Editor’s note: CASA 0101 extends the popular Eastside Heartbeats through the month of May. Here’s our critics write up of the rock ‘n’ roll musical inspired by the life story of Cannibal and the Headhunters.
When Corky Domínguez first interviewed with the producers of a new musical about the vibrant music scene in East Los Angeles in the early 1960s, he tried to convince them that he was the right person to direct “Eastside Heartbeats.”
“The story resonated with me so well because I grew up in East LA during that time,” said the veteran stage director, choreographer and educator, who was a young child in 1965, the year the musical takes place. “A lot of what I remember was more through my sisters. I had two older sisters that were in high school, and a lot of their excitement for the Beatles and all the East LA groups –the parties, the cruising, the battles of the bands– all those things I learned about through them.”
The producers were impressed. Domínguez directs the first fully staged production of “Eastside Heartbeats,” which opened this month at Casa 0101 in Boyle Heights for a short run through February 14. The musical is inspired by the story of Cannibal and the Headhunters, one of the most important musical groups to emerge from the so-called Eastside Sound.
The musical is the brainchild of Tom Waldman, who along with David Reyes wrote the book “Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock and Roll from Southern California.” In a video presentation for “Eastside Heartbeats,” Waldman drew a parallel between the East Los Angeles music scene in the 1960s and what was happening at the time in cities like Liverpool, England and San Francisco.
“There were groups every week being formed,” Waldman said. “And I got interested in the story because nobody was telling it… I wrote the book with David Reyes. The book got a great response. We did a documentary called ‘Chicano Rock, the Sounds of East LA.’ And then I thought, why not turn this into a musical, a rock and roll musical, with dancing and singing and a great story based around parents and kids and conflict and a bunch of young Latinos in East LA that wanted to be the next Motown (group). And that’s what I did, and the result is ‘Eastside Heartbeats.’”
Once Domínguez was chosen to direct and choreograph the musical, he worked closely with Waldman in shaping the story. “I gave him some more ideas and thoughts,” Dominguez recalled. “Some of it was based on my own life growing up in East Los Angeles, some of it on what I knew of the culture and the community.”
Domínguez recalled that at the time, Latino teens in East LA mostly listened to rock, R&B and Motown, a choice that sometimes created conflicts with families that wanted to hold on to their Mexican roots and musical traditions. “A lot of the teenagers wanted to assimilate to the rock and roll culture. They wanted the American identity, and some families had issues with that. And that’s reflected in our story.”
The story, Domínguez warned, is not exactly that of Cannibal and the Headhunters, a group formed in the early 60’s by four young talented men who lived in the Ramona Gardens housing complex in Boyle Heights and who hit the national charts in 1965 with their version of “Land of a Thousand Dances.”
Waldman’s story borrows two important events from the Cannibal story: when lead singer Frankie García forgot the opening lyrics to “Land of a Thousand Dances,” he improvised with “Na, na, na, na, na….,” a refrain that became the song’s distinctive sound. The other borrowed plotline is that when that song hit the national charts, the Eastside group was chosen to tour with the Beatles.
According to a press release, “Eastside Heartbeats” tells the fictional story of Jimmy Ramírez, leader of a four-man vocal group that conquers East LA and is on the verge of hitting it big with their first recording. But “the play is about a family struggle between the father and son and their choice in music,” insisted Domínguez. “It isn’t until the very end that they realize it’s OK to have your own identity. The bottom line is music brings us together, and we should celebrate that.”
Domínguez first staged a reading of Waldman’s play, without music, in June 2014. Soon after composer James Holvay –who wrote “Kind of a Drag” and other 1960s rock hits– was brought in to write the songs for the musical, which were performed in a second staged reading of the musical in the spring of 2015.
The musical now includes 18 songs written by Holvay and one by Rudy Salas, co-leader of the band Tierra, one of the most enduring groups that came out of the Eastside Sound. The show is being produced by Brown Fist Productions, a group headed by educator María Elena Yepes and formed specifically to stage “Eastside Heartbeats”.
The production at Casa 0101, which is not part of the theater’s regular season, is being underwritten in part by AARP –a group whose membership of people aged 55 and over includes the rock generation. Pointedly, AARP members can buy discounted tickets for the show.
“AARP in Los Angeles is thrilled to be a sponsor of “Eastside Heartbeats,” said the group’s California president, Patricia Pérez, in a press release. “Our members and rock and roll lovers all over LA can enjoy reliving the vibrant music period of the mid-1960’s and learn about the contributions of Mexican-American musicians to American rock and roll.”
Reyes, who co-wrote the book for “Land of a Thousand Dances” with Waldman, is one of the show’s producers, and his collection of photographs and memorabilia from 1960s East LA are being displayed in the theater’s lobby during the run of the show.
While the production’s budget is small, compared to the city’s major regional theater, Domínguez said the musical is being put together by a dedicated group of professionals.
“I’ve worked with so many productions when we have little budget, and I know how to finesse a show in a way that can hopefully work,” said the veteran director. He added that he’s put together a top-notch creative team for the musical.
“If you have a project that is a labor of love, and you get your friends involved, we all realize what this is, and we all do the best we can to make it work,” Domínguez said. “We’re all doing our best to collaborate and use our professional expertise to shape and create what’s going to be presented this weekend.”
Performances are given on Fridays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 5:00 p.m. through May 29.