Cameron Crowe calls Old Globe’s world-premiere stage adaptation of ‘Almost Famous’ an ode to music — and San Diego
Bring it on home, as Led Zeppelin sang in the band’s 1970s heyday — and now that’s just what Cameron Crowe is about to do with “Almost Famous.”
Crowe actually got to know Zeppelin in those times of yore, back when the San Diego-bred writer-director was a startlingly precocious rock journalist; there’s a great photo of a teen-age Crowe having a laugh with guitarist Jimmy Page out on tour somewhere.
That momentous chapter in Crowe’s young life eventually helped inspire “Almost Famous,” the 2000 movie for which he won a screenwriting Oscar.
Now, the saga comes full circle to the very same home turf where it all began, as the Old Globe Theatre prepares to stage the world premiere this fall of the movie’s musical-stage adaptation.
“It’s so wild: So much of it was born in that mile or two radius around the Old Globe,” says Crowe, talking about the just-announced project by phone from his L.A. home.
As a kid, Crowe lived with his family in the basement of an apartment building at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Elm Street, directly across the street from the southwest end of Balboa Park, and maybe a 15-minute stroll from the Globe, where his mom used to take (read: drag) him to see Shakespeare plays.
“And then I first met Lester” — that’s the late Lester Bangs, the celebrated rock critic and Crowe’s early mentor — “at KPRI, which was at Seventh and Ash,” a five-block walk from the Crowe home. “You could just come and watch (the DJs) through the window.” (The moment was re-created for the movie.)
“So this will be the third time the story kind of comes back home. The first is when it happened, the next is when we went back to film it. And now we bring the play back to the same neighborhood.”
One part of the “Almost Famous” creation myth does take things slightly farther afield: About 6 miles down to the hill to the old San Diego Sports Arena, now known as Pechanga Arena San Diego.
That was where Crowe, just 14 at the time and writing for the now long-defunct San Diego Door, managed to talk his way backstage one night and interview members of Black Sabbath, Yes and Wild Turkey.
The moment is immortalized in an altered form in “Almost Famous,” as the young writer William first gloms onto the (fictional) band Stillwater, with whom he winds up traveling around the country. (Billy Crudup plays the band’s guitarist in the movie, Patrick Fugit is William, and Kate Hudson is Penny Lane, the super-groupie who prefers to be called a “Band-Aid.” No casting has been announced for the Globe production.)
“My theory is it was all born on the backstage ramp at the San Diego Sports Arena,” Crowe says now. “If I had not gotten in for that first interview, we probably wouldn’t be talking now. Or we’d be talking about something else.
“It’s all so San Diego to me, the whole experience. So when the play started to become a reality, and the conversation came up — like, ‘Where would you want to put up the play and learn from it? There’s this place, there’s this place, there’s the Old Globe’ — I’m like, ‘The Old Globe!’”
Crowe admits his attitude about the place wasn’t quite the same around age 12, when, as he recalls it, his mom, Alice, would say: “Well, we have to go see ‘Henry VIII,’” or “We have to go see ‘Hamlet.’”
“And I’d be like: ‘We really don’t!'"
Still, he recalls, Alice insisted: “One day you’re going to brag that you used to go to the Old Globe and see Shakespeare.”
And sure enough, “Now, working on the play, I’m like: ‘Yeah, I spent a lot of time watching Shakespeare at the Old Globe when I was a kid!’”
“And people are like, ‘Wow, that’s so cool.’ But at the time, (Alice) had to be kind of like Frances McDormand (who played William’s mom in the movie), and say, ‘This is good for you — like asparagus.’”
There was at least one aspect of theater that Crowe didn’t have to be force-fed back then, though: The work of Stephen Sondheim, and one musical number in particular that now strikes him as a lodestone for much of his later work.
“Right about that time, my mom and dad played me this song called ‘Barcelona,’ from “Company’ by Stephen Sondheim,” Crowe recalls. “They deconstructed it. And it was so amazing.
