For Two Broadway Stars, a Love Story Blossoms in a Honky-Tonk Bar

For Two Broadway Stars, a Love Story Blossoms in a Honky-Tonk Bar


LOS ANGELES — During a rehearsal of “The Lonely Few” at the Geffen Playhouse, Lauren Patten, a Tony winner for her performance in “Jagged Little Pill,” was sharing a stage with Ciara Renée, whose Broadway credits include “Waitress” and “Frozen.” The performances were mesmerizing, and loud (drumsticks were broken; earplugs were provided), with Patten steam-rolling her way through a pair of headbangers about the joys of rock ’n’ roll and the desire to escape, and Renée filling the room with a heartbreaking ballad about unrequited love.

“I would go see that band,” Zoe Sarnak, the show’s composer and lyricist, said during a break.

The setting was about as far from a Broadway stage as one could imagine: a small rehearsal space in the Westwood neighborhood. And the actual performance space for the show, the Geffen’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, isn’t that much larger. The 114-seat theater has been reconfigured to resemble a dive bar in backwoods Kentucky, so audience members, sitting at tables and bar stools amid the players, will feel as if they’re at a neighborhood watering hole.

“The minute you walk into the theater, you’re going to feel like you’re not at the Geffen,” said Ellenore Scott, who is sharing directing duties with Trip Cullman. “Performers will be walking right by you, or using your table, or doing an entire scene next to you.”

For venues this size, Patten said, vocal adjustments need to be made. You’re still playing to the guy in the back row, she said, but with a care for the audience member sitting a few feet away. “I also think that with a show like this, with music like this,” she said, “it’s got to smack you in the face.”

After five years of development, which included pandemic-related breaks, “The Lonely Few” is now having its world premiere, with preview performances scheduled to start Thursday and opening night set for March 9. In the musical, Patten plays Lila, a Save-A-Lot clerk who leads the Lonely Few, a preternaturally gifted band that plays Friday nights at Paul’s Joint, the local honky-tonk. Rounding out the band is Damon Daunno (“Oklahoma”), Helen J Shen (“Man of God”) and Thomas Silcott (“Birthday Candles”); Joshua Close (a star of the 2022 film “Monica”) portrays Lila’s brother Adam, the loving but troubled albatross around her neck.

When Amy (Renée), an established musician, enters the club and offers Lila a chance to come on the road with her and open for her band, choices must be made, both practical and romantic.

The new show has provided the two leads with a rare opportunity to create roles from the ground up. It’s a welcome change for Renée, who took over but didn’t originate the roles of Jenna in “Waitress” and Elsa in “Frozen,” both on Broadway.

“I’ve done a lot in my career where I’ve been the Black woman who steps into a white role,” she said. “But this play doesn’t exist anywhere. It’s totally new. And there’s so much beauty in that.”

“The Lonely Few” is also that rarest of shows: a musical that puts a love story between two women at its very heart.

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“Fun Home,” the musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s award-winning graphic novel, features the coming out narrative of an adolescent girl, as does “The Prom,” which opened on Broadway in 2018. But the romantic relationships in both of those musicals — though crucial to the stories — are largely secondary.

“Those pieces are incredibly important to the canon, and I’m so thankful for them,” said Sarnak, whose previous shows include “A Crossing” for Barrington Stage Company. “But I can’t think of a show where the narrative center is a love story between two women who are out.”

The first seeds of the show were planted in 2018, when Sarnak was talking with Rachel Bonds, who wrote the show’s book, about working together. They wanted to do a piece about two women with music in it, telling a story that could pull from their own experiences.

For years, Sarnak had written songs about her life and past loves. “There are several relationships in my life that find their way into the show,” she said. “The first woman I ever dated, who I was with for four years, and then my marriage and divorce, and then relationships after that. It’s not any one relationship. There are pieces of anyone I’ve ever been with or been in love with.”

For the play’s setting and people, Bonds drew from her childhood growing up in Sewanee, Tenn., home of the esteemed University of the South. “Sewanee is up on a mountain, and when you go down into the valley, it’s a whole different world,” she said. “There’s a real separation,” she added, “and I grew up very aware of that.”

“Southerners are often portrayed as stupid or ignorant, and small-town folks are often portrayed as people without dreams or meaning in their lives,” Bonds continued. “I really wanted to fight against that.”

