Chasing the Song: 1960s pop music musical–in-process opens at La Jolla Playhouse May 13
By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
In January 2013, the high note of the DNA New Works Series at La Jolla Playhouse was the first staged reading of “Chasing the Song,” a musical set in the world of pre-Beatles pop-music. Written by award-winning playwright/lyricist Joe DiPietro and composer/lyricist/Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, and helmed by Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley, the latest incarnation of CTS will now be back on the boards in a fully-staged but still in-process production starting May 13.
Part of the Playhouse’s Page-to-Stage program, a play development program which supports nine weeks of tinkering with script, songs and staging, “Chasing the Song” is a hit-in-the-making about the making of hit songs in the early 1960s.
The action takes place in Manhattan’s legendary Brill Building, which was headquarters for music publishers, labels and agencies in the Big Band era and continued putting out the top pop sounds in the ‘50s and ‘60s with hit-makers like Carole King, Bobby Darin, Neil Sedaka, and Neil Diamond. The story is about a struggling music publisher, her team of young hit-makers, and her daughter, an aspiring songwriter, all doing their best to survive the upcoming Beatles invasion that will change pop music forever.
The writers, two Jersey boys born around in the early 1960s, are best known for their musical, “Memphis,” about a white DJ airing black music in the 1950s, which was staged at the Playhouse in 2008 and brought them Tonys for book and score in 2010. Ashley (born in 1964, the year the Beatles first came to the U.S.) directed that Broadway production.
“It’s great working with David and Joe again, and they’re talking about doing a trilogy of musicals, with the next one being about the ‘70s,” Ashley said.
“Meanwhile, we’re deep in the Page-to-Stage process of this play, ripping it apart and putting it back together. Every song has been rewritten or re-arranged, and we’ve been giving the cast new pages every day.”
The 20-member cast, assembled from New York, Los Angeles and San Diego, is pretty special, he added. “They not only sing, dance, and act; they all play musical instruments—piano, guitar, violin, ukulele, percussion. Usually, when you’re casting a musical, you’re looking for triple-threat performers. We’ve got quadruple-threats, and we’re crafting the show around their skills.”
Even the four onstage pianos are quadruple-threat performers, variously opening up to become a recording studio, a fire escape, or a Pandora’s box full of secrets.
Page-to-Stage means four weeks of in-studio rehearsals, one week of tech, and constant changes throughout the four-week run.
“It’s exciting, exuberant and energizing all the time, and hair-raising too,” Ashley said. “But we’ve got a powerhouse cast that acts, sings and dances their hearts out, not to mention playing almost every instrument you can imagine. And we’re dealing with relationships and questions that are as important now as they were in the early 1960s: how to re-invent yourself to survive in a fast-changing world.”
Appropriately, for a show set in the Brill Building, Robert Brill is the set designer. Brill, a UCSD grad with numerous Broadway shows and two Tony nominations to his credit, is currently artist-in-residence at the Playhouse, where he has transformed the stage in many productions over the years, including, most recently, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” and “His Girl Friday.” •
• If you go: “Chasing the Song,” matinees, evenings May 13-June 15 at Potiker Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD.
Tickets from $15 at (858) 550-1010, lajollaplayhouse.org
• Related event: Discussion with composer David Bryan, moderated by director Christopher Ashley, 7 p.m. Monday, May 12 at Potiker Theatre. Free. RSVP: LaJollaPlayhouse.org/david-bryan-event
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