Being a passionate rock fan in the 1970s was a vocation requiring time and devotion. Go ahead, roll your eyes and groan “OK boomer,” but there was no internet to call up performance clips, no music streaming services, no dedicated music video channels. There were listening stations in record stores, where crowds converged the day an anticipated new album was released; there was the radio, transmitting a jolt of excitement whenever a favorite song came on; and if you were lucky, there were concert tour stops in or near your hometown.
Friends’ record collections were gifts to be shared, like mini lending libraries. Weekly showcases for chart hits like American Bandstand or Soul Train in the U.S., Top of the Pops in the U.K. or Countdown in Australia were appointment television for teenage music fanatics.
Fandom without today’s fingertip access was a more diligent pursuit, often a frustrating waiting game punctuated by sparks of joy that made you feel part of a sacred sect. That made great music journalists into revered founts of knowledge.
Cameron Crowe’s 2000 movie Almost Famous — the best and most personal of his films — captured those heady times through a semi-autobiographical recollection of his own wide-eyed experience as a teenage writer. In his Oscar-winning original screenplay, the director’s 15-year-old stand-in, William Miller, landed a feature assignment for Rolling Stone, profiling fictitious rock band Stillwater. The movie is a tender coming-of-age drama colored by disillusionment, moral education and heartbreak, buoyed by the shimmering sweetness of memory and the elevating power of music.
Did it need to become a stage musical? Debatable. But one thing the effusive show gets right, like the movie that spawned it, is the infectious energy of rock ‘n’ roll at a transitional moment — 1973 — when the raw, rebellious spirit of great rock was making way for the slicker, more commercialized sound of mass-consumption superstardom. For many epochal bands and solo artists, that year was an artistic peak they would never again match. That gives Crowe’s quasi-memoir, in both incarnations, a bittersweet undertow of simultaneous discovery and loss.
The other big plus the musical has going for it is its casting. In the movie the key roles of William and Penny Lane — the ethereal goddess who floats between a tour bus and an endless series of hotels and concert venues as if carried aloft by the music — were early career highs for Patrick Fugit and Kate Hudson, respectively.
As the eyes through which we see the entire story, William is all-important and newcomer Casey Likes makes a hugely appealing guide. He balances the cockiness required to get a foot in the stadium door with the humility of an inexperienced kid who can barely believe he’s living his dream. At least until it sours. He’s also a strong singer, with a surprisingly big, versatile voice adaptable to a range of styles.
Playing Penny, the “retired” groupie surrounded by a constellation of “Band-Aids” (Julia Cassandra, Katie Ladner, Jana Djenne Jackson) traveling with Stillwater, Solea Pfeiffer makes an incandescent Broadway debut, rocking costumer David Zinn’s fabulous take on Penny’s signature shearling coat, not to mention a killer pair of crocheted hotpants. Beyond the look, she creates a character true to the movie mold but with a tad more agency, vulnerable to romantic pain yet nobody’s undignified plaything, even if she walks knowingly into an ocean of hurt.
Pfeiffer gets two of composer-lyricist Tom Kitt’s best new songs for the show, the yearning contemplation of a future fresh start, “Morocco,” and the duet “The Night-Time Sky’s Got Nothing on You,” in which Penny and married Stillwater lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Chris Wood) exchange lists of the qualities that fuel their mutual intoxication. But Pfeiffer’s dreamy interpretation of Cat Stevens’ “The Wind” is so lovely, it’s one of a handful of moments that made me almost wish the show was a jukebox musical.
Kitt’s “1973” is a well-crafted opening number that sets up William’s frustration as an outsider suffocated by his over-protective widowed mother Elaine (Anika Larsen) and bereft that his cool older sister Anita (Emily Schultheis) is making a break for her freedom.
More often, though, the new songs are evanescent. When you pepper workmanlike Broadway tunes with samples of Led Zeppelin, T. Rex, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers Band, Joni Mitchell and others, maybe that’s bound to leave you wanting more of the real thing. But Kitt, who was a key creative on American Idiot and Jagged Little Pill, is a deft weaver of rock nuggets into musical narratives, and thanks to his artfully blended arrangements and orchestrations — as well as the ensemble’s gorgeous harmonies — it all sounds seamless enough.
