The Musical Force Behind Broadway’s ‘American Idiot’ and ‘Almost Famous’ Wants ‘Born to Run’ Onstage Next
Anyone who’s had even a mild obsession with Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous will instantly recognize some of the lyrics to the original songs in its musical adaptation, which opens on Broadway Nov. 3. “Cameron Crowe, to me, is a poet,” says Broadway veteran Tom Kitt, who co-wrote the songs for Almost Famous: The Musical with Crowe, including the instant classic “Elaine’s Lecture,” which uses the movie line “rock stars have kidnapped my son” as both refrain and punchline. “His words are lyrical. I felt the best way to tell the story through the music was going to be to take his beautiful words and turn them into songs.”
Kitt, who won two Tonys for composing 2009’s Next to Normal and also arranged and produced the music for the American Idiot and Jagged Little Pill musicals, among many other projects, told our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast about the process behind the musical, why his next dream project involves Bruce Springsteen, and more. To hear the whole episode, which also includes a conversation with Crowe, press play above or listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Some highlights:
The way you ended up combining classic rock songs with your new compositions feels pretty unique. Can you think of any precedent?
I think there have been musicals that have used a couple of songs, but certainly for me, it definitely feels like something I’ve never embarked on before. What I love, and Cameron has said, is it feels like it’s kind of an exercise for the audience. “Is that a new song?” I think if we’ve done our job, it feels like a score. It feels like musical theater, but it feels like it’s authentic for the period and everything fits together.
You use Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” near the start of the show, which is, as far as I know, Zeppelin’s Broadway debut.
And how proud and honored am I to be a part of that… “Ramble On” was [originally] an original song called “Welcome to the Show” [in that spot]. But we decided, no, this was actually going to be a great moment for us to lean into a period moment and theatricalize it. We’ve had original songs to start the show, but now we can throw this in and give the audience an expectation to know what they’re going to be listening to all evening. We capture the band and the mechanics of backstage, but we’re able to do it in visceral, thrilling music — rock energy.
When you have Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder and David Bowie and Elton John and Led Zeppelin songs in your show, and you’re also having to write original songs, there is some pressure there. They’re gonna have to stand right alongside them.
[Laughs.] That is exactly right. There is a lot of pressure. It’s a period of music that greatly influenced me – my writing has always incorporated those tonalities. It’s music I listen to, to this day, for inspiration and just anything I wanna feel in my life that feels beautiful and artful and soaring. And so I felt like I was going to be able to really dig in and find an original voice in that period. But I also have Cameron Crowe beside me, and there’s no one smarter, no one more in the world of music. I was looking forward to leaning on him, and I felt like if this is something that is exciting Cameron, then it’s gotta be the right track for us.
What’s amazing about Cameron is that he really wears his emotions on his sleeve. If it doesn’t feel exactly right, he makes you dig deeper. The opening number, which is called “1973,” which is I think one of our favorite songs, used to be a song called “My Name is William.” And we thought, well, “My Name is William” has things going for it, but it’s not quite the thing. And when we wrote “1973,” we were like, “That’s it!” It just came out of Cameron and me in a room, just talking music.
Obviously you had to have your “Tiny Dancer” moment, but it’s sort of easier said than done, especially because the original scene saw the characters singing along with the recording. How did you make that work onstage?
It’s an iconic, beloved, talked-about moment, right? Everyone remembers when they saw that film and that moment happened… I knew we had to do something a little different. We have to motivate it as a musical theater moment. How do we do that? For me, what it became was, well, we have a band and we have people who love music and people who sing. So what if we lean into it being kind of a peace offering when [Stillwater lead singer] Jeff Bebe starts singing it by himself. “What’s the one song I could start right now that’s going to immediately warm this bus and get everyone on the same page and make people feel like they’re connecting again?”
So it basically becomes an impromptu singalong that these characters are making happen. Not something that’s sourced from a recording, but actually our cast. And then you go with the magic of that and say, “OK, the instrumentation starts to come and we start to build.” I wanted to make it lean into William’s angst and uncertainty of “I have to go home.” So we’re in a different key for the beginning of that, and I sort of saw it as how you go into technicolor. Suddenly we have a little bit of a ramp-up and we just land in the original key, the original arrangement of “Tiny Dancer.” And that’s how William is going to, “What is happening? What do I do next?… And yet, I’m swimming in all of this beauty that I love.” We’re in the beautiful sonic realm of the song, but I feel like we have traveled in terms of story and earned it in our musical, and that feels really satisfying.
After helping bring Jagged Little Pill and American Idiot to the stage, are there other albums you have dreams of making into a show?
The one that comes to mind is Born to Run, because that is such an incredibly theatrical record. And Bruce Springsteen is one of my heroes. It’s an album that had a major, major influence on me. I listened to it over and over again. Those songs are symphonic. I find them to be how I felt when I went home and listened to Jagged Little Pill, realizing that was going to be a musical and having a new perspective on what those songs could be. I feel like it’s the same thing with Born To Run. Those are all rich characters. I mean, anything like that takes an incredible creative vision. But that would be very exciting.
Have you ever reached out about that?
I haven’t! I would. Um, so I’m saying it now!
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