Cameron Crowe gets back to where it all began, with Old Globe musical adaptation of his movie ‘Almost Famous’
The world-premiere show revisits Oscar-winning writer-filmmaker’s own history in fictionalized form, with its story of a music-loving San Diego teen-ager who heads out on the road with rock stars.
I still remember the dream there ...
On a March evening in 1972, seven songs into a set by the British band Yes, those words from “Long Distance Runaround” washed over the crowd at the San Diego Sports Arena, and reverberated in the ears of a 14-year-old kid scribbling notes backstage.
It was the night Cameron Crowe’s own dream of making a life as a rock ‘n’ roll writer took its first big leap toward reality. And even today, for Crowe, it seems less about remembering than feeling he’s still right there.
Which, at the moment, he is.
On an August afternoon in 2019, Crowe is standing at the top of perhaps the most celebrated loading ramp in movie history — the one that figures so prominently not only in his life but in the writer-director’s 2000 movie “Almost Famous,” inspired by Crowe’s teen-age exploits as a budding rock journalist.
He’s back in the city of his youth because the Old Globe Theatre — where Crowe’s mom, Alice, used to drag him to see Shakespeare plays — is about to stage the world-premiere musical adaptation of “Almost Famous,” with an eye toward Broadway.
And he’s at what is now known as Pechanga Arena San Diego — the lovably retro, ‘60s-vintage venue that sits like a giant breath mint on the northern fringes of the Midway District — because the top rock photographer Neal Preston, Crowe’s longtime pal, is doing a promotional photo shoot there with the musical’s cast and creatives.
Crowe has been using the down time at the site to hone lines from the script with Jeremy Herrin, the show’s British director (and a Tony Award nominee for “Wolf Hall Parts One & Two”): “I will always be able to say I did revisions for this play at the San Diego Sports Arena, in the bleachers,” he pronounces happily. “Which is probably how it should be.”
And now he is gazing down the very same ramp where William, the eager young protagonist of “Almost Famous,” is depicted in the film, waiting in desperation for someone to let him inside so he can interview the bands. The same way Crowe waited for his chance, on that night more than 47 years ago, to chat with Yes and Black Sabbath and Wild Turkey (the three acts on the bill) for a story in the old San Diego Door.
“It looks the same,” Crowe says now. “I’m still traumatized when I see that ramp! Is somebody gonna let me in or not?”
This time, of course, somebody does, because Crowe is no longer a no-name, baby-faced student from University High School on a mission to meet rock stars, but an Oscar-winning screenwriter and director whose movies (“Say Anything,” “Singles” and “Jerry Maguire” among them) have long since made him a top name in Hollywood.
So, safely past the door, Crowe leads an impromptu private tour of the rooms where he interviewed the groups that night — often noting exactly where the musicians sat, and speaking with the same kind of present-tense enthusiasm that animates the movie’s key catch phrase: “It’s all happening!”
“So then it was like, ‘Now I’m going to interview Yes,’” the ever-affable Crowe says, striding across a hallway in cargo shorts and a T-shirt after a quick stop in the room where Wild Turkey once held forth. “Here we go. And here is Yes, in this room — Rick Wakeman and all those guys, they were just so happy to talk.”
He moves on to the room where headliners Black Sabbath presided: “There was a bench along there; I just remember walking in here and they’d be on the bench playing, and Tony Iommi and those guys were around, and I interviewed Ozzy (Osbourne) right there.”
All of it obviously made a big impression on the fledgling writer all those years ago, and when the startling acuity of Crowe’s memory is mentioned, he responds: “I can’t tell you what happened two months ago, but I can tell you where Ozzy sat in 1972!”
The absolute presence of those moments in Crowe’s mind comes up again and again in conversation, and it seems inseparable from his conviction that returning to “Almost Famous” in musical-theater form is far from some exercise in double-dipped nostalgia.
“It’s not to put it in a display case and observe it from afar, for sure,” Crowe says of the show, chatting before rehearsal at the Globe a few days later. “It’s about kind of being immersed in it, and having the feeling still be vivid.
“It’s not fetishizing it — it’s just kind of treasuring it.
“I do know that ‘Almost Famous,’ the musical, is not about a vintage store with a rack in the back where you have clothes from the day, and you can put them on and say, ‘Oh, isn’t it fun that people looked and dressed that way?’
“That feeling is alive. For me, and for people who still love the movie.”
