Courtney Love was singing her guts out in a Culver City rehearsal studio when her smartphone pinged with a text message. Emotion draining from her face, she glanced at the phone's screen, which held news regarding some upcoming travel arrangements. Suddenly, a pained expression took shape. She'd been booked to fly coach. This simply wouldn't do.
"I'm sorry, I'm a diva," she said with a throaty chuckle. "I've been a diva for a long time."
In a sense, sure, but never officially until now.
As famous for her outsized personality as for her fiercely confessional music, Love was in Culver City last month running through songs from "Kansas City Choir Boy," a new musical-theater piece — its creator refers to it as an opera — starring Love in a lead role and set to open Oct. 15 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Beside her, playing piano was Todd Almond, who wrote the impressionistic, nearly dialogue-free production and plays the earnest title character; Love is Athena, the choir boy's ambitious girlfriend who leaves the Midwest to pursue her dreams as a singer in New York. Agony — and a bit of ecstasy — ensue.
The show, which premiered in New York in January and reaches Los Angeles as part of a brief tour, reflects a broader effort to expand the scope of theater music, with songs that blend Jeff Buckley's soulful balladry with the clicking rhythms of electronic pop. It also signals a surprising shift in Love's one-of-a-kind career, which since her emergence as half of grunge's first power couple (with her late husband, Kurt Cobain) has zigzagged from her band Hole to solo work to modeling to Hollywood.
Despite her success in movies — including a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in "The People vs. Larry Flynt" — Love, 51, described herself as a newcomer to theater. "I really don't know much about it," she admitted before the rehearsal.
Dressed in a floral-print Marc Jacobs dress, her right arm tattooed with the title of the Rolling Stones song "Let It Bleed," the singer was seated on a sofa next to her square-jawed costar, with whom she shared a gossipy rapport. Love had just arrived from New York, where she'd spent Fashion Week hobnobbing with Kim Kardashian, but she seemed eager to return her attention to the songs she said she hadn't sung since "Kansas City Choir Boy" finished its sold-out initial run.
"For me this is a fantastic starting-off point to do theater theater — like, without music — and also to do music that's challenging and different from Stones-y, four-to-the-floor rock 'n' roll, which is what I'm used to," she said.
Love and Almond, 38, met through Almond's husband, Mark Subias, who is Love's representative in the New York office of Beverly Hills-based United Talent Agency. Almond, a musical-theater veteran known for adaptations of "The Tempest" and "The Winter's Tale" — as well as "Girlfriend," a show based on the songs of Matthew Sweet that ran at the Douglas this summer — had composed "Kansas City Choir Boy" years ago. It's loosely inspired by an experience he'd had working on a version of "The Odyssey" in which the actress playing Athena disappeared and later turned up dead.
Yet both principals said the material came alive once Love got involved. On YouTube, she showed Almond what she called her favorite performance of all time — Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham singing "The Chain" on a 1982 tour by Fleetwood Mac — and suggested they incorporate some of that stormy energy into their yearning duets, which form the heart of "Kansas City Choir Boy." (The show also features a six-woman chorus.)
"They're the biggest band in the world, they hate each other — it's perfection," she said of the Fleetwood Mac clip, and indeed she and Almond summoned a nervy intensity in the rehearsal room as they sang "Fireworks," a stomping number that comes as the two characters have impulsively separated following an equally impulsive marriage.
Director Kevin Newbury said the onstage chemistry between Love and Almond drives the intimately scaled production. "Without the two of them it's almost hard to imagine," he added.
In New York, Almond took heat in reviews that said although the performances were very strong the show lacked a clearly defined narrative. But according to the writer, that wasn't what he was after.
"I was less interested in the tiny details of these characters' lives than I was in the explosive emotional moments they have together," said Almond, who also describes the unchanged piece as a "theatricalized concept album." He purposely avoids the term "musical," he said, since it promises the kind of "prescribed sequence of events" found in even unconventional Broadway productions such as the indie-rock "Spring Awakening" and the hip-hop "Hamilton."
"Kansas City Choir Boy," in contrast, follows a "dream logic," Almond said — one reason Center Theatre Group is presenting the show as part of its non-subscription DouglasPlus series aimed at theatergoers "eager to explore new work," as CTG associate artistic director Kelley Kirkpatrick put it.
Yet if Almond's opera is willfully testing boundaries, Love's participation came out of her desire to try something "more restrained and disciplined" than her day job as an outrage-courting rock star, she said. Asked why that appealed, she replied, "I'm a mature woman who's no longer 28 years old. I don't need all the attention all the time. I've had all the attention all the time — I know what that feels like. And it's kind of boring."
Today, she said, she prefers not being in the news constantly as she has in recent years thanks to a variety of personal and legal tussles. "I really, really, really have been focusing on no controversy at all. I don't want it."
"Kansas City Choir Boy" isn't the only project in which she's investing her time. Earlier this year she released a confident solo single and went on tour — as an opening act — for Lana Del Rey, one of many younger pop stars who've taken cues from Love. ("That was weird," she admitted.) And she recently appeared in a small role on the hit Fox series "Empire."
Love partly credited the change in attitude to her team of handlers, which she said she assembled not long ago after spending "many years in the wilderness without proper counsel." Now, she added, "nobody can just hand me a script and go, 'Hey, we're thinking about you.' They have to go through the proper channels. At my age, that's something to enjoy. I don't want to be out there like a crazy woman."
Still, even as the new Love explained herself, flashes of the old provocateur appeared.
When our talk turned to an elaborate gown that Zac Posen designed for the finale of "Kansas City Choir Boy," Love happily spilled a lengthy Fashion Week tale about an encounter with Anna Wintour in which the powerful Vogue editor didn't return Love's wave because "she thinks I'm vulgar."
And her eyes lighted up when she cited Trent Reznor as someone whose work provided common ground between her and Almond.
"'The Downward Spiral' was big for us both," she said, referring to the album by Reznor's band Nine Inch Nails. Then she turned to Almond. "There's one song about me. Very mean. I'll tell you about it later."
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'Kansas City Choir Boy'
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: Oct. 15-Nov. 8