Courtney Love finds a new love for musical theatre

Courtney Love and Todd Almond. Picture: Contributed
Courtney Love and Todd Almond. Picture: Contributed
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COURTNEY Love is embracing her musical theatre debut and bringing a rocker’s confidence to the ‘disco meets Vivaldi’ production of Kansas City Choir Boy, finds Jon Pareles

Singer, songwriter, punk-rocker, actress, fashionista, tabloid bonanza and ... piano mover? That’s part of Courtney Love’s latest and thoroughly unexpected gig.

The performer who made her name in the 1990s with her primal rasp and confrontational, straight-from-the-id songs will play the lead in Kansas City Choir Boy, a music-theatre piece she is performing with its songwriter, Todd Almond, in the 84-seat South Village performance space Here, in New York until 17 January.

It is not Mary Poppins, but it’s not Grand Guignol either. Billed as a “theatricalised concept album,” Kansas City Choir Boy is a song cycle with very little dialogue: the story of a couple pulled apart by ambition. In Kansas City, he is a nameless musician who composes on his laptop and his piano; she is a singer, Athena, and they are teenage sweethearts. He is content in the Midwest, while she leaves him behind to make it in New York. He tries to follow her and reconnect, but she has been seduced by the siren call of fame.

Kansas City Choir Boy is the most immediately eye-catching show in the Prototype festival, which is devoted to contemporary opera and innovative music theatre. Prototype had asked its director, Kevin Newbury, to suggest a production, and he had long envisioned Kansas City Choir Boy as what he calls “an immersive theatre experience”.

Somewhat akin to David Byrne’s Here Lies Love, the action races all around the audience: front, back, sides, with furniture and instruments included. There is also a complex video design, a pinpoint sound system and an impressive Zac Posen dress. The idea, Almond says, was, “Let’s get it in that room, and let’s make it as big as the room can hold.”

It is an elaborate production for a short run in a small room. “It’s like putting out a single,” Love says. “If it gets catchy, then we do it in London or something. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. We think it’s really catchy and fabulous.”

She is going to have to hit her marks. “I’ve never done musical theatre – I really wanted to do theatre, but probably I’m not ready to do a play quite yet,” she says 
in voluble bursts. “Fortuitously, Todd wrote this thing eight years ago, and I met him and I fell in love with it.”

She adds, “It’s baptism by fire, but I’m going to hang in and give it my best.”

So shortly after 10:30am, a few days before Christmas in a Lafayette Street rehearsal room, Love is singing with her shoulder pressed to an upright piano on wheels, swinging it into a new position and staring lovingly into Almond’s eyes as he keeps playing.

A string quartet is positioned, for the moment, to their left; a dancing chorus line of six “sirens,” the work’s other characters onstage, is moving in from the right.

“Sirens,” Newbury instructs, “you’re giving Courtney joy and temptation. Just think: ‘Come and have fun with us, come to the city, Carnegie Hall and nightclubs. You’re going to have it all.’”

He adds, “Every single thing you do is so important, because the audience is sitting in your laps.”

The music brings together the piano foundation of cabaret and show tunes, the brittle propulsion of laptop rhythm tracks, and the warmth and bustle of the string arrangements:

“Disco meets Vivaldi,” Newbury jokes.

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Love heard something else. After working on one of Almond’s more dramatic songs, she says, she insisted he listen to The Chain by Fleetwood Mac. Its crescendo of intimacy and anger plays a man’s sweet tenor voice (Lindsey Buckingham) against a woman’s rasp (Stevie Nicks) – the same vocal contrast that runs through Kansas City Choir Boy.

Almond, 38, has spent his career in musical theatre; last September, the Public Theatre presented his adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale at the Delacorte Theatre. Love, 50, has acted in movies – she was nominated for a Golden Globe for her role in The People vs. Larry Flynt – but is known best as Kurt Cobain’s wife and as the compulsively uninhibited rocker who led the band Hole in the late 1980s and early 1990s, followed by an equally provocative solo career.

She has sung about sexuality, celebrity, violence, fury and self-destruction; she also struggled with drug addiction until sobering up in 2007. She isn’t giving up her rock career. She is thinking about a new single, she says, and in May she will be touring with Lana Del Rey.

Love is well aware of her notoriety. Among her other coming projects is a role in Empire, the television series about the music business created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong. “I play a rock star with a drug problem,” she says over lunch, along with Almond, during a rehearsal break. “And the research I have to do – it’s so tough for me!” She laughs.

Almond and Love have the same agent: Mark Subias at United Talent Agency, who is also Almond’s husband. Subias played the music for Love.

“The composition was so adorable and beautiful, I couldn’t stop listening to it,” she says. “And Todd’s voice reminds of me of Lindsey Buckingham in his prime. It’s that beautiful choirboy gorgeous voice, that creamy unicorn once-in-a-while voice.”

The story of Kansas City Choir Boy, Almond says, grew out of a memory. More than a decade ago, he had been hired by the Juilliard School of Music to do a musical adaptation of The Odyssey. The actress who played Athena disappeared and was later found murdered; he was watching the TV news when her face suddenly came on screen.

Some years later, around 2006, he was in a hotel room in Kansas City, Missouri, writing music with his laptop when “the face of a missing girl popped up on the news”. It elicited a memory of the woman who had played Athena; he started imagining her as someone who “ran off to the big city to make something of herself, and then she fell into the wrong hands.”

The role came through at a time when Love was worried about burnout, she says. One night in Australia, during a solo club tour, “I got to that part where I’m looking down at the set list going, really, Malibu next?,” she recalls. “‘Are we halfway done yet?’ And when that happens in rock ‘n’ roll, it’s like, ‘OK, I’ve got to look at something else.’ Because I’m not loving this. I’m not in the moment. Forget persona, forget who’s new and who’s old, your mojo is your mojo. This is giving me real mojo and challenges that hopefully aren’t too hard.”

It also lets her set aside her public persona, to act. “There’s innocence, which is not one of my currencies – that’s a new one,” she says. “There’s young love, which is fun to explore and go back to. Joy. And there’s rage, which, you know – a cakewalk.”

Love doesn’t read music, and some of Almond’s songs have tricky meters and complex syncopations. She has learned them by ear, through repetition. “It’s all about letting it live with her for a while,” Almond says. “And then she gets it, and once she’s got it, she’s got it – it’s in her bones. She’s one of those people who just learns it so deeply. She lets it go all the way to her spine. And she comes back with so much colour of her own.”

Their first serious work session turned into a 30-hour marathon – one that she stayed with because, Love confesses, “They let me smoke in their apartment.”

Almond says that he’s learning some rock ‘n’ roll attitude from Love. “When I’m acting or singing, I worry about my voice or am I in tune – I’m in my head too much,” he explains. “There’s something in her that has helped me release that.”

Love concludes: “You’ve got to be in the moment for it to work. That is a rule of theatre and a rule of rock. It’s universal.”

© NYT 2015

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