It’s been three years and twenty-six days since I sat in the Old Globe in San Diego watching the opening night of Almost Famous The Musical – based on the film that means everything to me. When I first watched it back in the year 2001 it was my life, I was William in more ways than I’ll ever share. Feeling a deep personal connection to the writing an obsession with the work immediately began. And now here I am, halfway across the world, witnessing that work transformed for the stage. Stillwater is now a real band in front of my eyes and filling my ears with rock. William, Penny, the Band Aids, every character you love, realised again for a new modern audience. The story of Cameron Crowe’s journey to greatness is shared nightly.
A fairly swift transfer to Broadway following this successful run was foretold. Then. As we all know. The biggest pause button and the sudden horrors of a new world dawned. As we lived those days early days of the Covid pandemic both collectively and individually, isolated from each other, the memory of that night on the West Coast and the opening at which I somehow ended up, lived strong and the hope of seeing that transfer become reality gave me a reason to keep going. Tonight that moment happens, Almost Famous The Musical opens on West 45th at the Bernard B. Jacobs theatre in New York.
When the announcement came, I knew I had to be there for the end of the previews and the start of the open run. The money I couldn’t spend going out during those dark lockdown days was put aside into a savings fund meaning I had enough to cover two weeks in New York, my way of turning a bad memory on its head and into a great one.
Having seen the first version of this show, I thought I might spend time writing about how it has changed in the three years since its San Diego run. The time afforded to the production has helped enrich the work done on stage by technical crafts, creatives and performers, but I want to instead focus on a more fascinating and unexpected aspect of this show that I discovered whilst waiting in queues for tickets and inside the auditorium amongst those I was sitting within the theatre, the audience who are heading out to watch Almost Famous The Musical.
I have some bias in writing about the show, though genuinely want to share it really is fantastic and filled with stories of love, growth and a little bit of rock’n’roll rebellion. However, the stories I discovered on my side of the theatrical equation are just as full of magic and excitement as the show we all watched and enjoyed together.
Who are the Tiny Dancers in the Almost Famous The Musical audience?
The audience attending Almost Famous The Musical is unlike anything I’ve experienced for a theatre show before. Usually, there’s an appeal to one, maybe two sections of the community of theatregoers. Here you will find the 80-year-old wearing an original 1970s Allman Brothers Band tee, using a walking aid, slowly making their way into the Jacobs theatre towards their seat who’ll end up sharing the row with the teenage fans swooning over company including the stunning talent of leads Casey Likes, Solea Pfeiffer and Chris Wood. Next to them is the movie fan, discovering the joys of theatre for the first time and further down the row a group of twenty-something friends who’ve never seen the film but are seeking a fun night out that now (post-pandemic) isn’t taken for granted. Every one of them will have their aims for the evening fulfilled, some – I know from my own meetings here – will have a life moment along the way.
It may seem like quite an incongruous group to form friendships, but I implore you to talk to the person next to you. Find out why they’re watching the show and what led them to be next to you in the rush queue or in the seat watching the show. Every night I’ve heard stories from those around me at this show that have fascinated and moved me. Truth, I’ve given my contact details to more people in the last week than I have in the previous ten years, such is the level that I’ve been touched. Even more remarkably some of them decided to keep in touch from that little contact card I handed over.
The fan who travels
Sarah from New Jersey, which I discover is around a ninety-minute drive away, meets me just after 9 am in the queue for rush tickets. I understand Sarah immediately, having myself travelled from out of town to see the show – New Jersey is closer than London but the dedication of fans to travel is something deep within us all regardless of whether it’s Almost Famous The Musical, a rock concert, the opera, a football match… We all have that urge to experience and connect. She’s parked a few blocks away and having already won the digital lottery for the matinee show is hoping to get another seat for the evening performance – the last two previews before the show opens. These will take her up to three views of the work. She also has some gifts to pass on to some of the cast as they open. I know within a few minutes of chatting that once I leave America in a few days, Sarah will be the person poised to see the show more times than me – which when my plane takes off to head back to London, will be eleven. True fans of the film are now shouting, “ELEVEN!!!,” at me in the voice of a young William Miller discovering his true age. When I talk to Sarah about why she liked the show, the response is mainly just a smile among the words I’m hearing. It’s all I need to know. I completely understand that Almost Famous can sometimes just be a feeling. Even more so with the show, you can simply describe it as a ‘vibe’ or a ‘good time’ before even diving into the story, the themes, the human emotion and truth and the love letter to music contained within. All reactions are equally valid. I see Sarah again at the show that evening and then a lovely surprise when she returns again two nights later.
