Throughout his 73 years of life, Charles Bukowski wrote more than 50 books of poetry, prose and novels (“Ham on Rye,” “Hollywood,” which was the inspiration for the ‘80’s movie, “Barfly”). Known for speaking raw, uncensored truth, Bukowski covered topics everyone could relate to, from love and sex, to the drudgery of work, to the seedier side of life’s trials and tribulations. Fueled by his love for booze, many expletives and a no-holds-barred attitude, Bukowski has come to be revered as the “laureate of American lowlife,” thanks to TIME magazine.
Though the written word is the heart and soul of this man, following his passion came through more no matter the text. C’est La Guerre’s bringing his words to life through music with “Bukowsical,” (book and lyrics by Spencer Green and Gary Stockdale), which opens Thursday night at Front Street Brewery’s Beam Room. Eighteen songs will take the audience through the life of Charles Bukowski, who will be played by local actor Brendan Carter.
“About six years ago a friend showed me ‘Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit,” Carter says. “I remember how the title immediately grabbed me. The theme of ‘Bukowsical’ is actually summed up pretty well in that title: ‘Art is Pain.’”
The darkness and grit of Bukowski comes through in the show, so the audience can see his vulnerability, both viscously apparent and noted through an unsuspecting sensitivity. Yet, its heart remains apparent through one of Bukowski’s famed lines: “Find what you love and let it kill you.”
“His poem ‘Air and Light and Time and Space’ speaks to the procrastinators and excuse-makers, saying that if you want to create, you will find a way to create,” Carter explains. “The poem is a good reminder not to wait for inspiration, but to take action and inspire yourself.”
Carter has been immersing himself in videos and audios of Bukowski’s poetry readings, as well as interviews and documentaries to nail the gruff voice, entranced tone, and rhythm and cadence of speech. However, the most interesting part of the show, for him, has been playing a straight man against the dichotomy of over-the-top song-and-dance numbers.
“It’s hilarious and exciting on its own,” Carter tells. “There are some songs in this show that are so wordy and intense. I’m Bukowski, sitting at a type writer, and [the cast is] rattling off these tongue-twisting lyrics and haunting harmonies.”
Directing the music of “Bukowsical” is C’est La Guerre cofounding partner George Domby. Domby brought in Keith Butler Jr. and Sean Howard of the Keith Butler Trio, along with pianist Chiaki Ito and guitarist Jared Cline to bring a rock edge to the show. The music has proven a challenge for the players, especially on piano since it features so many genres with complex harmonies. Audiences will hear everything from Broadway ballads to quasi-operative parts, to vaudeville and swing, along with jazz, blues and gospel. Ito even performs a cameo role in one scene, wherein rehearsal accompaniment Sharon Moore will step in on the keys.
“Perhaps my favorite number is ‘Elegy,’” Domby explains—“Bukowski’s chance at his own dramatic, opera-like recitative, littered with expletives. The only time I can remember the F-word appearing that many times in a single musical number was in ‘Totally F***ed’ from ‘Spring Awakening.’”
One of Carter’s favorite songs comes when Bukowski sings about his love for alcohol. “The show captures the nature of his writing,” Carter says. “It’s crass and politically incorrect while still having a lot of heart and sincerity. It’ll be a fun night of laughing and cringing.”
Directing the show is C’est La Guerre’s cofounder Bryan Cournoyer, who is also taking on the role of player/coach. Few vignettes block the music numbers, and he’s brought in Katherine Rudeseal, along with the help of Bruce Branca, to choreograph the dances. They’re covering Waltzes, a hoe-down and even a Latin mambo. The cast’s cohesion has been most impressive in their short timespan of putting the show together.
“There are over 25 characters played by six people,” Bryan tells. Included are Jeff Phillips, Tony Choufani, Beth Corvino, Devin DiMattia, Anna Gamel, Erik Maasch, and Katherine Rudeseal. “And Brendan just has such a calm demeanor anyway; I like the way he moves through the periods in Bukowski’s life. He’s a new kid in school who feels rejected. He’s a teenager that takes his first steps into the unknown and it shows. It’s the transformations throughout Bukowski’s life trajectory that Brendan really brings out for the audience.”
The local premiere of “Bukowsical” came together in about six weeks. Bryan’s wife, Nina, saw the production in L.A. years ago when she and her husband were West Coast residents. Also having cofounded C’est La Guerre, Nina suggested it as their sophomore production.
“There’s a great song called ‘That’s Los Angeles to Me,’” Bryan notes. It’s a parody on “One Day More” from “Les Miserables.” “Having lived there for 10 years, it’s a beautiful send-up of the West Coast culture, and the music itself is really powerful.”
“There is a constant mix of lyrics that stir the emotions of the cast and the audience and just outright hysterical ‘punchlines,’” Domby agrees. “The love of country (or city, in this case) that is meant to pour forth in a musical number of this sort can be very moving. I’ve found myself listening to the original soundtrack and getting a little teary at some points, particularly during lines like: ‘We’ve learned to feel, not merely think.’”
Between its sincerity lies bold and brassy irreverence. Its real power will be apparent in its themes. “Bukowsical” essentially drives viewers to question their passions and how far they’ll go to follow their hearts and give up everything they can to fulfill them. It also shows Bukowski’s sense of adventure and discovery.
“Anyone who has tried to be an artist (painting, writing, music) has created something, stepped back and said, ‘Wow, this is not my talent,’” Bryan says. “Buk kept hammering at it until his work found an audience. He persevered and outlasted the critics.”
Domby looks to the show’s opening number, “Bukowsical,” to really lay the ground work for its connection to audiences. They’ve hammed it up in a “Waiting for Guffmen”-esque style. The main character, the Founder, along with the ensemble, sing about Charles Bukowski:
“He brings a vital message for our time/He said that being human’s not a crime,'” Domby recites of the lyrics. “It’s this moment that defines for the audience what it means to be ‘Bukowsical.’ It’s a quality in all of us. We just don’t often want to admit it.”
“And, when all else fails, curse,” Carter adds.