’s nothing escapist about a large proportion of new musicals generated in L.A.’s smaller theaters. They take human agony by the horns and, utilizing song and sometimes dance, wrestle it to the mat. Is it the blinding sun, or the way it sets into the Pacific, that encourages such dark musicals on L.A. stages? And do they have a viable future?

“Dark times engender dark works — not just in musical theater but in all art,” says Stephen Schwartz, composer-lyricist of Wicked, Pippin and Godspell. “Witness the popularity of such nihilistic movies as The Dark Knight and No Country for Old Men. Musical-theater artists and audiences, like everyone else, are finding their own way to respond to this very dark time in our history, some through escape, others through confronting it, and many through a sort of combination of both.”

Composer-lyricist Rob Kendt, former editor of Back Stage West and now a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist, remembers how, after 9/11, there was a burst of escapist theater, “and all the critics said, ‘This is just what we need right now.’ Very soon after came a wave of really dark plays and all the critics said, ‘This is just what we need right now.’ The truth is, in dark times, what we really need is art.”

 

All right, but what type of art? Theater in NYC is much more of a business due to all the unions and restrictions and extreme financial costs. David Elzer produced Roger Bean’s hit off-Broadway musical, The Marvelous Wonderettes, in both cities. “The budget for a new musical in L.A. can be as lean as $50,000,” he says, whereas “that same musical, in the current off-Broadway marketplace, couldn’t run for a standard four-week engagement, including previews, for less than $500,000.”

Adds Kendt, “I think there have been a number of musicals [on the East Coast] that challenge the escapist norm, but [producers] get scared off by that heart-of-darkness place. It’s like walking onto the [Wall Street] trading floor and trying to do art, but there’s no escaping the sense that because this is the commercial capital where musical-theater franchises are minted or validated, shows that depart from that and don’t become hits have the stink of failure about them.”

Kendt notes that there is some recognition in the East that there’s an audience for “edgy” or “useful” musicals, but those usually aren’t the works that become the kinds of nationally branded and enduring, touring megahits — like Wicked, The Producers, The Lion King, Mama Mia, Phantom of the Opera, Hairspray, Jersey Boys and A Chorus Line — on which the market has come to rely.

“If you put on a [darker work like] Road Show or Grey Gardens or Parade or Assassins and it closes without making its money, the conventional wisdom is: ‘See, you can’t write a musical about dashed dreams, or racism, or mental illness, or the hollow promise of capitalism.’” Especially now that the hollow promise of capitalism is hitting home. Even the few megahit shows with an edge of darkness, such as Rent and Urinetown, have failed to upend the prevailing commercial-production bias toward escapism.

“I can’t say that I feel optimistic about the state of, shall we say, serious musical theater — based on complex themes,” says Erik Haagensen, playwright-lyricist and reviews editor for Back Stage in New York. Although Haagensen was, for a while, worried that market forces and aging theater patrons would eventually kill off commercial musicals, his concerns have subsided. Now, he anticipates that the genre will further separate into profit and nonprofit mutations.

“We did miss an entire generation of musical-theater audiences ... I was scared that we were going the way of opera, but that’s changed now,” Haagensen explains, referring to the newly discovered late-teen-to-mid-30s markets for theater. “They are more comfortable with what they know. What they associate with music onstage is a concert. I think the form is accommodating what makes them comfortable. This is more than a trend; I think it’s going to permanently alter the form.”

Haagensen is referring to the increasing use of rock music and hip-hop in the theater — certainly prevalent on both coasts as new musicals get their tryouts in rock clubs, and indie musicians gravitate toward musical theater. Case in point: Rock of Ages, now in previews on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (scheduled to open April 7) after having transferred from a successful off-Broadway run last year at the New World Stages. The show was actually born in L.A. in 2005 at the Vanguard rock club, where it ran for a month, directed then, as now, by Kristin Hanggi — whom you may remember from her local stagings of Bare at the Hudson Mainstage Theater and Pussycat Dolls Live at the Roxy.

Like Mama Mia, Jersey Boys and The Marvelous Wonderettes, Rock of Ages is a jukebox musical, plugging in pre-existing hits from an earlier era. Rock of Ages is an arena-rock love story set on L.A.’s Sunset Strip in 1987, “where a small-town girl meets a big-city rocker” — and the music of Journey, Bon Jovi, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Poison, Asia, Whitesnake and others.

The blending of the musical theater into a rock concert would also partly explain why, three decades after it was created, Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage finally made its debut on a professional stage at the Open Fist Theatre in Hollywood (though much of the delay had to do with the Zappa Family Trust). The production thrived for months on Santa Monica Boulevard thanks in large part to the devotion of Zappa’s die-hard fans, who kept returning for the deliberately cheesy story, set to Zappa’s glorious music.

Yet once again, economics are proving to be an impediment to giving that show a professional future in a traditional theater space — even in L.A. The most likely future, at least in the short term, is rock clubs. The club-based provenance of Rock of Ages and Pussycat Dolls Live shows that it can be done, and in fact may be no hindrance to a show’s future.

That’s good news to those indie musicians with few stage credits who now find themselves drawn to the theater. Great Expectations’ lyricist Steve Lane performed in garage bands in high school and college. That show’s composer, Richard Winzeler, comes from a pop-music background, with a Billboard Top 10 R&B single. Their prior experience in theater was “negligible” according to Lane. Even now, “we are neophytes,” he says — despite the buckets of favorable notices for Great Expectations, and its long run here last year.