“My mom was saying, ‘She’s a flight attendant, and he’s afraid of commitment, and they’re doing a dance about commitment and intimacy, and it’s all wrapped up in this song called ‘Barcelona,’ where she’s going to fly.’
“And sometimes I look back and I think, half of what I’ve written has roots in ‘Barcelona,’ you know? Because it has all the tenderness and the tentative stuff, and it’s romantic, and it’s a melody that you love.
“It’s kind of like that was embedded early.”
It’s also one reason Crowe clicked right away with Tom Kitt, the top Broadway composer (of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Next to Normal,” “High Fidelity” and others) who’s writing original music for “Almost Famous.”
“When we started working on the play, Tom Kitt wrote a song called ‘Morocco’ — not knowing I had a thing with ‘Barcelona.’ (Penny Lane’s dreams of moving to Morocco are a key thread in the movie.)
“And I said, that is to me an homage to ‘Barcelona.’ And that’s everything. That’s when I felt like, OK, we’re on the right track.”
Crowe felt a similar kinship with the British director Jeremy Herrin after seeing his work on the play “People, Places and Things,” which made Crowe think, “This is SO our guy.” (Lia Vollack of Columbia Live Stage played a prime role in all the matchmaking, Crowe says.)
As for the overall makeup of the “Almost Famous” stage score: Both Crowe and Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein affirm that Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” which is at the center of the movie’s most famous scene, will also be in the musical.
But how much of the score will be classic rock tunes, and how much of it new material?
“You know what, I’m going to keep that slightly mysterious for you right now,” the disarmingly genial Crowe says with a laugh. “But it’s our favorite thing in the world — what that musical stew will be.
“And to be with some serious music geeks, putting this play together, is very satisfying.”
OK, but how about the songs Crowe helped write for Stillwater to perform in the movie?
Another playful laugh: “Well, you never know, Jim! The Stillwater stuff is ours, and the great Nancy Wilson (the Heart guitarist-songwriter and Crowe’s ex-wife) was on that, and Peter Frampton.
“So Stillwater will be amply represented.”
“Almost Famous” is, of course, not the first San Diego-connected story Crowe has put up on the big screen. His Hollywood debut came with “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” which Crowe adapted from his own book about going undercover as a student at Clairemont High School. (The movie paved the way for such later Crowe hits as “Say Anything ...” and “Jerry Maguire.”)
But this is his first venture into theater, and Crowe says he’s doing the musical because it feels completely in spirit with the life-embracing vibe of the movie.
“There was no reason to really revisit the story except if it was a continuation of the same kind of love letter to music and San Diego and community and all that stuff,” he says. “The breakthrough was making sure it was as personal as the movie. Because it’s a personal story.
“My thing is for it to be loving and pure and fun and musical, and true to that story — of falling in love with music at that age, and what happens to you when your life changes in that way. When you see your place in the world.
“If you’re close to that, I think you’re going to speak to the people who love the movie, of whom I’m one. Humbly, it was not a huge hit in the theaters, ever. It was always a movie that was kind of held closely by the people who loved it. So I just wanted to be true to them, and true to San Diego.”
Not to mention true to his mom, who served as a major inspiration for the movie and still lives in Mission Valley.
“My mom can’t wait,” Crowe says. “She’s super-psyched.”
And true to the just-say-yes ethos of a guy who willed his way into the life of his dreams as a budding young writer.
In that spirit, Crowe has some big ideas for the Globe show.
“If we get cooking, down the line, (there’s) part of the extended community of the movie I really want to kind of fold into the play a little bit,” he says. “So that, maybe on a given night, Crudup can come in and play Lester Bangs. Or (Jimmy) Fallon can drop in if he’s around and play Dennis Hope,” the music manager Fallon played in the movie.
“Or Kate Hudson comes in and plays the mom one night. How great would that be?”
Well, very great. Also: a little pie-in-the-sky?
“It’s pie in the sky,” Crowe concurs. “But I’m in the kitchen, trying to make pies. So anything could happen!”
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