Getting in tune
Those people are plentiful, and among them is Tom Kitt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer (“Next to Normal”) and Broadway regular who’s writing the original portion of the musical’s score.
“For me, growing up, every time there was a Cameron Crowe film it was an event,” says Kitt, who remembers going to see ‘Almost Famous’ with his now-wife in Manhattan when the movie first came out.
“And like all Cameron Crowe films, it spoke directly to my heart” — so much so that when word of the musical adaptation broke, and “I heard there could be a possibility I could get to collaborate with him, I knew I’d be really jealous and angry if it wasn’t me,” Kitt says.
Music, the central obsession for young William in “Almost Famous” — as it was for Crowe in his rise to a high-profile writing career with Rolling Stone magazine — is a complicated proposition in the stage version.
That’s because the show is built around not only Kitt’s compositions but original songs from the movie. (Crowe wrote the musical’s book, and both he and Kitt are credited with its lyrics.)
There are also period rock songs in the mix — including Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” which figures into a signature sing-along scene as William rides a tour bus with Stillwater, the fictional band he follows around the country in the complicated company of the doting “Band Aid” Penny Lane. (She was played by Kate Hudson in the movie; Solea Pfeiffer takes on the role here.)
But “if I’m doing things correctly, people will come in and feel that it’s seamless,” says Kitt. “And if you don’t know the period, and you don’t all these songs, you might not know which are pre-existing and which are written for the musical.”
As the cast runs through a few numbers a bit later at rehearsal, one is instantly familiar: Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On,” with its loping backbeat leading into a crescendo of drums, piano and vocal harmonies. (At least until choreographer Lorin Latarro, whose credits include Broadway’s “Waitress,” waves things to a halt momentarily to adjust the actors’ entrances.)
Zeppelin was among the bands that loomed large in Crowe’s rock ‘n’ roll apprenticeship, and served as one of the models for Stillwater — although in that regard, Crowe says, “our references never stray too far from The Allman Brothers Band.”
Crowe still regrets not getting a chance to see that group’s classic lineup at San Diego’s Civic Theatre; his family thought he was still too young to walk there from their basement apartment along Sixth Avenue near Balboa Park, the Crowe home until they moved to Friars Village.
But his mother did prevail upon him to see plenty of Shakespeare with her at the Globe, barely a mile away. And the theater is actually name-dropped in the first few minutes of the movie, as Elaine (mom Alice’s fictionalized alter ego, played memorably by Frances McDormand in the film and now portrayed by Anika Larsen in the musical) grills William (portrayed by the young newcomer Casey Likes) on the plays they’ve seen there.
San Diego has taken center stage in Crowe’s work before: His 1982 script for “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” was based on his own book about going undercover as a student at Clairemont High.
But plenty of his personal San Diego lore is unlikely to work its way into the new musical — for example, the fact that in addition to writing for the Door, he worked for all of two days as a delivery boy for the San Diego Tribune (one of the Union-Tribune’s predecessors) before getting canned.
Crowe recalls asking his supervisor: “So this is permanent, right?”
The man’s reply: “Well, permanent for a little while.”
“And that became a family thing forever,” Crowe adds with a laugh. “We still say that sometimes: ‘So it’s permanent? Well, permanent for a little while!’”
One other aspect of his time in San Diego, though, is central to the show: His friendship with the late Lester Bangs, the irascible rock critic and Creem magazine editor who grew up in El Cajon, and who frequented the former KPRI radio studios at Seventh and Ash downtown, a few blocks from Crowe’s home.
The writer, portrayed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie, becomes something like a one-man Greek chorus flitting through the production. (In fact, don’t be surprised if Bangs, played by the Broadway veteran Rob Colletti, pops up in the audience.)
And as Crowe talks about what Bangs brings to the piece, he seems to reach an epiphany about the broader meaning of the musical.
“The first lines of the play are actually a theory that the play tries to disprove,” as Crowe puts it.
“Lester Bangs says, ‘It’s over’” — meaning that rock ‘n’ roll, or at least its authentic spirit, is dead. “But the play proves that it’s not over.”
“I didn’t even realize that until now. But that’s what I wanted to do.”
I still remember the time you said goodbye, the next line of that Yes song goes. But in his mind, Cameron Crowe hasn’t left yet.
When: Previews begin Sept. 13. Opens Sept. 27. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Some exceptions; check with theater.) Through Oct. 27.
Where: Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $70 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623