SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 27: Solea Pfeiffer, Casey Likes, Colin Donnell and cast during the curtain call on opening night of the new musical “Almost Famous” at The Old Globe Theatre on September 27, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by
Almost Famous, the 2000 film that went onto win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, is the movie writer/director Cameron Crowe was born to make. A love letter to music; to his childhood in San Diego and to the incredible cast of characters, like famed rock writer Lester Bangs, his mom and Penny Lane, that shaped his story as a teenage writer for Rolling Stone, it is a once in a lifetime story.
It has become his signature work. As he told me last week when we spoke for an upcoming story on the making of Almost Famous The Musical, though Jerry Maguire was a much bigger commercial success, people come up to him and want to talk almost exclusively about Almost Famous. Nineteen years after its release it found its audience and is now a beloved film.
So given the sacred place the film holds both in Crowe’s life and in that of his audience, revisiting it 19 years later as a musical is an incredibly risky endeavor. In an analogy Crowe would appreciate, if Led Zeppelin did a dance remix of “Stairway To Heaven” two decades later it had better be damn good.
Thankfully Almost Famous The Musical, fittingly now enjoying its world premiere run at the Old Globe in San Diego, a mile from where Crowe grew up he told me, isn’t just damn good, it is, in its own way, every bit as magical, special and touching as the film.
That is saying a lot, I know. But there are several reasons the updated version works so beautifully. For starters, Crowe and his collaborators — Tom Kitt, who did the incredible music, and director Jeremy Herrin — were smart enough to not to try to just recreate the original.
The framework and all of the classic lines that earned the film both the Oscar and the honor of being quoted regularly for two decades are all there. But they are augmented with the music, in a way that lovingly and perfectly fits the film. For example, the classic line in the movie with William Miller’s mother says to her classroom, “Rock stars have kidnapped my son,” is turned into a hilarious song by the skilled Kitt.
Also, this new version is a lot funnier. As Herrin told me last week, he brings the theater experience. And playing to a live audience you want to hear their laughter. A great example, without giving too much away, in the film in the famous plane scene where every member of Stillwater confess their sins as they think the plane is about the crash, one member screams at the end, “I’m gay.” For starters, today yelling that like it’s a secret would seem in poor taste and just not a big deal. So the line has been updated. But I did not expect the drummer to yell, “I joined a new band. They’re called Van Halen.” Brilliant.
One of the riskiest things about reworking the film into a play is the original cast was genius. Frances McDormand as the mom and Kate Hudson as Penny Lane both earned Oscar nominations. And the rest of the cast — Patrick Fugit as William Miller, Billy Crudup as Russell Hammond, Jason Lee as Jeff Bebe and of course the last great Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs — all brought signature styles to their roles.
So finding another cast that special seems like winning the lottery back to back days. Amazingly, this cast is really damn good. From top to bottom the cast is strong, but Casey Likes as William and Rob Coletti as Lester Bangs are particularly strong. And Solea Pfeiffer as Penny Lane is an unquestioned star. This musical should do for her what the movie did for Hudson.
The show incorporates both a lot of original numbers from the gifted Kitt as well as classic songs that are a part of Crowe’s personal soundtrack. Again I don’t want to give too much away, but there is a scene where Likes and Pfeiffer do Joni Mitchell’s “River” and it is achingly beautiful.
Nineteen years later that is again the magic of Almost Famous. It seems like such a specialized story. And yes if rock stars ever kidnapped your kid, if you ever had to save someone from an overdose of Quaaludes, if you ever flew over Tupelo, Mississippi with America’s hottest rock band and were about to die, this is the story for you.
But the best songwriting, like Mitchell’s entire Blue album, tell a universal story and speak to the entire range of human emotions. That’s what Almost Famous The Musical does just as the movie did. If you’ve ever looked for your place and people in the world; if you’ve ever struggled to find common ground with your parent or child; if you’ve ever been in love with someone who didn’t love you back, and, most of all, if you’ve ever been uncool, you will find yourself in Almost Famous The Musical. And it will make you laugh, it will make you cry, and for one night, ti will make you feel there is someone out there who’s just like you.