by MICHAEL VAN DUZER
about pop music and the recording industry are proven crowd-pleasers. Within the past decade, Broadway has happily hosted Jersey Boys, Memphis, Baby, It’s You (which played the Pasadena Playhouse prior to the Broadway run), Motown, Beautiful, and the just opened On Your Feet.
But all of these shows are, to a greater or lesser degree, biographical stories of the artists. And all but Memphis are juke-box musicals. For fictional stories of singers and studios featuring original music, one has to turn to television, where Nashville and Empire thrive.
Of course, Dreamgirls and Bye, Bye Birdie are earlier shows that dealt with the music business and had original scores. But the success of both shows depended to a great degree on the audience recognizing Deena and Conrad Birdie as highly fictionalized versions of Diana Ross and Elvis Presley, respectively.
Breaking Through, currently enjoying a world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, follows the upward career trajectory of Charlie Jane (Alison Luff) as she is molded into a contemporary recording star. The show boasts music and lyrics by music industry veterans and musical theatre neophytes Cliff Downs and Katie Kahanovitz. The book, by Kirsten Guenther, takes a critical look at the underbelly of the recording industry and its omnipresent need to create the next big thing.
Charlie Jane begins her journey as another hopeful in New York City. She leverages her mother’s brief recording career to meet recording executives and catches the eye of Jed Barnes (Robert W. Abrogast), the head of a label and a known star-maker. Jed has no interest in Charlie Jane’s songs. He sees only a pliable template on which to work his magic. Charlie Jane is naïve enough to believe Jed’s promises that she can sing her songs after she becomes a star. So, in a true Faustian bargain, she signs a contract and begins her climb, complete with the requisite mindless music videos and sexy magazine photo shoots.
Pasadena’s Artistic Director and the stage director for Breaking Through is Sheldon Epps. Epps has been overseeing the development of the production for more than two years. He admits that what originally drew him to the project was the strength of the musical score. The fresh, contemporary sound of the songs was appealing, but he felt less engaged by the musical’s book.
“The original book that was presented to me was almost a sort of ‘bubble gum light’ version of the story,” Epps explains. “I felt that the show needed more truth and honesty, which, considering the world it was exploring, made it inevitable that it would get darker in tone.”
It was about that time that Kirsten Guenther was brought into the project to revise the script. Immediately understanding the direction Epps wanted to explore, Guenther began her research and interviewed people working in the world of contemporary pop music. Their stories, gathered over a year of work, directly influenced the shape of Breaking Through. Epps was pleased with the change in tone and the added grittiness.
So were Downs and Kahanovitz. After all, the inspiration for the show came from the real-life ups and downs that both had experienced in their musical careers, and they planned to give the audience a behind-the-scenes peek at the creation of a musical media sensation. As Kahanovitz points out, “We wanted to tell a story of a person who gets swept up in a world that offers a lot of extravagance. However, this lifestyle comes at a cost. We can all lose ourselves every so often and be tempted by the forbidden fruit. But it’s the journey back to ourselves that can be most rewarding and interesting.”
Success is seductive and, almost without realizing it, Charlie Jane finds herself discarding what she thought was important: her friendships, a boyfriend, even her original musical goals. And Barnes is always there. Controlling her like a marionette. Dictating her songs, her image, her life.
The unspoken, but implicit threats of failure and anonymity if Charlie Jane doesn’t play the game, are always waiting just around the corner. “Pop music today can mean many things to many people,” says Downs. ”If you look at the charts, you will find a wide variety of styles for both male and female artists who are finding success. Whereas, in the past, labels would sign an artist with the knowledge that it might take several albums before an artist finally started to be successful, today labels are much quicker to drop an artist if they don’t have fairly immediate success.”