Return of: Return to La La Land in NYC — June 3 at Greenwich Village’s 13th Street Theater

BY ROB LESTER**** The story of the writer behind the hits is often an interesting one on stage. When that writer is also a powerful singer-instrumentalist herself it can be dynamite! Meet–in person, La Forrest Cope, known as La La, back on a Manhattan stage for one night, Saturday, June 3, at 7:30 PM for $20 at the box office or $21.69 online (Note: It’s a smallish theatre) and hear some of the songs and sagas of her working with music stars who made history with her, including the great Whitney Houston (she wrote the star’s first #1 song), Michael Jackson (as his back-up singer/band member on the famed Jackson Victory Tour), and Melba Moore (who attended the  autobiographical show Return to La La Land the night I was there, intrigued by the musical doings and energy.  La La met director Joe Battista, Artistic Director, theatrical inspector, talent connector, and chief cook & bottle washer at the 13th Street Repertory Theater on —you guessed it!— 13th Street (50 West 13th, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, to be specific) where the show is being presented for an encore after stimulating buzz and interest among music industry pros and the music-loving public.   

But how to tell the multi-faceted story?  How to shape it?  While the eclectic lady is full of stories and opinions, a traditionally straightforward “And then I wrote….” would be too ordinary and linear for such a unique personality.  With the help of playwright Mark Blickley, a frequent Battista colleague, and after a series of experimental, developmental, complemental, sentimental discussions and attempts, they tried a   tongue-in-cheek exaggeration of La La and dynamo Joe as loose cannons, irresistible force and immovable object, imagining an alternate universe of sorts in a theatre where Joe is going a bit mad trying to pin down the butterfly flitting about, following wherever her whims and fancy may take her from moment to moment.  Joe, ready to pull the curtain to begin a run-through is at the end of his rope, trying to control the free-flying songbird, always boiling over in worry and frustration, but communicating with his right-hand stage left man through their headsets, asking him to do the dirty work of scolding and holding down the distracted star.  It’s a cute idea, as both La La and Joe are high-energy fireballs, but of somewhat different flavors and temperaments.  And poor Chris (Chris Fougere) is the man in the middle, wondering which oversize personality to placate.  His eye-rolling and communicated sense that he knows how to play the game adds much humor.  And Battista’s burns are boffo. 

Below: Director Joe Battista

Along the way, there’s plenty of time for one hot R&B or pop song after another, sung fiercely, played on keyboards, with the added pow and skills of drummer bandmate/Musical Director and cooler-than-cucumber sandwiches pal Freddie Dugard.  And, when, all kidding is aside and side comments from La La take center stage for true behind-the-music tales about the toughness of the business or tender moments with Whitney and others are given their due, it can be moving and intriguing emotional stuff.  This is the real deal, a woman who’s been there and back.

Back in the 1980s, she was commissioned by Harry Belafonte to write and perform “Into the Night,” featured on the Beat Street movie soundtrack. She studied composition at Juilliard on a fellowship, but in recent years she herself has been the teacher, as an Adjunct Professor of English at York College in The School of Arts and Sciences and at Queens College of the City University of New York. Ms. Cope is currently a professional vocal producer/coach, working with pre-professional and professional recording artists. 
Based on her own experiences in the recording industry, she switched gears to another kind of writing —as a novelist, with Soul Shakerher literary debut, spinning a story she knows about from life experience—about the challenges facing women in music and how the many misconceptions about musical talent diminish the industry’s ability to address it effectively.  The theme and message are woven through Return to Lala Land‘s autobiographical content about this highly successful musician/songwriter/performer struggling to tear down borders and construct boundaries between her present-day artistry and a golden past that threatens to crush her under its glittery weight.

Hear about her work burning up the Billboard charts with four top-5 songs in two years, La La’s songwriting talents that helped launch several careers, most notably,Whitney Houston’s.  The memorable “You Give Good Love” earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best R&B Song and an ASCAP Honors Award for Most Played Song in the 1985 Survey Year (an award she shared with Prince), while giving Whitney her first top-of-the-chart smasheroo.

Other artists La La has played, sung, written for and/or produced are diverse –Look at this list: Lauryn Hill …. Christina Aguilera ….  Luther Vandross …. Ice Cube ….  Freddie Jackson …. Stephanie Mills …. Johnny Gill …. Burt Bacharach. Ms. Cope recorded a vocal duet with Jermaine Jackson for the Summer Olympics Album on Arista Records and executive produced by Clive Davis. Her second solo album, La La Means I Love You, was released on Motown Records.

Come for the music history, stay for the wild party!

Online tix: www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2940475

Venue website: www.13thstrep.org