Welcome to the Hard Luck Café
A new musical by Karin Ringheim gets its start in DC
By Joel Markowitz
I attend many readings of new works and when you walk in the room and watch the faces of the playwrights, book writers and composers, you always see the same emotions – pride, fear and hope.
Recently, I slid into a reading of Karin Ringheim’s musical Welcome to the Hard Luck Café. I was invited to attend by actress and singer extraordinaire Renee Rabben, who was reading the role of Hazel. Two of my favorite local actresses were in the cast -Amy McWilliams and Amy Conley. It was an emotional evening, and I left with the hope that with some workshopping, this show had a chance to make it!
Here are conversations with playwright, composer, book writer and lyricist Karin Ringheim, and both Amys, followed by demo clips of the songs, so you can judge for yourselves.
A Chat with Karin Ringheim:
Joel: What inspired you to write Welcome to the Hard Luck Café?
Karin: The idea of writing a musical had never crossed my mind until I was driving the Dan Ryan Expressway around Chicago in 1988. I was en-route from Ann Arbor, where I was a graduate student, to Minnesota where my family lived. Suddenly, I had music and ideas invading my thoughts in a very persistent manner. I couldn’t locate a pen and in any case, it would have been nearly impossible to write while negotiating six lanes of traffic. Most of that initial inspiration was lost for good, but the basic concept, a musical set in a cafe run by recovering alcoholics, and the theme song for the Hard Luck Cafe, stuck with me, as did the concept that the story would center around two women. On an occasional visit to St Paul, my sister and I liked to have breakfast at the Day by Day Cafe, which was owned and staffed by recovering alcoholics, and this, no doubt, was inspiration for the setting. Had I known I would spend 20 years writing and rewriting a musical, I would have been wise not to quit piano lessons at age 12. But who is wise at age 12?
Joel: Tell our readers what the musical is about.
Karin: The elevator conversation about the show might be that it aims to provoke the thought that each of us has the ability to make choices that can alter the course of our lives. The hard luck stories I heard over and over again in Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings revealed that too many of those who had experienced miserable parenting, substance abuse, violence, death, divorce, etc., remained stuck in the misery, wasting their own precious lives mired in sadness, anger, desire for revenge, or cynicism. A sense of powerlessness or impotency is often part of the legacy of such trauma. I’ve certainly not been above the fray, but the song “Choose Life” aims to celebrate the ability of people to reinvent themselves. And the evidence is convincing that change is much more feasible when one has a good support system to reinforce positive choices. If the family is dysfunctional, social support comes in many shapes and sizes – personal friendships, professional therapy, spiritual paths, the relationships formed in rehab, AA and other support groups, and the “griddle therapy” served up at the Hard Luck Cafe.
Joel: How would you describe the score?
Karin: The score reflects my love of music of nearly all kinds, from rock, R & B, jazz and blues to opera, and the classical Broadway tunes I grew up listening to. The music doesn’t have a unified “sound” because it comes through the voices of characters who are very different in terms of personality and emotional state. Sometimes you feel like the blues, other times, like some good old rock and roll.
Joel: How did you like the Foundry Players’ staged reading?
Karin: It was a thrill for me that Chuck Whalen, the director, and the cast did such a great job with the material in just a few short days of rehearsals. Although this was an abridged script, without much character revelation, the cast managed to bring their characters to life. I am really touched that these actors have been so supportive of helping this new project get off the ground. The enthusiasm and commitment of the cast and crew imbued the production with great spirit and heart. Chuck had a good vision of what a scaled down production should look and sound like, and we had some terrific voices- Amy McWilliams, Amy Conley, and Jase Parker, to name a few. I feel very fortunate to have worked with this group. Let me take this opportunity to thank them once again.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them?
Karin: Most of all, I hope they take home a burning desire to see a full production! At least I hope they leave with a memorable song. I think of music as the gift that keeps on giving. It plays such an important role in my own thoughts, and music is there to support struggles of all kinds.
