Gabriel Kahane didn't always love Los Angeles. Like many outsiders, the New York–based singer-songwriter had to work at shedding the usual jaundiced preconceptions that non-Angelenos invariably sum up by using Gertrude Stein's quip about her native Oakland, that “there is no there there.”
Most of us, however, aren't approached by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and UCLA's Center for the Art of Performance to create something that might musically locate the “there” for our town's notoriously elusive sense of place.
The result of that commission is The Ambassador, a fully staged, pop-folk song cycle that tries to capture L.A.'s essence via inspiration from 14 pieces of its architecture. The show, which premiered at BAM to acclaim in December, is set to make its L.A. debut on Feb. 27 and 28 at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.
Kahane was born in Los Angeles but moved away while still a young child. (His father, Jeffrey Kahane, has been music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra since 1997.) But it was only when he came to L.A. in 2007 as the musical director for the Kirk Douglas Theatre's Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson that Kahane first began to scratch beneath the city's surface.
The composer's works are rooted in deep research, including 2006's Craigslistlieder, a whimsical collection of songs with lyrics culled from actual Craigslist ads, and 2013's Gabriel's Guide to the 48 States, an orchestral work based on the “American Guide Series” books commissioned in the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project. So Kahane hit the library.
His reading list included the usual litany of Angelenophile observers (Joan Didion, Mike Davis, Norman Klein, Reyner Banham), hardboiled noir masters (Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain) and the films they inspired. That literary attachment, he says, quickly spread to the city's residential architecture. “I really in particular fell in love with the Schindler House on Kings Road and that whole visionary movement of the International style of architecture that bloomed [in L.A.] in the '20s and '30s.”
It was only after rhapsodizing about this love affair to John Tiffany, however, that the director of Broadway's Once suggested Kahane create songs based on L.A. addresses and turn them into a show. Kahane obliged with 22 ballads, later whittled down to the 14 that will be performed at UCLA (four more than on the accompanying concept-album version).
“Most of the songs are on the Eastside,” Kahane notes. “The sort of less moneyed side of L.A., whether it's the kind of dystopian future that Ridley Scott created in Bladerunner — that sort of downtown of 2019, which was then the inspiration for 'Bradbury,' the second song — or if it's about, you know, Mike Davis' portrayal of Central American immigrants sweating it out in the late summer in 'Slumlord Crocodile.'”
South Central's “Empire Liquor Mart (9127 S. Figueroa St.)” is an ethereal spiritual that develops into something more melodically urgent and texturally complex as Kahane imagines the soul of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, slain in the days after the Rodney King beating, witnessing the rioting. “Ambassador Hotel (3400 Wilshire Blvd.)” puts Simon and Garfunkel-esque harmonies to a doorman's reminiscences on the eve of the hotel's demolition as he recalls “Twenty-one summers on a steep descending slope/Since that midnight in the pantry when the country lost its hope,” referring to Robert Kennedy's assassination. “Union Station (800 N. Alameda St.)” depicts a melancholic departure with a show-summarizing, elegiac refrain, “In the hall of the hall of the hall of the lost.”
Tiffany's fluid staging makes the show a 70-minute gesture, without the stops of a traditional pop music concert, and provides context for the music. Much of that context, like visually resplendent liner notes, comes courtesy of Christine Jones' production design. It looks like the “detritus of an overstuffed mind,” Kahane says excitedly. “These towers of books and archaic media devices. You have these VCRs and reel-to-reel players and old, early-'90s boom boxes and so on and so forth. We sort of use — quite literally use — some of the sources that inspired the songs.”
The New York Times praised the show as “a harsh and hazy pipe dream in which legendary places vanish overnight but somehow never disappear.” But how actual Angelenos take to the idea of a presumptive New York carpetbagger serenading them about their own backyards will be Kahane's real acid test.
“I do have a certain amount of trepidation,” he confesses. “There will probably be some people who feel kind of a reflexive defense mechanism. … Some condescending New Yorkers came up to me after BAM and were like, 'Wow, you gave Los Angeles a soul.' To which my response was, 'I did not give Los Angeles a soul. Los Angeles has always had a soul. I just went and wrote songs about it.'”
UCLA Freud Playhouse, Westwood.; Fri., Feb. 27 & Sat., Feb. 28. (310) 825-2101, cap.ucla.edu.
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