Over time, the project morphed from “a play with music” to a full-blown book musical, a first for Bonds, whose plays include “Goodnight Nobody” and “Michael & Edie.” Many of Sarnak’s songs shaped the show’s plot about the star-crossed lovers Lila and Amy. “I think we both felt that these songs wanted to be a love story, this play had to be a love story,” Bonds said.

Not long after, the two began considering possible leads. Sarnak had worked with Patten on readings and workshops, but never anything that had been produced.

Growing up in Downers Grove, Ill., Patten was an early bloomer, staging home concerts in her living room when she was 3. “Apparently, the first song I sang was a Hank Williams song, ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues,’ where he talks about drowning himself in a river because his woman left him,” she said. Commercials and theater roles soon followed.

Patten made her Broadway debut in “Fun Home.” In 2021, she received a Tony for her role in “Jagged Little Pill,” but the show was criticized for changing Patten’s character, Jo, from seemingly nonbinary to gay and cisgender when the production moved from Boston to Broadway. In 2021, Patten released a mea culpa, in the form of a video conversation with the trans writer and activist Shakina Nayfack. “There’s a lot I wish was handled differently,” Patten said, looking back. “But I do feel grateful that even with something that was obviously a painful moment, I think it has a potential to move things forward in the industry.”

Like Patten, Renée also began performing at an early age, winning singing competitions by the time she was 12. “I thought I was going to be a Christian music artist,” she said. In high school, however, she fell in love with the theater, and at 22, within three months of arriving in New York, she was offered roles in three Broadway shows. “I picked the flop,” she said of “Big Fish.”

Then came a starring role in “Frozen,” though her run was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. “Every night I’d see these little girls, Black girls, girls of color, wearing Elsa, Anna, Olaf,” she said. “They were just so excited about their favorite characters, and about getting to see the leads of a show being played by women of color. I know how impactful that is, because I know that, growing up, I never saw it.”

AS INITIALLY WRITTEN, the character of Amy in “The Lonely Few” was racially nonspecific, but that soon changed, even more so after Renée came aboard. “This whole piece could be open casting,” Bonds said. “But then when we started to place it in the South, we were interested in the tensions they’re in, and we really started to nail down who these women were.”

So was Amy created for Renée? “I think it’s certainly being heavily shifted by my presence,” Renée said with a laugh.

“It’s a testament to Rachel and Zoe really caring about my story as a Black woman,” she added, “and about this Black character in the South being queer, that there are things that complicate that in a way that’s different than if this character were white.”

The show’s creators made a point of the care they are taking with the love story, and they have hired an intimacy director to help. “I feel a lot of trust in the room with Ciara,” Patten said. “We’re both doing very intense, emotional, vulnerable things in the show, and I feel very safe to do that with her.”

During a break in rehearsal, the directors gave notes. In Lila’s line about chewing gum, Cullman told Patten it sounded like she was saying “gun.”

“Oh my god,” Patten said. “Gum. Guuum.”

Both directors offered suggestions to Renée and Patten about their first scene together, when the two lock eyes in Paul’s Joint and the rest of the world (and the rest of the band) fades away.

Many of the tweaks made over the past days and months are intended to ensure the show is as truthful to the place and its people as possible. The creators are quick to point out that the love story is the focus, not any sort of hatred or violence a lesbian relationship might provoke in the community. “I’m just not interested in seeing women get brutalized anymore,” Bonds said.

In many ways, the musical toys with several possible expectations theatergoers might have coming into the show. How will this interracial love story between two women play out in a Kentucky dive bar? And just what is a band this good doing in a Kentucky dive bar in the first place?

“This setting, this little bar, has become a bit of an enclave for folks who might feel like outsiders or weirdos or misfits,” Bonds said. “I think the community where Lila comes from actually surprises you in the end.”

Despite the show’s specificity, the creators believe “The Lonely Few” will have broad appeal. “In my heart of hearts, I hope we have an Off Broadway run in New York,” Bonds said. “And then I hope we have a Broadway run.”

“This is a queer love story,” she continued. “It’s a love story between two women. But my hope is that anybody could watch it, and be moved by it, and see themselves in it.”

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