The movie fans who cosplay
Monica and Ali join me in the front row – incidentally labelled as row BB, hence, I’m making it a thing that the row is therefore now known as the Jeff Bebe row – dressed as Penny (the coat a massive giveaway) and Sapphire, two of the Band Aids that aim to support and champion the music, groupies they are not. This is the first time I’ve seen fans in character during my stay and I’m full of joy at the sight. “I’ve already stalked Cameron Crowe who’s outside having his photo taken, [for Associated Press]“ I’m told. They’re not actually stalking. They’re both lovely, delightful and (like me) passionate fans of the movie. This is their first time seeing the show, I know what’s going on in their minds thinking back to my time in San Diego, so keep the discussion spoiler free bar one piece of advice, “only watch Russell during Tiny Dancer, what Chris Wood does in three minutes without words is a revelation.” We discuss the movie pre-show and then during the intermission of the first half and how perfect it is. ‘Goodies’ I’ve caught being thrown into the audience – for example, peel and stick backstage passes – I make sure they get. Later on Instagram I see a photo of the joy the show and that circular sticker brought and how great a night they’ve had.
It’s Sunday and with my feet full of the pain from huge bursting blisters caused by pounding the blocks of Manhattan day and night for a week, I’m standing, waiting for the majestic oasis that is the Drama Book Shop to open. I just want to take some time out, grab a coffee and cake and maybe have a conversation or two with people about theatre, film, or the arts in general. I love this space.
A spritely lady, I’d guess in her 70s, breezes by, pauses, looks back and sees my Almost Famous The Musical cap and hoodie. I’m a walking billboard. She’s seen the show and is the first of all I’ve spoken with to not be totally enraptured by it, “That’s totally fine,” I say asking what she didn’t like. “Nothing in particular,” she continues, “it just wasn’t a show with music that was for me. But I didn’t feel at all cheated of the cost of the ticket, it was a very pleasant night at the theatre. The two young leads are incredible and that cast has an energy that I haven’t seen since Hair.” Wow. Actually, she’s paying the show one of the biggest compliments I’ve heard to date and one when she wasn’t blown away by it as a whole. Her point is one that’s crossed my mind based on my knowledge of what Hair was and did on broadway, but this was from someone who was there and lived that time. I share my thoughts on the show and she can see my points, it’s the kind of conversation I like the most, differing points of view yet a need for understanding each other’s angles.
A career veteran
I offer the step I’m sitting on outside the Jacobs theatre to a dignified lady in her 80s. We’re in the entry queue at around 7:10 pm and she seems closed off from talking, but I do ask why she’s interested in seeing Almost Famous. She lights up and I’m regaled with the story of her career, one where she accidentally ended up working in New York theatre in her youth and, again almost by accident, was one of the pioneers of the role we now call a ‘bookings agent’ someone who helps find the – often high profile – talent for productions and negotiates deals between producers and performers. She says she brought Baryshnikov to the American ballet in the 70s, something everyone thought her mad to be a part of, “no one wanted to touch the Russian,” she says of the master dancer and choreographer. I’m told other stories I simply cannot repeat. I have no idea if these are true, but I’m choosing to believe. Why then is she in this queue? Whilst no longer working in the profession, she’s heard wonderful things about the young talent on stage in this show and wants to see for herself. I fully understand that position, some people are lucky enough to have their profession be their passion and that’s definitely true of the lady I’m speaking with. Theatre and performance is her life, you can never let that go, you want to know and understand what’s going on today just as much as you want to hold onto the memories of the past.
