Cameron Crowe, Tom Kitt Tell Variety Summit Why Rock and Musical Theater Fans Share the Same Love

The new stage musical adaptation of "Almost Famous" was explored in a keynote interview at Variety's Music for Screens Summit.

Chris Willman, Cameron Crowe and Tom KittVariety's Music for Screens Summit, Inside, Neuehouse, Los Angeles, USA - 29 Oct 2019
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Cameron Crowe and Tom Kitt almost got to rest after their musical version of “Almost Famous” wrapped up its initial run in San Diego Sunday night. Instead, they came up to Los Angeles to appear as keynote speakers at Variety‘s Music for Screens Summit, where the collaborators discussed Crowe’s original 2000 movie and took a victory lap on the just-completed production down the coast, the praise for which unmistakably made it a contender for whatever Broadway season it can next be squeezed into.

“It seems like that’s where we’re headed,” said Kitt, a Pulitzer and Tony winner for “Next to Normal,” who composed the music for “Almost Famous” and co-wrote lyrics with Crowe. “We don’t know when. As many people know, there are lot of musicals being developed, and only so many buildings in New York, which everyone is kind of circling. It’s wonderful, because the business of musicals and plays and theater is alive and well in New York City. So unfortunately … we just don’t know when we’re going to actually get to land it. But we feel good that it’ll be soon, and we can’t wait.”

Kitt definitely won’t have to wait to get back to work. He was due to get on a plane back to New York hours after the summit to resume his duties on “Jagged Little Pill,” a dramatic adaptation of the Alanis Morissette album of the same name, which begins previews on Broadway this weekend in advance of an official Dec. 5 opening. He also has two shows that he wrote original songs for, an adaptation of the movie “The Visitor” and the original musical “Flying Over Sunset,” both opening in New York in March. So if a theater opened up and “Almost Famous” did get fast-tracked for the spring, he’d have four major productions going at once.

“I’d be excited for ‘Almost Famous’ this year and terrified of ‘Almost Famous’ this year,” Kitt confessed. “But I just always feel so lucky to get to work on the things I’m working on, especially because it’s not just about me, it’s about this group of people that are making this. So it’s never right for everyone’s schedule, but if someone says you get to move forward, then you move forward. … The luxury and wonderful thing about creating a new musical is you really get a chance to continue to assess your work and try to improve it. We learned a lot in this production, and you run out of time, and so I think we’re going to go back into some kind of developmental workshop” while everyone waits for updates to the Great White Way real estate listing.

The general consensus out of San Diego was: Please don’t “fix” anything. Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty, who is one of the bellwethers New Yorkers look to on San Diego’s cottage industry as an out-of-town-tryout town, rejoiced. “After countless hours spent on the I-5 driving to San Diego to check out musicals based on popular movies or music catalogs, I can finally report that the city has an unqualified winner,” he wrote. “The film’s wild spirit remains intact.” After making favorable comparisons with hits like “Dear Evan Hanson” and “The Band’s Visit,” McNulty concluded: “The chaotic, communal spirit of ‘70s rock is distilled in a musical that seems destined to conquer Broadway.”

Crowe told the summit audience that “both the movie and the play have felt like a crusade among friends to put something out there that approximated what it’s like to love music. And that’s always been how we lived or died with ‘Almost Famous.’ If it felt like it was Hollywood or Broadway telling this story, you’ve failed. If it feels like you’re two people talking about something really important to each other and that’s the feeling, then you’re there.”

Of the movie, he said, “‘Almost Famous’ was that story you kind of have in your back pocket that if you ever get the chance to tell that story, you go for it and just do it as quickly as you can, before they figure out that you’re doing something that’s potentially very uncommercial. So after ‘Jerry Maguire’ came out, I felt like we had a credit line of, like, one — maybe one — and it was: Let’s do this story about family and loving music, and just drench ourselves in that time period and feel what that felt like in 1973. It’s a real personal film about my family and just discovering music, and from a kid’s point of view, when it really imprints your heart and soul. Over time that’s the movie that people most want to talk about when I see ‘em. And when I met Tom, there was an immediate kinship that dated back to the original time when we wanted to make the movie — like this is a guy that lives and breathes and it’s in his soul.”

The moderator asked Crowe if he ever heard the voices in his head of “Almost Famous” fans who might love film and music but don’t have so much of a brief for Broadway and might feel that anything that introduces singing and dancing into the movie’s rock ‘n’ roll photorealism is destined, in their view, to seem corny.

“You’re scaring me,” Crowe answered, after a pause, to laughter fro the audience. Actually, he admitted: “A lot. A lot. You know, I felt like it was a little bit of a high-wire act, but for all the best reasons.” And as a matter of fact, he said, in his experience, younger generations weaned on shows like, well, the ones Kitt has been involved with (which include everything from “If/Then” to the Green Day-based “American Idiot”) are experiencing a love for theater that rivals his own early adoration of rock.

“My nieces are musical theater fanatics,” Crowe said. “And I had that growing up, because we loved Sondheim, but it’s of course a different era of musical theater. Now I’m seeing this thing in my own family of true fandom, where the love of musical theater is very similar to the love of music in 1973, where it’s something you can really possess. And they’re aware of all the nuances of every show. My nieces would travel from town to town, like a Grateful Dead type situation, and follow ‘American Idiot’ or these other shows around (in different cities). And I thought, well, this is the great way to tell a story about fandom, in the language of what is truly personal, intimate fandom in 2019 or ’20. I thought if we could speak that language, which Tom is so fluent in, and forget the high-wire act a bit and see if you can just translate your love of music into this way, that you would be communicating to people that possess their fandom in the way that we did in that era.”

