Joanna Garner hasn’t herself had 100 heartbreaks.
To be sure, she’s had plenty of lackluster dates. And she did manage to go on a succession of a dozen or so first dates several years when she began work on “100 Heartbreaks,” her honky-tonk musical.
Performed as if it were a set by a five-piece band fronted by Garner in character as wannabe country star Charlane Tucker, “100 Heartbreaks” opens Tuesday for a run at the Sahara Lounge, the retro-style East Austin club.
But the inspiration for “100 Heartbreaks” is born from Garner’s love of classic country music and its quotidian poetry.
Those dates and other life experiences?
“It’s not an autobiography,” Garner laughs over coffee recently.
She did, however, first alight on the idea for the play several years ago when she lived in Seattle. Just a few years out of college, she was working as a bartender. And the milieu of Saturday night whisky-fueled romantic dreams — and that string of first dates — got her drama-writing skills going.
“Country music is based on telling a simple story in plain language, but it has these amazing turns of phrases,” Garner says, not a twinge of country accent to her voice. “And it establishes a communal experience and says ‘we’re all in this together.’ Country music provides the soundtrack to the lowest points of life.”
Garner staged short workshop versions of the show — for which she penned the script and all the songs — over the years.
After landing in Austin to begin a graduate degree in playwriting at the University of Texas last year, Garner found herself itching to bring “100 Heartbreaks” to stage.
Further work on the script and a few more songs — and the challenge of finding musicians who could act — resulted in the 90-minute show opening this week.
In “100 Heartbreaks,” the not-exactly-young Charlane is on a seemingly endless tour of dive bars with the mirage of Nashville music industry success always on the horizon. Charlane is convinced that to earn her country music bonafides she must have her heart broken 100 times — and so she sets out to do so.
But when gentleman No. 52 turns out to be a real solid and loving guy, Charlane’s plan is derailed — and so is her belief that her musical art can only come from suffering.
“Charlane falls in love very easily — too easily,” says Garner. “She’s a dreamer.”
Though there are 17 songs in the show, the underpinnings of “100 Heartbreaks” are less loose than one might think.
“Definitely the songs dovetail with the plot and help move the story along, and I wanted to stage it in a bar — but this is a scripted play,” says Garner. (Hear Garner’s “One Man Closer to Nashville,” on SoundCloud.)
Growing up in central Washington state as the daughter of academics, Garner didn’t really cotton to country music — even if the Kittitas Valley can claim plenty of cowboy credibility. She participated in school theater, played in a punk band and loved to read.
Later, Garner started an alt folk duo. Desperate for any paying gig, she and her bandmate agreed to learn some country classics to play at a reception. After a quick immersion into the music of Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and other early country greats, Garner got hooked.
Her play, Garner says, is an homage to — and not a spoof of — country music.
“Certainly there’s a humor to the storytelling in country music,” says Garner. “But there’s a frankness and honesty, too. It’s very sincere.”
Though immersed in her graduate studies, Garner’s nevertheless taken a shine to Austin’s music scene and is especially fond of honky-tonks like Ginny’s Little Longhorn, The White Horse and legendary Broken Spoke.
Noted alt composer and musician Peter Stopschinski signed on as the show’s music director. She had no trouble finding musicians who were willing to act — or actors who were also musicians — depending on how they define themselves. The cast features Heath Allyn, Sean Moran, Eric Roach, Robert Vignisson and Alexander Villarreal.
“Even if they have other creative pursuits,” says Garner, “everybody in Austin seems to be in a band.”
When: Opens 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Continues 7:30 p.m. Feb. 1, 3, 8, 10 and 7 p.m. Feb. 14,
Where: Sahara Lounge, 1413 Webberville Road