The jarring disappointment for me was one of the movie’s seminal moments — Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” a poignant spontaneous singalong to break a moment of tension on the Stillwater tour bus. Positioned as the Act I closer, it starts beautifully when the guys are singing, but then the Band-Aids come in and slather it with intrusive melisma. That show-offy vocalizing style has been inescapable since the ‘80s, but it feels untrue to the period here and took me out of the musical’s painstakingly evoked milieu. Please, just sing the song, ladies, drop the embellishments; it’s not American Idol.
One of Crowe’s strengths as a writer is his ability to shape complex characters that become the story rather than just traveling through it. That applies not just to William and Penny and soulful heartbreaker Russell (A+ hair and mustache), but also to Elaine, whose “Don’t do drugs” uptightness is played for humor, though not at the expense of her love for her son.
While Larsen sticks to the contours of Frances McDormand in the movie, she brings her own depth to the role in two terrific character-defining songs. The melancholy but amusing “Elaine’s Lecture,” punctuated by the refrain “Rock stars have kidnapped my son,” is a touching acknowledgement of how her initial ambivalence about becoming a parent turned to gnawing concern for her children in a world with the wrong priorities. And “Listen to Me” is a clever musicalization of the phone call in which the intimidating Elaine laws down the law for Russell.
The Stillwater dynamics are well drawn, particularly the festering resentment of preening, insecure lead singer Jeff Bebe (Drew Gehling, cartoonish but funny), who’s uncomfortably aware that the more naturally charismatic Russell is considered the band’s real star. The steady deterioration of their relationship and tensions over the demands of their rising fame in the wake of the hit song “Fever Dog” (a spot-on pastiche co-written for the movie by Crowe and his then-wife Nancy Wilson) give William the meat for his Rolling Stone feature. That of course causes conflict, though it’s his unrequited love for Penny and her mistreatment by Russell that feeds William’s growing unease.
The deep affection of the show for its era is contagious, which helps paper over some of its weaknesses. But Crowe undermines the authenticity of his nostalgia with a few winking nods to the future.
Explaining why he hasn’t called, William tells his mother, “It’s not like you can just carry a phone around with you.” And Stillwater’s efficient new manager (Jakeim Hart), assigned by the record label to oust the band’s old friend (Gerard Canonico), underlines the transience of their moment by warning that fans will one day find a way to get their music for free “from a spaceship in the sky,” also pointing out the unlikelihood of Mick Jagger still trying to be a rock star at age 50. The show is a sincere love letter to the ‘70s; why add pandering jokes to make contemporary audiences feel above it?
One shrewd choice Crowe does make is expanding the role of William’s mentor, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (Rob Colletti), making him a one-man Greek chorus who reappears periodically to counsel his young protégé and lament the mud and guts being drained from rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a given that William will break the first cardinal rule Lester drills into him: “Don’t make friends with the rock stars.” Just as Penny ignores her own credo: “No attachments, no boundaries.”
British director Jeremy Herrin — chosen by Crowe based on his staging of the hyper-kinetic, experiential addiction drama, People, Places & Things — keeps things moving fluidly in a story that covers a lot of ground while always maintaining its primary focus on the intimate relationships. Derek McLane’s sets are framed by backstage scaffolding, with scene changes that resemble roadies loading in equipment for each new gig; his video elements include a rear-wall map of the U.S., regularly popping up to show the Stillwater tour’s progress, from San Diego to New York.
The musical is unlikely to supplant anyone’s love for the film. But in the glut of cynical screen-to-stage adaptations that have become an epidemic on Broadway in the past 20 years, at the very least it’s one from the heart. For anyone who spent their youth obsessing over great music and believing rock stars were, well, rock stars, Almost Famous will carry a dulcet pang of recognition. Pass the Quaaludes.
Venue: Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York
Cast: Casey Likes, Solea Pfeiffer, Chris Wood, Anika Larsen, Drew Gehling, Rob Colletti, Emily Schultheis, Daniel Sovich, Van Hughes, Julia Cassandra, Katie Ladner, Jana Djenne Jackson, Matt Bittner, Brandon Contreras, Gerard Canonico, Matthew C. Yee, Chad Burris, Jakeim Hart, Libby Winters
Book and lyrics: Cameron Crowe
Music and lyrics: Tom Kitt
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Set and video designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Peter Hylenski
Vocal designer: Annmarie Milazzo
Orchestrations and arrangements: Tom Kitt
Music supervision and direction: Bryan Perri
Choreographer: Sarah O’Gleby
Executive producers: Sue Wagner, John Johnson, Jillian Robbins, Devin Keudell
Presented by Lia Vollack, Michael Cassel, Joey Parnes