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And, Crowe added, “I take none of it for granted” — he knocked on the nearest wood — “but people started coming back again and again to see the show” in San Diego. “You’d see the same faces turn up four or five times, and I just would get a chill when I would see these people, because that’s the dream, that they take it to their heart. If we get to Broadway, it should always be that intimate and personal. It’s never meant to be a spectacle.”

The first idea for “Almost Famous” on Broadway was to have it be a jukebox musical, before Crowe realized it needed to be original material… or at least mostly original material. A number of early ’70s songs did get sprinkled into the show, though. How easy or difficult was it to get those permissions? Probably easier when you’re Cameron Crowe, friend to the golden gods for 45 years now, no?

Actually, “a lot of people were really happy that Tom was involved,” Crowe said. “That was really helpful. But yeah we made some phone calls. Janet Billig Rich helped us out a lot. People like Joni Mitchell were kind to us and just said good luck. And she came on opening night and loved the way we used ‘River.’ And part of ‘River’ exists inside of a Tom Kitt song called ‘Lost in New York City,’ and she liked that use of ‘River’ best. So that was a dream come true, where we could create a marriage between some of our new, original songs and pre-existing stuff. And Elton John was fantastic. We heard from him recently. He was on his tour, and I started explaining to him how we use ‘Tiny Dancer,’ and he interrupted me and said, ‘I know everything. My spies told me everything. I love it.’ So we felt good about that. I think we had some people rooting for us, and they let us use their music.”

Elton talks in his new memoir about how the use of “Tiny Dancer” in the 2000 film sparked a creative revival in which he wanted to start making albums with songs that had that same spirit again. It made a not so wildly popular album track into one of his most demanded songs, at the very least. But Crowe said not everyone thought it was the standout scene of the film during production, or even right afterward.

“People laughed at the time about having a scene in a movie where a hard-edged band would actually be singing along together. But I saw that so many times as a journalist, where the love of music would take over a situation and people would just break out into song. So it’s really odd and kind of great that that scene has lived on. Because it was just two sentences in the script, but when we got there and started filming it, it just felt so real. I mean, there’s one of the actors in the scene in the movie, if you ever see it again — Noah Taylor, who plays Dick, the road manager, hates the song “Tiny Dancer.” He’s a punk rocker! So you can see on his face that he’s the one that’s cringing. But everyone else is kind of lost in the moment. And bands themselves related to that.” Crowe turned to Kitt. “It exists slightly differently in the play. Did you consider that a challenge, how to do ‘Tiny Dancer’?”

“Yeah — it’s ‘Tiny Dancer’!” said Kitt. “It’s an iconic, brilliant, revered song, and everyone’s coming to ‘Almost Famous’ the musical for that moment, and how are you gonna pull that off?  … We really worked on it until the very last rehearsal.” Rather than have everyone sing along when an actual Elton recording comes on, as in the movie, here, there were a lot of additional emotional undercurrents built in, involving dramatic tensions among the fictional Stillwater band, even as it’s transformed into a sing-along that slowly generates itself against a piano, sans needle drop. “And then one of my favorite moments (during the musical number) is when William says to Penny, ‘I have to go home,’ and she says ‘You are home,’ as we change keys and land right into the Elton John sound of it. We’re doing so many things there, and if we’re doing them well, you come out of that moment with an emotional theatrical connection.”

Among original songs, they said their toughest nut to crack and greatest breakthrough was with the opening number. Originally it was going to be a plaintive ballad called “My Name is William,” until they switched it out for a rousing, full-cast, milieu-establishing stomper titled… “1973.”

“If I was trying to express myself as Bruce Springsteen at the top of the show, it was probably a little more ‘Nebraska,'” Kitt says, “and ‘My Name is William’ had a Simon and Garfunkel quality to it too, because those of you who’ve seen the movie know that there’s the great moment when ‘America’ starts playing as (William’s sister) Anita is leaving. So I knew I wanted that kind of choral quality. But ‘1973’ is much more ‘Rosalita’  – it’s Springsteen and the E Street Band. I wanted everyone to know exactly where they were and to feel energy and excitement at the top of the show. And the number can still go into some plaintive things and tell a story. It was a great collaboration with Cameron to really take lines from the screenplay and turn them into lyric, and have them weave in and out of dialogue, and start off telling the story of William’s family and dropping him at the moment where he gets to go to the San Diego Sports Arena and meet Stillwater. It was a great thing to have two versions of (the opening), and I think maybe we’ll get to record the other one for the cast album.”

Crowe said he was thrilled to have orchestration in the musical. “I’ve never used strings that much for score” as a filmmaker, he pointed out. “But I love strings when Brian Wilson does them, or Paul Buckmaster with the Elton John records. Tom brought it to this play in a way where now I love the strings mixed in with the rock. It’s a banquet plate of sounds.”

“I said something to Billie Joe Armstrong on ‘American Idiot’,” Kitt added. “I said I kind of see myself, if I’m doing my job right, as George Martin, who was one of my heroes. It was always the Beatles, but you can’t imagine ‘Yesterday’ without the string quartet. So if you’re working on something that exists (already as a song), how do you add a layer that tells a story in the theater and still feels like it is the true composition that the band made?”

“And then,” said Crowe, “we add Lester Bangs yelling about Iggy Pop.”