Over a fascinating and still unfurling Grammy-nominated career that includes recording a half-dozen studio albums, touring to celebrate the music of David Bowie and, perhaps most famously, co-writing the opening theme to the TV show “Parks and Recreation,” the Latin Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Gaby Moreno has found herself creating in a number of disciplines.
But she’d never played the part of a setting or a location, she said last week at the Winslow Ct. Studio on Santa Monica Boulevard. Until now. Moreno will occupy the role of a 1968-era East Los Angeles neighborhood in a new restaging of “Evangeline, the Queen of Make-Believe,” which opens Friday at Plaza de la Raza’s Margo Albert Theater in Lincoln Heights.
The play, which premiered in 2012, incorporates the Grammy Award-winning songbook of Los Lobos co-founders Louie Pérez and David Hidalgo, and is set against the backdrop of the 1968 student walkouts in the East Los Angeles neighborhood where Los Lobos formed.
As Moreno lounged on the couch to talk about the role, an overalls-clad Van Dyke Parks appeared from a mixing room to greet the Guatemalan-born, Los Angeles-based artist. The two are, says Moreno, “just adding a few little things to this really great song that Van Dyke wrote” as part of the process of finalizing the recording of an as-yet-untitled, decade-long collaboration.
What follows are condensed and edited excerpts from the studio visit with Moreno.
How did you get involved with this restaging of “Evangeline”?
I had been wanting to get involved with some sort of theatrical project for a very long time. The last time I was part of any play or musical was in 2007 at the Met Theater here in Hollywood. I was in the cast of “Hair,” and it was really fun. It was a three-month run and I remember having a blast and thinking, “Wow, I would love to do this again.”
But, then, whatever, I got busy with life — my own projects and touring and whatnot. So when they approached me about this project, I was super excited because I’d get to go back to the theater. And although I’m not acting, I am part of the ensemble, and I’m bringing these songs to life, which are all the incredible songs by Los Lobos.
They decided to do it commemorate the 50th anniversary of the student walkouts, and I was approached last year. Then, this year, all these terrible things were happening and the actual student walkouts started happening across the country, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is serendipitous.’ It was meant to be, and it’s incredible. It’s still so relevant.
You play a setting. You don’t play a character.
[Laughs]. Right, they gave me the part of “The Neighborhood.” It’s really great. I’m onstage the whole time, and it’s just me, a drummer and a bass player.
I gotta tell you, I was a bit nervous when they asked me to play these iconic songs with these incredible guitar parts by David Hidalgo — oh, my God. It’s been quite a challenge.
Were you aware of Los Lobos before you moved to Los Angeles?
Yes, but not in depth. I didn’t know their incredible back catalog. Actually, a lot of these songs that I’m doing in the play were new to me. I knew “Evangeline,” of course, and they’re all so beautiful.
Those mid-period albums are wild.
Yeah, like from the album “Kiko.” There’s a song called “Peace” — incredible, and we’re doing “The Revolution” and, well, “The Neighborhood.” Oh, and “The Mess We’re In” — great songs with strong messages, beautiful arrangements. It’s kind of a dream project to be a part of. Not only is this a wonderful message to put out in these times, but also with these incredible and sensitive songs.
When are you hoping to release the project you’re working on today?
September. [Shouts across the room.] Right Van Dyke?
Van Dyke Parks: Yes. We want everybody to catch up. [He exits.]
How did you meet Van Dyke?
I met him in 2008 at Largo. I remember the first thing we did when we met was we went to dinner because we were doing a show with David Piltch, the upright bass player. Before the show, we all went out to dinner and I sat with [Parks] and we talked and talked and talked.
He was telling me about his brother and how in the ’60s they used to tour up and down the West Coast and play these songs from Latin America, these old boleros and stuff — incredible! We started talking about that music and how it would be so wonderful to do a project. We started throwing out ideas.
He said, ‘Send me one of your favorite old songs from Latin America, just you and your guitar.’ So I did, and the next thing I know he sends me this incredible arrangement — all MIDI — but beautiful. This was 10 years ago, and just like that we went back and forth until we had eight songs and we were like, “What are we going to do with these?”