Anna Waronker and Charlotte Caffey were also new to the form when they started writing the music for Lovelace: A Rock Opera in 2002. Caffey has been the lead guitarist and keyboardist for the all-girl band the Go-Go’s since 1978. Waronker, the daughter of record-industry mogul Lenny Waronker and sister of sometime Beck and R.E.M. drummer Joey Waronker, was lead vocalist for the band That Dog until it dissolved in 1997.

“This is our first experience in theater,” Waronker says, adding that the pair knew musicals only through soundtracks and movies. “We were freaked out at first, but it’s opened up a new world.”

Songwriter-performer Stew, who launched his music career in L.A. with his indie band The Negro Problem, had no prior involvement with the theater before he developed his show, Passing Strange. Commissioned by the Public Theatre in New York, and presented there in 2007, it became a punk-musical milestone and was filmed by Spike Lee. (It was presented at Sundance Film Festival in January.) Despite the stage show’s rave reviews and accolades for being both sweet and dark at the same time, it didn’t return its investment after it transferred to the Belasco Theatre on Broadway last year. In New York, various producers shrugged it off as though it had been a failure — exactly the market-based distortions of a musical’s validity that Kendt and Haagensen decry.

Decry and, in part, buy into themselves. Kendt recalls going to see Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s musical Caroline, or Change, about the evolving, testy relationship between a Jewish child in Louisiana and his black maid during the Civil Rights era.

“As much as I admired it, it felt somehow wrong on Broadway — a little precious, artsy. A lot of that feeling came from the audience around me, one member of which unloaded about the tunelessness of the show as soon as the house lights came on.

“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.”

Bowmen stepped down as book-writer, as did a sequence of writers who followed, leaving Waronker and Caffey to come up with a book to match their own music. And that’s when the slow process of unifying the story with the music began. Research led the team to discover how misunderstood their subject had been. They saw clips of Lovelace being interviewed by Phil Donahue on his television show, and they were incensed by both Donahue’s attitude and the hostility of the audience toward her.

“She was eight months’ pregnant,” says Waronker, “in a flannel shirt, maternitywear, and she was talking and what came from that moment, oh, my God, this woman, we watched this woman stand her ground. Phil was asking her, ‘What in your past led you to make such mistakes?’ Phil was like, ‘C’mon, you enjoyed it.’ And the audience was giving her a really hard time. The woman was kidnapped and tortured daily, yet nobody viewed this as a Patty Hearst situation.”

And that’s when it dawned on them to match the story with music that’s operatic in tone. The world was treating Linda Lovelace glibly, and Waronker and Caffey were determined to redress the stereotype of the porn star.

“She wanted to live in a clean house,” adds Caffey. “There’s a photograph of her and her second son, Dominic. Her first child was taken away from her. She’s in the moment with her child and the happiest person in the world. She went through this crap and came through with a long-term marriage of 20 years. When we started the project, 99 percent of people would say, ‘Oh, you’re doing a musical about the porn star,’ and it started to offend us. She was the first person to bring domestic abuse out in the open. There are so many levels to it, and to her. At the heart of it we related to her. Following our instincts, we would write this haunting music, and once we got our hands on it, and started matching the lyrics and the music, it started to work.”

This process is by no means over. “My take on this is to be patient. We have something very special,” Caffey says, praising the talents of the show’s leading lady, Katrina Lenk, and director Ken Sawyer. So far, the critics have agreed, and so have the L.A. audiences.

One production that opened in 2008, and is still running at Santa Monica’s City Garage, is an adaptation of Molière’s The Bourgeois Gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman) by Frédérique Michel and Charles Duncombe, who share this year’s L.A. Weekly Queen of the Angels Award for their body of work at that theater over decades. (Jeff Atik has been nominated for his comedy performance in the title role of that production.) The company, which has been doing politically indignant and stylistically assaultive works by the likes of Heiner Müller, Eugene Ionesco, Caryl Churchill and Sam Shepard, produced the Molière partly as a lark, but it turned into a sleeper hit so popular that they can’t really close it down, despite trying to open a new season of plays.

The five-act comedy, first presented in 1670 Paris before the court of Louis XIV, was originally conceived as a five-act ballet. And it’s presented as such at City Garage, with a mockingly pompous style and two ballerinas. Beneath its humor is a snarling anger at the hypocrisy of conformists. A court composer of Molière’s time, Jean-Baptiste Lully, was brought in to provide the music — not unlike the way Waronker and Caffey were brought in to a different project, in a different hemisphere and a different epoch, but for much the same reason. How do you bring a dark story to life through music and dance? Once you figure that out, how do you bring in a big enough audience to support it? These are age-old questions being asked once again in L.A. To discover the answer, buy a ticket.

 

NOMINATIONS FOR MUSICAL OF THE YEAR

Assassins
West Coast Ensemble at El Centro Theatre

Great Expectations
Hudson Backstage Theatre

Gulls
Theatre @ Boston Court

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
MET Theatre

Joe’s Garage
Open Fist Theatre Company

Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara
Sacred Fools Theatre/Matrix Theatre

Lovelace: A Rock Opera
Hayworth Theatre

Pest Control: The Musical
Open at the Top Productions at the NoHo Arts Center

1776
Actors Co-op