Devo, musical theater and skateboarding: The story behind La Jolla Playhouse’s Tony Hawk-connected project ‘Slam’


What do the leader of Devo, the guy who wrote the “SpongeBob SquarePants” musical, the man behind the novel “High Fidelity” and the North San Diego County athlete who practically personifies action sports have in common?

You might be surprised. (I know I was.)

The short answer to the question is: Skateboarding. The (slightly) longer answer is the skateboarding-centric stage musical project “Slam,” which had its first-ever public readings at La Jolla Playhouse over the weekend.

But there are even more connections, as the show and subsequent chats with some of the creative team reveal. Including, weirdly enough, one band’s introduction to the value of skateboard protective gear.

Mark Mothersbaugh, the co-founder, keyboardist and longtime frontman for New Wave heroes Devo (forever to be identified with the hit song “Whip It”), is penning the music and lyrics for this project-in-development with writer Kyle Jarrow, the Tony Award-nominated “SpongeBob” adapter whose credits also include “Whisper House” at the Old Globe.

“Slam” is based on the British writer Nick Hornby’s novel of the same name for young adults. And figuring prominently in that book is Tony Hawk, the locally bred, internationally famous skate pro.

Tony Hawk is collaborating on the skateboard musical ‘Slam,’ which had a workshop presentation at La Jolla Playhouse recently, followed by a skate demo from Hawk and others. The musical is by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo and the Broadway writer Kyle Jarrow; it’s based on a book by Nick Hornby. (Video by James Hebert / Union-Tribune)

All of those parties save Hornby were at the Playhouse this past Saturday for a staged reading of the musical’s first act, followed by a skate demo from Hawk and Co. on ramps and rails installed in one of the theater’s rehearsal halls.

Because “Slam” is so early in development, and was performed as a bare-bones reading — with recorded music, and actors reading from scripts behind music stands — it was not open to review.

What I can say about it is that (as with Hornby’s book) its story centers on Sam Jones, a teenager from a broken home who turns to skateboarding as a lifeline, and to Hawk as a hero.

Segments of the show, directed by Sean Graney, are set in an abandoned factory, which Joe and his friends have turned into a makeshift skate park. Since the idea is for those scenes to feature real skateboarding, Hawk is overseeing and choreographing that part of the show.

He also is heard in voiceover, as Sam — who seeks regular counsel from Hawk via a poster of the skate pro he keeps on his bedroom wall — is answered with excerpts from Hawk’s own autobiography. (Hawk aficionados also will appreciate the inclusion of the line, “Do a kickflip!”)

It turns out that, as Mothersbaugh told the Playhouse audience before the show’s DNA New Work Series presentation, he and Hawk have been friends for a while, and even have attended Broadway musicals together. That inspired them to consider new possibilities for theater spaces.

“I’d say, ‘Could you skate in this room?’” Mothersbaugh recalled. “And he’d start looking around at different theaters — he’d say, ‘If we came in from the balcony.’

“We had all these different ideas, and it made us want to work together.”

Jarrow, who has his own band, actually wrote skateboarding sequences into “SpongeBob.” And after he joined the project, the Playhouse called about helping develop it.

What’s fascinating about “Slam” is how skateboarding fits into both the philosophical ideals that prompted Mothersbaugh and Co. to found Devo way back in the 1970s, and the boundary-pushing spirit that’s been making itself known on Broadway over the past few years.

In an interview after the demo, Mothersbaugh talked of how Devo was born as a reaction to the horror of the 1970 shootings by the National Guard during Vietnam War protests at Kent State University in Ohio, where he and some of his bandmates-to-be were students.

“After the shootings at Kent, we were trying to figure out what was going on in the world, and our interpretation was that things were devolving, not evolving,” Mothersbaugh says. “And we saw humans as maybe the insane species that had a little bit too much control of the planet.

“So we thought, we want to talk about that through our art. We thought Devo was this kind of art movement. That’s what we were hoping. On the grandest scale, it would’ve been: Art Nouveau, Art Deco ... Art Devo.

“And maybe we made a mistake by signing a record deal. But you know, after the Kent State thing it was kind of like, well, rebellion doesn’t work. So, who changes things? And we thought: Madison Avenue. We watched commercials that were so inane (but effective); we thought, subversion, that’s how you do it.

“So when we got asked to sign with Warners and with Virgin Records, we thought: That’s it — you go right into the belly of the beast if you want to make an impression on the culture.”

Devo announced its presence with the groundbreaking 1977 album “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!” — featuring their version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” the most perversely perfect rock-song cover ever — and almost accidentally broke into the mainstream with “Whip It” in 1980. (Mothersbaugh has since become an accomplished film and TV composer.)

Right around the time that Devo was on the rise, so was another renegade force: skateboarding, which had morphed from a ‘60s fad into more of a hardcore urban pursuit, spearheaded by the Dogtown crew in Santa Monica.

Mothersbaugh and his band sensed common ground with those hard-charging pioneers, who were reinventing their sport by commandeering empty swimming pools in L.A. when the owners weren’t at home, and taking skateboards airborne. (Stacy Peralta’s 2001 documentary film “Dogtown and Z-Boys” is an excellent chronicle of that time; see my 2005 background story.)

“Of all the sports, we saw it as the most democratic,” Mothersbaugh says of the way Devo embraced skate culture. “And in some ways it’s the most real, noncontrived, democratic sport in the world.”

Such Dogtown stars as Peralta and Tony Alva were featured in the band’s early-’80s video for the song “Freedom of Choice”; a few years later, Peralta would go on to form the Bones Brigade, which gave a young skater named Tony Hawk his first big break.

As Jarrow points out, the way skateboarding repurposed and found a new kind of beauty in urban blight also fits the Devo ethos.

“In this built environment, where we’ve paved over everything, and industry has destroyed everything, skateboarding is a way to reclaim it. Because you can basically turn it into a playground.

“So I think there’s something very Devo about that idea too.”

By happenstance, Devo was playing a punk club in San Francisco one night in the late 1970s when a fan who happened to be an inventor came backstage.

“I had two bloody towels on my knees (from hitting the stage during the performance), and he said, ‘You know, you’re not going to be able to do that forever.’”

The man happened to be an inventor who had created some of the earliest skateboard knee pads and other protective gear, which he happily provided to the band.

“So we were wearing skateboard gear back in ’79,” Mothersbaugh says with a laugh. “My brother (Devo guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh) and me, we’d see who could jump furthest into the audience. We felt like we were invincible when we had that stuff on!”

Now, as “Slam” develops, Mothersbaugh and his collaborators might need some of that gear to get through what can be a brutal, years-long process of bringing a new musical from idea to fruition. (The next step for the piece has not been announced, and it’s uncertain if the Playhouse will continue to be involved with the project.)

But this is a work with some big talents — and big ideas — to match its high-flying heroes and ambitions.