Joel: How did you get involved with Welcome to the Hard Luck Café?
Amy: Karin saw me in Nevermore (at Signature Theatre) and asked me to do some recording for her of music she had written for this piece. I recorded for her last spring, and when she was ready to do a reading she asked if I would participate, and my schedule allowed that to happen.
Joel: Tell us about your character Cynthia.
Amy: First I guess Cynthia is struggling to get thru life like we all are and she’s had some tough things to deal with. How she deals with them is with alcohol, at least when we first meet her.
I can appreciate and understand her struggles, and also understand how hard it is to deal with an addiction.
Joel: Tell me about the songs “Leave Me Alone” and “Day By Day”?
Amy: “Leave Me Alone” is where Cynthia is starting to really spiral out of control and doesn’t want anyone close, doesn’t want anyone judging her, which is how I think she views Anne’s attempts to help. “Day by Day” is her mantra for dealing with her addiction, and a common thread for all those in recovery. It’s an affirmation of the positive.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take away from the show?
Amy: I think everyone will take something different away from the show, probably depending on whether or not an addiction has touched their lives.
Joel: What is Welcome to the Hard Luck Café about for your character Anne?
Amy: The character I play, Dr. Anne Sigrud, is a psychologist, a friend to Cynthia since childhood, an only child, and an addict who has yet to face her own addiction. She is single and feeling alone as she deals with the stresses in her own life, and as she attempts to rescue her closest friend. She feels she’s let her mother down, and herself, as she has had a series of failed relationships and no marriage, and now she feels she’s letting her friend down as Cynthia spirals downward.
“There Aren’t Enough Princes” is sung by Anne and her mother, Rose. Anne has tried to open an adult conversation with her mother about feeling lonely – Anne is not in a relationship and feels that although she has been trying hard, finding that illusive husband may be hopeless because “There aren’t enough princes to go around, mama, and not one who will change my name”, and her mother has lost her life partner, Anne’s father, also an alcoholic.
“Lay Your Burdens Down” is sung by Anne to Cynthia as she lies in a hospital bed having given up hope and gone on a drinking binge. Anne is trying to be supportive and a friend to Cynthia, but the relationship feels more like doctor-patient to Cynthia who wishes Anne would just let her go. So Anne is letting Cynthia know she’ll always be there for her.
“Guilty” is sung by Cynthia and Anne – Cynthia is guilty about nearly falling off the wagon again, and Anne has just slept with a patient (who she doesn’t even like) while struggling with her own alcohol addiction. ”
“Love is All You Need” is sung by Anne and Cynthia – Anne has just admitted to Cynthia the serious mistake she has made in sleeping with a patient, and it’s the first time she’s admitted to Cynthia that she has a drinking problem.
Anne is reminiscent of the “good old days” when things were simpler and she thought that if she had love, everything else would be fine. Cynthia, who is now firmly on the path to recovery (having turned to Mimi instead of Anne during a crisis) tries to cheer Anne up. Unfortunately, Anne has lost all hope. This is the last time we see Anne in the show.
Joel: How did you become involved in the reading?
Amy: I became involved when Chuck Whalen approached me this summer about this new project he was working on and would be directing, a new musical written by Karin Ringheim. He was excited about getting it up on its feet, and asked me if I would take a role in the show and do the vocal coaching for the other actors. It sounded like a great concept for a show, and I was thrilled to be asked. I think it’s always exciting to see a new work of art take shape and begin to spread its wings. I hope that these staged readings are just the beginning for Welcome to the Hard Luck Café, and that it will be more fully produced in the future.
So there you are. Welcome to the Hard Luck Café is a new musical with lots of heart that I hope we all get to see it someday.
And that’s the perfect segue to these six music clips from the show, produced by Jeff Severson. All are in demo form, recorded separately (not as part of the reading).