‘Lovelace: The Rock Opera’ gets past the porn

Special to The Times

In 1972, a newlywed named Linda Boreman spent six days in Florida making a low-budget porn film about a woman who can’t orgasm. The director was a salon owner who decided to make blue movies after hearing his female customers complain about their husbands’ bedroom techniques. The male lead had been part of the lighting crew until the producers realized they couldn’t find anyone else.

The movie was “Deep Throat,” starring Boreman under the stage name Linda Lovelace, and it went on to gross millions of dollars, shift sexual mores in America and unleash a national debate on cultural permissiveness.

But “Deep Throat” was only a brief episode in the turbulent life of a woman whose nickname had been “Miss Holy Holy” in Catholic school. The child of strict disciplinarians, Boreman went from oral-sex fatale to feminist crusader. She finally found some peace as a mother before dying, near penniless, from injuries sustained in an auto accident in 2002. She was 53.

Now Boreman has become the subject of a stage production that bears her stage name: “Lovelace: The Rock Opera” is a collaboration -- and a breakthrough -- by Charlotte Caffey of the Go-Go’s and Anna Waronker of the band that dog. For them, Boreman’s dramatic story touches raw nerves.

“I have a heavy-duty connection with this material on a lot of levels,” Caffey says. “To work on it has really been transformative.”

The project was originated by playwright Jeffery Leonard Bowman, who knew immediately after reading Boreman’s obituary that he wanted to tell her story.

A mutual friend introduced Caffey to Bowman, and the two, along with Waronker, worked on the project for several years before they brought it to Hayworth Theatre creative producers Danna Hyams and Gary Blumsack.

In many ways, “Lovelace” was the project Caffey and Waronker had been waiting for since they met in 1995. Sitting on a sofa in the Hayworth green room during rehearsals, the women seem uncannily in sync. Both petite, blond and dressed in black, the voluble pair don’t so much finish each other’s sentences as infinitely extend them. They are sisters-in-law -- Waronker married Caffey’s husband’s brother -- and the two have produced music together as Five Foot Two Records. Their first collaboration was the theme for the TV version of “Clueless” -- a world away from the bruised heart of “Lovelace.”

“In my writing life I’ve focused more on pop songs -- nothing as personal as this,” Caffey says. “We wanted to know Linda as a person, beyond the controversy,” adds Waronker. “She was an incredibly brave person whose every change in life was put on display.”

The two were struck by watching footage of Boreman on “The Phil Donahue Show” in 1980, after she had repudiated her porn work. “Donahue really put her on the spot,” Waronker says. “There she was, pregnant, talking about taboo subjects. The audience wasn’t on her side. And she held her ground. She had no agenda. She spoke with pure conviction.”

Think of “Lovelace” as a kind of anti-"TMZ” -- an effort to get behind the hype and public contestation over Boreman’s body that reinforced extreme categories for female sexual behavior: slut or victim.

While Waronker makes it clear “Lovelace” is an adults-only musical with intense subject matter, she adds: “You’re not going to see [“Lovelace” star] Katrina Lenk deep-throating anyone. This isn’t about a porn movie. This is the story of a woman’s life.”

“We’re porn-neutral,” explains Caffey, noting that the show also celebrates positive aspects of sexuality. “There’s some humor.”

For four years, the project’s various collaborators struggled to find the right form to express the contradictions of Boreman’s very public but internal journey. Different writers were brought on to shape the story, but nothing seemed to click. In 2006, Blumsack suggested they eliminate the dialogue and re-conceive “Lovelace” as a rock opera, “Tommy” style.

“Any dialogue people tried to write gave the story a campy vibe,” explains Waronker. “With a rock-opera style, you can go anywhere emotionally. There are no boundaries.”

The breakthrough came with the second song they wrote. “Hide My Soul” is an intense ballad Linda sings while being raped by three men -- with the consent of her first husband, Chuck Traynor. “At the session for that song, something transpired,” recalls Caffey. “I saw what this could be.”

A few days before previews begin, the rehearsal vibe at the Hayworth has the jittery buzz of a long-term project coming together with adrenaline and duct tape. The director, Ken Sawyer, holds his dog as he gives notes to the cast. People wander around eating Doritos and smoking.

Sawyer sets up the scene in which Traynor intimidates Linda into having sex with three johns. As three actors surround her in an aggressive tableau, Lenk launches into “Hide My Soul.” The song builds into a defiant hymn, a wrenching affirmation of a core self that transcends violation. Then Sawyer bounds onstage, stops the action, and they tinker with blocking.

“For me, the story is about that tendency people have to let another person, or a religion, or a government make you feel you should be treated poorly,” Lenk says in telephone conversation the next day. “It also makes you think, ‘What would I do?’ Linda was a normal girl who got sucked into this really weird, bad place. And then she got out of it. She found her voice and was able to take a stand for what she thought was right. That’s an inspiring thing.”

Lenk says she doesn’t miss dialogue in “these heightened shows, which are somehow classic Greek and very modern at once. When the music is really good, you can communicate so much more than you could in a million sentences.”

For now the team is still working out the kinks. Given the Hayworth budget and the composers’ complicated arrangements, the music will be recorded. That’s fine by director Sawyer, who is focused on the flow of the story. “There are 43 songs and 30 locations in a 90-minute piece. We have to be very creative. Also the material -- spousal abuse -- is very risky. We’re attacking a subject that has never gotten this kind of treatment. People have never seen anything like this.”

Waronker attributes the potential power of “Lovelace” to the trust she and Caffey have developed over the years. “Because we know each other very well, we could go to places we’d never been to. This project has been so cathartic. It’s such a gift to put it out there.”

“Lovelace: A Rock Opera,” The Hayworth Theatre, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 23. $25-$30. (323) 960-4442