Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California opened the world premiere of Todd Almond's Girlfriend — a musical that borrows songs of the '90s pop album by singer-songwriter Matthew Sweet — April 14 after previews from April 9.
Playwright Almond (who is also a composer-lyricist, but not this time) fell in love with the songs on the "Girlfriend" CD a long time ago, and his new take on the material gives it a twist that you don't expect from the title — it's about a gay relationship.
Ryder Bach and Jason Hite, along with a live band, are featured in director Les Waters' production. Playbill.com asked Almond a handful of questions about the coming-of-age musical, which plays to May 9 on the Rep's Thrust Stage.
Playbill.com: Had you been a fan of the "Girlfriend" album for a long time?
Todd Almond: Yes. I have a snap-shot memory of plucking the CD from the "featured artists" wall of the record store at the mall in 1991. I listened to "Girlfriend" over and over on my Discman and when I drove my parents' car around rural Nebraska. I was the typical teenager in that regard — I listened to music in a deeply personal way. We think they're singing directly to us, don't we? We look for something when we listen to music at that age — I'm not exactly sure what it is; a friend, maybe? — but that act of looking while listening makes the music register on a deep level and is perhaps why it remains the most important music to us throughout our lives. I still listen to "Girlfriend" for pleasure. Playbill.com: Were any new songs written for the show?
TA: No new songs. We do, however, use songs from three Matthew Sweet albums, not just "Girlfriend." One song is from "Altered Beast" and two songs are from "100% Fun."
Playbill.com Did you see the songs as theatrical?
TA: It all got mixed up in my brain. The two CDs I remember listening to on my Discman as I walked around the baseball fields or near the downtown train tracks of my home town are "Girlfriend" and A Little Night Music. That's so funny! Doesn't that kind of sum it up? I didn't think of Matthew Sweet's songs as being theatrical until years later when I started writing music and plays. I had images of Nebraska and of awkward first love that were, to me, dramatic in their intimacy. And these images, which of course were little memory cells of my own life, were always accompanied by Matthew Sweet's album, I suppose because it's what I listened to. Those sounds were linked to those images — so it was more of a sense-memory that inspired this musical.
Playbill.com: What made the album ripe for theatricalization?
TA: It's great music. That's what I'm interested in. I am a devoted theatre person and the little corner of theatre that I like exploring is the musical corner. I am obsessed with how the two, drama and music, interact. I love great music and I love great theatre, and of course those are subjective terms and so there is never an answer to be found. But what I think makes this album "ripe for theatricalization" is that it's great. It's great music. The question then became, "In what way is this theatrical?" The songs aren't stories, like in a Sondheim musical. The songs aren't scenes or chunks of a plot. They are pop songs, and I'm interested in seeing characters interact with pop songs that resonate for them on that deep level that only music can reach. There's a love I have for these songs; they carry deep, personal memories and images, memories and images that I think most if not all people have, those of awkward youth and first heartbreak and the moment in your life when you had to say out loud, "This is what I'm going to do with the rest of my life. This is who I am." That's what we're trying to do — create that feeling.
I gather the album is about heterosexual love. Can you share some thoughts about changing the "characters?"
TA: This is my favorite aspect of the show. The boys are just coming to terms with their sexuality. They live in a place (the rural Midwest) and time (pre-Internet but post Tom-Hanks-in-"Philadelphia") where they truly feel alone in their gayness. So each boy perfects his poker-face. The character Mike, in particular, is expert at hiding his true thoughts and feelings. And the exciting part of the play is that these two boys think they may have found someone else who feels the way they do. But they can't say that or ask that or do some reconnaissance on Facebook. They must speak in code. They do this through the music they love. Both boys listen to music in their rooms and pine, because didn't we all? And they can make mix-tapes for each other that include songs that say things like, "Could you be my little movie star? Could you be my long-lost girl?," and by doing this they can hope that the other boy hears that lyric the way they want them to hear it, but because it's so coded and third-party, any romantic overture can be safely denied.
These boys have to approach each other and the unaskable question slowly and with great skill because speaking the truth could end in actual physical violence. So nothing in the songs is changed, the boys say, "I'd sure love to call you my girlfriend," and it speaks to both their inability to face their own feelings and their inability to ask the question they truly want to ask. Plus they just love the song, so it's a personal treasure over which they can bond! Three gifts in one song! Thank you, Mr. Sweet.
But it's more than just gay or straight. The situation at the heart of Girlfriend is that tender and horrible (and, in hindsight, funny) agony of love's first emergence. Everyone can relate. After the first few run-throughs that we presented for staff and friends of Berkeley Rep, people (old, young, male, female, gay, straight) immediately started talking about their personal version of this story. And they laughed in that sad way and said, "Except I was listening to The Beatles," or "Except I was listening to classical music."
Girlfriend happens to be two boys and their specific story, but it's a story that I think everyone will recognize from their own past.
Sweet has been acclaimed for his pop-rock work that was influenced by such diverse artists as the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Byrds, as well as Neil Young and Big Star. His albums include "100% Fun" (1995), "Altered Beast" (1993), "Blue Sky on Mars" (1997), "Earth" (1989), "Girlfriend" (1991), "In Reverse" (1999), "Inside" (1986), "Kimi Ga Suki" (2004), "Living Things" (2004) and "Son of Altered Beast" (1994). His most recent solo album is "Sunshine Lies" (2008).
Almond is a composer, lyricist, and playwright whose musicals include Ahraihsak with director Rubén Polendo, Kansas City Choir Boy with director Sam Gold, and the award-winning People Like Us with director Gus Kaikkonen. His upcoming shows include On the Levee, coming to LCT3 this summer with playwright Marcus Gardley and director Lear deBessonet, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle with playwright Adam Bock. Almond is currently collaborating with Warren Leight and Stafford Arima on a musical adaptation of John Knowles' novel A Separate Peace.
Ryder Bach (Will) has been seen locally in Harold and Maude: The Musical at TheatreWorks, The Sound of Music at American Musical Theatre of San Jose and the TheatreWorks workshop of Girlfriend. In Los Angeles, where he plays regularly with a band called the Body Parts, he performed in Center Theatre Group's production of The History Boys and Baby It's You at the Coast Playhouse. Jason Hite (Mike) recently played Mark Cohen in Rent for Golden State Theatre Productions. He has also worked with Center Repertory Company, Contra Costa Musical Theatre, and EXIT Stage Left. He trained at the Young REP Theatre Workshop in Walnut Creek and is a proud member of the Fantasy Forum Actors Ensemble.
The on-stage band features local musicians Shelley Doty (lead guitarist), ieela Grant (drummer), Jean DuSablon (bassist) and Julie Wolf (music director, rhythm guitarist and keyboard player).
The creative team includes David Zinn (scenic and costume designer), Japhy Weideman (lighting designer) and Jake Rodriguez (sound designer). The stage manager for this show is Michael Suenkel, Berkeley Rep's resident production stage manager.
Berkeley Rep's Thrust Stage is located at 2025 Addison Street in Berkeley, CA. For tickets or information, call (510) 647-2949 or toll-free at (888) 4-BRT-TIX or visit berkeleyrep.org.