Why Cameron Crowe’s ‘Almost Famous’ Was Born to Be on Stage

Variety Music for Screens keynote speakers Cameron Crowe and Tom Kitt talk about creating the new musical.

Cameron Crowe

Almost Famous” did make perhaps more sense to translate from the big screen to a stage musical than some other films have because, for one thing (spoiler alert for anyone who’s been asleep at the switch for the last 19 years), it already has music in it — and it’s about musicians, or those who’d do anything keep their company, whether it’s in person or just in headphones. When it comes down to it, It’s not really a stretch for the characters to break into song, when they’re already spending their entire inner waking lives silently doing just that.

Still, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine some of Cameron Crowe’s other films transitioning to the stage, too. Surely “Show Me the Money” is a Broadway production number waiting to happen? Or, it wouldn’t be weird for some earnest young actor to carry a Peter Gabriel-laden boom box onto the Winter Garden stage every night, would it?

“No,” Crowe answers, asked if he ever considered adapting any of his other screenplays into a book for a musical. “Just this.” That’s because it’s the most personal to him, although even he strains to figure out why it ended up being most personal for the rest of the world. “I still am not sure why it’s connected as well as it has, because that’s all I hear about of the stuff I’ve done. At a certain point I stopped hearing about ‘Jerry Maguire’ and it’s just all ‘Almost Famous.’ And now usually it’s somebody that’s shown the movie to their kids, or kids that have just discovered it. In writing about Harry Styles and going to his concert” — which Crowe did a couple years back, when he revived his old career as a Rolling Stone journalist for that assignment — “there were a bunch of Penny Lane fans that had come together to the show, and I was talking with these girls about the movie and what it meant to them. It was always about a feeling that a great song or a great record, heard at the right time in your life, will sear you with. And if the show can kind of capture that thing that Fairuza Balk says (in the film) about what it is to be a fan — to hear a piece of music or even hold an album cover that means so much to you that it hurts — that’s at the heart of ‘Almost Famous.’”

Crowe will talk about taking his Oscar-winning screenplay to the stage in a keynote interview at Variety’s Music for Screens Summit. He’ll be joined by Tom Kitt, who wrote the music for the show and co-wrote the lyrics with Crowe. The premiere production will have just wound down at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre when Crowe and Kitt talk about it at Neuehouse in Hollywood Oct. 29, but it’ll provide a tease for what’s expected to be many productions to come, including an expected Broadway run if producers can land the right theater.

Crowe’s Sondheim influence up till now has been a lot less known than, say, his Billy Wilder influence. “My family was trying to turn me on to theater when I was loving rock,” he says, “so there was crossover in my family. (Stephen) Sondheim was this big fave, and that song ‘Barcelona’ (from ‘Company’) was one that my mom had shown me and said, ‘This is a great theater song. Check out what’s happening.’ It’s romance, but the guy is trying to get out of there. Later I would always listen to ‘Barcelona’ working on movies, because I just loved the romantic complexity of it.”

Crowe had been toying around with doing a purely jukebox musical version of “Famous,” but meeting British director Jeremy Herrin “felt like a road back to that kind of writing and way of doing it” — that is, the path back to the “Barcelona” style of emotional complexity that first sparked his interest in musical theater. “The jukebox version of ‘Almost Famous’ would probably be fizzy, but it would not be the point of it. It would have been a venture, as opposed to a cool play like ‘Once,’ which I loved, because it felt intimate.”

But then it turned back into a little bit of a jukebox musical… but just a little bit. Once Crowe hooked up with Kitt, they ended up writing more than 20 songs in a fertile six-month period. But even with all that original material, they still decided to sprinkle in some actual period rock classics for the 1973 period show after all. It was a set of tasks for which Kitt was collectively better suited than perhaps anybody alive: Beyond winning a Tony and Pulitzer for “Next to Normal,” he’d composed for a slew of movie-to-stage adaptations (including “High Fidelity,” “Dave,” “Freaky Friday” and “Bring It On”) and done the arrangements for two shows that consisted strictly of adapting classic rock catalogs, “American Idiot” and “Jagged Little Pill” (the latter reaches Broadway this fall).

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When it comes to incorporating existing songs into their original score, Kitt says: “What’s been wonderful is that we have as a team identified the moments and the songs where it feels theatrical and it doesn’t feel forced. Enough people have come up to me and shared that the score feels cohesive, and some people have to actually look at the song list to identify which is which, which means that all these songs are working together to create a cohesive musical theater score. And even if I’m working on something like ”Jagged Little Pill’ or ‘American Idiot’ where it’s all pre-existing, that’s something that I’ve worked hard at it, to find a voice and to say this does not feel like the songs are outside of the story; everything feels theatrical and everything feels like it was made to be a musical. And that was certainly what we wanted to achieve here.”

