2019 American Music Awards

Cameron Crowe Explains Why He Decided to Do the 'Almost Famous' Musical

Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM
Cameron Crowe speaks during SiriusXM's Town Hall with A.J. Eaton and David Crosby hosted by John Fugelsang at the SiriusXM Studios on July 16, 2019 in New York City.

When Cameron Crowe set out to make a musical theater version of the film Almost Famous, perhaps the most beloved entry in his body of work, he felt simultaneous fear and exhilaration. How could what he calls its “happy/sad feeling” be delivered honestly with full theatricality? “I loved that it was all new muscles -- yet there is a steep drop off on both sides of whatever the small path was. And I just kept going forward expecting to fall off at some point. But then here we are, still on the path," Crowe tells Billboard.

Crowe’s project for converting his landmark film into a warm and emotive but often hellzapoppin’ Broadway-scale musical has landed him -- on a recent Sunday matinee, chatting with fans with sister Cindy alongside him -- on the forecourt of San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. For the native San Diegan, this venue in picturesque Balboa Park is a destination where his mom Alice brought him as a youngster to see Shakespeare offerings. Every one of the hall’s 600 seats quickly sold out when its six-week run was announced, as the production also won a rave review in The Los Angeles Times (“as shimmering as a stadium full of lighters”) and an all-but-guaranteed opportunity to mount a run on Broadway itself.

It’s pretty well solidified into legend that Crowe, at an indefatigably youthful 62, is one of the most charming people in show business. Famously -- or at least almost famously -- a rock journalist for Rolling Stone since he took to the typewriter under the tutelage of Lester Bangs as a young teenager in the early '70s, he became in turn an author (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), screenwriter (Fast Times again), director (1997 Oscar nominee Jerry Maguire) and impresario/documentarian (crafting incisive, inclusive studies of Pearl Jam, Elton John and most recently David Crosby).

Poised at a potentially pivotal time in his four-decade career, always catnip to interviewers for his eloquence and wit (if at times treated less kindly by their critic colleagues), Crowe had no shortage of offers from producers eager to exploit the enduring brand Almost Famous has become. But the turning point came when esteemed British theater director Jeremy Herrin, with credits that run from Shakespeare to adventurous contemporary pieces, plucked the property from a list of potential projects his agent had shown him.

From his first meeting with Herrin, Crowe was struck by the director’s eagerness to inhabit a new theatrical form and the rigor his experience had equipped him with. The realization came that “Hey, Jerry Maguire probably wouldn't exist unless Shakespeare had done Much Ado About Nothing. Modern romantic comedy exists almost entirely because all paths lead to Shakespeare. Throughout the process, Jeremy’s always putting it through the prism of structure, but also, building a place in your story where a character gets to make you thrilled with them."

The film and musical’s central figure has always been fledgling writer William Miller, played at the Old Globe by 17-year-old discovery Casey Likes, as he lives out a throttled love story with Penny Lane (memorably portrayed by Kate Hudson on film and brought to a refreshed poignancy onstage by the musical’s Solea Pfeiffer). Crucially for both the laugh lines and the deeper emotions running under the surface of the story is the role of William’s mother Elaine, who as played by Anika Larsen brings renewed outrage to the plaint, “Rock stars have kidnapped my son.”

Herrin, keenly aware of Crowe’s soul-deep connection with his own mother Alice, found particular depth in Larsen’s portrayal: “She has to manage her desire for [William’s] independence and self-determination versus her control as a mum.” Reluctantly lured into the wittily rendered 1973 arena-rock ethos, she engages with frontman Russell Hammond while her son migrates cross-country with the Allmans-like band Stillwater. “We see parallel stories developing," he explains.

“Anika’s fight,” says Crowe admiringly, “was always to bring all the colors of my mom to the character. Not someone clutching a cross and saying, 'I can't allow rock into the house.' My mom did take me to see Carnal Knowledge. But the Elaine part kind of writes itself, because the humor came from my mom -- that’s in her soul, and she spouted that stuff daily.”

As seemingly every facet of Crowe’s career has demonstrated, the writer is first and always communing with the music that he discovered and covered so young -- a commitment that would be further brought to rich life by celebrated music and lyrics composer Tom Kitt (owner of a Pulitzer and a Tony, known not only for his own Broadway co-creation with Brian Yorkey, Next To Normal, but for various rock onstage winners like American Idiot and the upcoming Alanis Morissette musical). As Crowe quickly discovered upon immersing into the national theater world, “It’s like, all roads lead to Tom Kitt, just this impressive guy who’s so credited for bringing a rock feeling to musical theater. He just said, 'Listen, I really want to do this. I will write 500 songs. I would just do that.’ And I love that he said that!”

It cannot have hurt that Kitt has already been creatively embraced by Crowe pal Elton John, whose “Tiny Dancer” was as crucial a “needle drop" as Led Zep's “Ramble On,” Bowie's version of “It Ain’t Easy” and Joni Mitchell's "River."

For the latter song, Kitt’s mission was to incorporate layered harmonies from vocal designer AnnMarie Milazzo, casting it as a duet between Penny and William. The ultimate task, says Kitt, “Was to be sure it’s working for the story. It really speaks to vulnerability, when the characters could be their most naked selves, just kind of clinging to life in this piece of music.”

Among the 3,000 bars of music in the show, there’s intermittent underscoring by Kitt, jukebox favorites and new compositions like Kitt’s "Morocco." The tender ballad sung by Penny, says Crowe, “Was always going to be in, from the first time Tom played it to me, as a buoy we would swim to.”

Perhaps the song Crowe and then-wife Nancy Wilson composed for the film, “Fever Dog,” has the most amusing saga: “Just the fact that Tom Kitt talks about it as a real song, to me is hilarious. The Stillwater songs are all from the honeymoon and us deciding that we're going to write a bunch of greasy, not quite classic Midwestern band songs." Says Kitt: “Cameron to me is a songwriter. His poetry is in the way he has people express themselves in everyday moments.”

That said, given the need to fully showcase Stillwater -- as the players in the musical do onstage with convincing verve -- Kitt and the team ordered up a third verse for the grinding rocker. Crowe gave it a shot, but “Then I just decided, hey, I have to write my co-composer on this. So, I texted it to Nancy on her big Heart tour. She writes back in two minutes, with this much-improved, truly Stillwater version of the verse. I’m like, 'This is incredible,' and I gave it over to Kitt and just said, 'Twenty-some years later, the “Fever Dog” team has come together to bring you your requested third verse.’”


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