The kindness repaid
Lisa sits next to me in the fourth row of the orchestra. She enjoyed the film but the real reason for her visiting 1973 with the rest of us on this Thursday night is a story that makes my eyes pop, not for it being salacious, but it being one of kindness being repaid. In the 70s Lisa was an aspiring writer, studying at college and wanting more feedback on her work. A reader of Rolling Stone and fan of Cameron Crowe’s writing, she wrote him a letter and included copies of her work. Instantly I think back to the start of William Miller’s journey in the film/musical and how he did this exact same thing with Lester Bangs, just in person. “At the bottom of the letter I wrote, ‘if you ever want to talk to me about my writing, this is my number….’” Lisa continued as I clocked exactly where this story is headed. “A few weeks later it’s a Sunday afternoon in my dorm with my girlfriends, the phone rings, I pick it up and on the other end I hear, ‘Hi, this is Cameron Crowe, want to talk about your writing?’” This is what Lester Bangs taught William (or Cameron himself, as this is a true story) being a good creative is; your work and mentoring others. For the first time, I’m hearing a story of Cameron paying forward the kindness Lester Bangs afforded him. Tonight she’s in the audience of Almost Famous The Musical with some of the girlfriends who were with her in the dorm the day that phone call happened.
Lisa continues that knowing its previews, Cameron will likely be there as the adaptation’s book writer. Reaching into her bag I’m shown a small letter she’d written for him. If the chance arose she planned to try and give it to him. Having been there several nights I know her hunch is correct and have seen the man himself meet people and know he’ll be found. I break, “Lisa, not if the chance arises, during intermission go and have a quick look around, you’ll probably find the person behind the voice on that phone. Give him the letter. You must give him the letter. No ‘ifs’.” Moments after the first act ends with Tiny Dancer, she gets the letter and goes in search. Returning ten minutes later, she grabs my hand, tears partially flowing from her eyes, “I’ve just had the best ever conversation with him.” Lisa didn’t go on to become a writer following her studies but never forgot the kindness afforded to her. Buying a ticket a way to pay it back, the bonus was a wonderful show and the preview cherry on top of this story was getting to pass that thanks back to Cameron face to face, nearly fifty years after they spoke on the phone. Quite a real moment as a fan of the story for me to have seen.
The wonder kid
Waiting outside to enter the theatre for a Saturday Night on Broadway I meet a mom and her fourteen-year-old son. The night before she’d shown him the film for the first time, I asked what he thought. He really enjoyed it but had some questions about the plot and characters. I think of myself as being extremely knowledgeable about the film so I ask what he wants to clear up. His questions are not what I expected. All thoughtful and insightful, with a level of depth well beyond his years. I look at his mom and say that he’s wonderfully bright, I look back down and ask if his name is actually Cameron Crowe. Whilst his mom laughs, I then do have to explain who that is and that the film’s story is true. He seemed truly stunned by that, at which point I realise that at fourteen he’s only a year away from potentially going on the road with Stillwater himself. Quite a revelation for me. Knowing about items thrown into the audience from the stage during the show, I ask him and his mom to meet me at my seat near the front, I’d hopefully have something special to give him and then make sure he went to find and meet Cameron so he could ask his best question – one I could only give a personal interpretation too – and hear from the only person who could give the definitive answer. I sense this young man could be a phenomenal writer given his insights and want to inspire that if possible.
It was really saddening to not find them afterwards. I do find Cameron Crowe outside the auditorium and share the story of this meeting so I can ask on this young man’s behalf. Then I delivered the question, “In the story, the Band Aids aim to live by this high moral standard of just being about supporting the music. But then they indulge in all the behaviours they say they won’t. Why is that?”
Cameron, in the foyer of the Bernard B. Jacobs, responds by walking to the one remaining door open, looks around and asks, “Where are you kid? I want to meet you!!!” My interpretation in answering this young marvel’s question is to explain that whilst they have this high standard, those they’re travelling with have impulses and urges on the road and drag the Band Aids down to their needs. The actual answer, in true Cameron Crowe poetry, is much more succinct and beautiful, “It’s because love knows no boundaries.”
These stories are just a small fraction of the many wonderful discussions I’ve had in two weeks spent largely at the Jacobs whilst enjoying Almost Famous The Musical. It’s a location that to me feels safe and welcoming, one that’s full of love for anyone willing to step through the doors and will allow you to find whatever you want to be within the story told by this incredible cast and crew. It really is a space where, as one song in the show tells us, everybody can come together.
My big takeaway from two weeks of watching this and other shows? Take a moment and discover more about your fellow patrons. You might find a great friend in a very unexpected person who shares with you just because you’ve taken a moment to smile and say hello. We are all out of focus guys and girls until you decide you want to adjust the lens and see the world with some more clarity. It’s clear there really is something in the air at the Jacobs and seemingly it’s pure magic both on and offstage.