Adds Crowe, “It’s surprising to me how few people know that ‘It Ain’t Easy’ is a Bowie song. They’re like, ‘Yeah, I like that song you guys wrote for the deflowering scene.’ It’s on ‘Ziggy Stardust,’ baby. Come on!” Other songs, heard in toto or briefly, with Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” being an Act 1-ending no-brainer. “I don’t think we got any turndowns,” Crowe says. Yes, he concedes, he’s made a lot of rock-star friends over the years (contrary to Lester Bangs’ advice), and you would assume that would make getting permissions easier. But, he laughs, “I don’t know if friendship can last into the wrong kind of musical theater usage.” Still, when it came to getting the most key outside number, “Tiny Dancer,” to carry over from the film, “Elton John didn’t even ask any of those questions. He’s been such a supporter of the movie.” (Indeed, in his new memoir, John credits the popularization of “Dancer” via the film as something that kick-started his own artistic revival.) Also, “I was real happy that Joni (Mitchell) said it was okay to use ‘River’,” a carryover from the soundtrack.

As for the heavier songs that have become show tunes, from Zeppelin to Skynyrd: “We just thought that would be our contribution to musical theater,” jokes Herrin, “getting (Deep Purple’s) ‘Highway Star’ onto a Broadway stage.”

It qualifies as a rock musical, but two of the standout numbers belong to the character of Crowe’s mother… er, 15-year-old rock-journo protagonist William Miller’s mom. Given her loathing for popular music, no one will mistake these for a Bowie interlocution. “Honestly” he says, one reason for doing the show is that “the character of my mom I really felt belonged on stage. She kind of holds the stage in our lives, you know. It’s crazy. Tom Kitt said, ‘I always thought the song “Rock Stars Have Kidnapped My Son” was probably going to get cut.’ The first time we started doing it, it was like, ‘It’s not gonna get cut, Tom!’ People really love it.” The lyrics to that song carry over something that happened in dialogue in the screenplay: the mom disdainfully citing Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” nonsense line “Koo-koo-ka-choo” as a sign of moral depravity. “That’sone of the biggest laughs in the whole show, and it’s totally real,” Crowe says. “You know, tragedy plus time, right?”

Kitt was a huge fan of Crowe’s screenplay. “I think what Cameron does is, like any great writer, he makes things that you feel are everyday poetry. We can all draw lines from his writing where we wish we could express ourselves that way at the drop of a hat, things that he seems to find language for. Writing the songs with him, I just wanted to pick his brain and hear those thoughts and feel that language that only Cameron Crowe could come up. These were all rich characters to get to write for, and the fact that they come from Cameron’s mind and I could be there with him just absorbing all his thoughts and channeling them into songs… When there was another song we had to maybe look at (adding to the score), I would often say, ‘It will never feel like work to write a song for “Almost Famous.” So yes, let’s just write another one.'”

Crowe has found working in the theater world “so fun and fresh. And there’s less fear of the business like there is in movies right now, where writing a character story, like I’ve done — you know, there’s fear about movies like that now. And Quentin (Tarantino) nails it, you know. He’s able to use stars in a fresh way and do a character story and it’s fun and filled with music. He’s figured that out. But you do have to thread the needle more in the movie business than you do in theater, I think. That’s a different kind of threading the needle, and it’s completely inspiring, but it’s all about emotion. And I’ve just loved working in that world,. When you do it right, and you put a feeling in the room where you can laugh and cry and you don’t feel manipulated — and with music! — that’s like the best thing in the world.”

Crowe suggests that he’s found working with stage actors to be an addictive experience, too. “They’re so open emotionally,” he says. “Like, for a long time, I was always this guy trying to talk leading men into saying ‘I love you’ or hugging or crying or something like that, and they would be like, ‘I don’t know if I want to play that part where I’m the guy that says “I love you.” Let me play the guy that robs the store.'” He laughs. “Then you come here and they’re like, ‘How often can I say “I love you”? How often can I weep? How often can I go to the deepest emotional place you can write for me, and be funny too?’ My dream is to take as many of these actors as possible and put ‘em in our next movie and just kind of let that be the next phase.”

Actor Colin Donnell, who plays the rocker Russell, was among the many cast members who had to work in the shadow of a film performance that many would consider, yes, iconic, before realizing that drawing on some of the real-life inspirations for the script made things much more interesting.

“I’m a huge Billy Crudup fan,” says Donnell, “but I’m never going to be copying his performance. But there’s also the the fact that Russell is a conglomeration of a few different people that affected Cameron coming up through his childhood.” One in particular: the Eagles’ Glenn Frey. “He and I have talked about the relationship that he had with Glenn a lot, and I watched the “History of the Eagles” documentary, and there’s something inherent about the relationship that Cameron and Glenn had that is totally suffused throughout our show, especially in the relationship that William and Russell have — the older brother attitude; the guy who was magnetic enough to walk into a room and automatically give somebody a nickname, no matter if it was the 20th time that they were seeing each other or they’d just met for the first time. So I think there is a huge amount of Glenn in there. He’s been kind and generous enough to share with me with me, and whether it’s conscious or unconscious, it definitely informs what’s going on in my performance.”

Crowe says working in theater is “just new muscles all the way around. And I think it’ll help everything that comes after too, you know. The chance to do another movie will really benefit from having done all this. And it’d be fun to do another play. It’d be fun to do a non-musical. The culture and traditions are really fun. You know what? It feels a little bit like rock did, in the early days of rock criticism, where it was a smaller community.”