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    Sunday, May 26, 2024

    A new ‘Almost Famous’: Cameron Crowe and Tom Kitt bring musical to O’Neill in Waterford

    Cast members of “Almost Famous” perform at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Pictured, from left, are Rob Colletti, Jane Djenne Jackson, Gerard Canonico, and Kelvin Moon Loh. (Elizabeth Lauren West/Eugene O'Neill Theater Center)
    Cameron Crowe, left, and Tom Kitt, right, talk at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, where they are working on their musical “Almost Famous.” (Elizabeth Lauren West/Eugene O'Neill Theater Center)
    “Almost Famous” actors, from left, Damon Daunno, Anika Larsen, and Alex Boniello perform at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. (Elizabeth Lauren West/Eugene O’Neill Theater Center)
    Cameron Crowe, left, and Tom Kitt (Submitted)

    The week after the musical adaptation of “Almost Famous” opened on Broadway in November 2022, composer and lyricist Tom Kitt told his collaborator, Cameron Crowe, that he felt that they weren’t done. Kitt wanted to keep working on the show. Crowe was onboard, and they began discussing new ideas. After the show closed in January 2023, they dove more into the process.

    Then, over the summer in New York, Kitt met with Eugene O’Neill Theater Center executive director Tiffani Gavin to catch up — Kitt developed his musical “Superhero” at the O’Neill in 2017 and has been on the center’s Board of Trustees since 2020.

    He told Gavin about the continuing development of “Almost Famous.”

    Kitt recalled, “I said, ‘We’re doing a LOT, and we’re at a point where I really need to hear it. I don’t quite know what we have.’ She said, ‘Do you want to come to the O’Neill?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ And here we are.”

    Kitt and Crowe are indeed at the O’Neill Center in Waterford, working more on “Almost Famous.” There are three public readings of the show: last Saturday was the first, followed by one Wednesday and then the last this coming Saturday.

    Kitt knows the O’Neill well. He was at the center in 2004 as a music director, then again in 2008, before bringing “Superhero,” which he co-wrote with John Logan, to the center’s Music Theater Conference.

    “I knew about how special it was to be here,” he said during an interview Friday on the O’Neill’s campus. “As a writer, you just dream about having the opportunity to develop something here. … This place is just magical, and as a writer, what you get out of it, what you get to discover is transformative.”

    Kitt said that the musical “Almost Famous” was “one of the most dear and personal things” he has ever created, particularly because Crowe was someone whose work he has so loved.

    Kitt composed the music and co-wrote the lyrics with Crowe. Crowe also wrote the book, based on his 2000 movie.

    “Almost Famous” is a semi-autobiographical piece inspired by Crowe’s experiences as a teenage journalist for Rolling Stone. Here, the character named William follows the band Stillwater in the early 1970s. (Crowe wrote his first cover story for Rolling Stone about the Allman Brothers Band and went on to report on bands including Led Zeppelin and the Eagles.)

    The Broadway production of “Almost Famous” received primarily mixed to unenthusastic reviews and closed after 30 preview and 77 regular performances. But it earned a Tony nomination for Best Original Score.

    Developing any kind of new musical is a huge challenge, with each show having its own unique journey, but Kitt said he’d never had an experience like he did with “Almost Famous.”

    “We had this very successful out-of-town tryout at the Old Globe (in San Diego) in the fall of 2019, had great momentum, and then of course the pandemic hit. Coming out of the pandemic, going to Broadway, still feeling the challenge of the pandemic, in the climate of people getting back to the theater, and it was a completely different experience,” Kitt said.

    “At that point, you can say, ‘Well, it was wonderful I got to do this and now I’ll just license it and see what someone else might bring to it.’ But I just felt: I’m not ready to let go. I want to keep exploring this. I had so many questions about what the show really wants to be, based on all of the experiences.”

    What’s changed

    Discussing the changes he and Crowe have made in this version of “Almost Famous,” Kitt said there “were always some things I was curious about us looking at, just the musical form, the genre, and seeing how we can lean into that a little bit more.”

    A prime example of that is the overhaul of the scene on the plane near the end of the story. Everyone’s secrets are coming out, and the character of William stands up and declares his love; it’s his turn to say something revealing and emotional.

    Before, Crowe and Kitt had adapted that scene in a fairly straightforward way. Now, it’s become a musical moment — not just a song, but a five-minute operatic sequence.

    “Where there wasn’t music, now there’s major musical gesture. As a writer, that’s one of those things that is incredibly thrilling and exciting, but you’re thinking, ‘Is this a good idea?’” Kitt said with a laugh. “What’s incredible about having this opportunity is, having worked on the show since 2017, here I am in 2023 hearing something for the very first time.”

    There are other fresh elements, including a new song for the character of self-described “Band Aid” Penny Lane and a new song for the character of Stillwater singer Jeff Bebe, as well as a fair amount of rearranging and cutting.

    “We’re trying a lot, and Cameron and I both feel the adrenaline and excitement about that. … ‘Almost Famous’ is new again, and that’s thrilling,” Kitt said.

    This is Crowe’s first time at the O’Neill, and Kitt said, “I had a feeling Cameron was going to love it, but he LOVES it. He’s so happy, and after you’ve worked on this show for so long … we can’t stop smiling.”

    Kitt, who won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony award for the musical “Next to Normal,” is working on other shows in addition to “Almost Famous.” He did orchestrations and was music consultant for “Hell’s Kitchen,” a new Alicia Keys musical that opened Sunday at The Public Theater in New York City. He is also writing an original musical with Jerry Zucker, whose credits range from co-writing and co-directing the movie “Airplane!” to directing the film “Ghost.”

    ‘Why not?’

    Gavin noted that all O’Neill alums get a speech when they leave the center. It includes this line: “Whenever you’re ready to come back, it doesn’t matter what you’re working on, just call.”

    “We mean it when we say it, and it’s not new,” Gavin said.

    From September to December of this year, the O’Neill has five different alumni teams coming to Waterford to work on something. Not all are doing public performances, but they all have the chance to stay at the center and work.

    Some people online have criticized the O’Neill’s inviting the creators of “Almost Famous” in to spend more time developing a piece that has already been on Broadway rather than focusing on new work.

    Gavin said that Broadway has never been a mark of success at the O’Neill. If a writer goes to her and says he has more work to do, she said, “Why am I there to deny them that opportunity, if I have the space and opportunity, and it’s not taking the space and opportunity from someone else — and it’s not.”

    As for bringing in “Almost Famous,” Gavin said, “People ask me why. I’m kind of like, why not? It’s not like there are a whole lot of places where anyone could take that risk. In this sort of new world of play development, post-pandemic, there are so few opportunities for work to be rethought, to be explored, and it’s what the O’Neill does. We love to support our alums in whatever way we can.”

    Gavin said that not everything is going to be right for the O’Neill’s Music Theater Conference, which is held during the center’s busy summer season, but the more opportunities the O’Neill can create for work to be developed — to meet shows where they are in their life and support them — the better it is for the industry as a whole.

    She also noted that the public staged readings are something for the southeastern Connecticut community during the O’Neill’s off-season. And it gives students attending the O’Neill’s National Theater Institute during the fall and spring the chance to see the development of a show.

    Kitt said that the audience is the ultimate collaborator. What he has heard and he believes is that, while there might be outliers, an audience collectively “won’t lie. You can feel where they’re with you and where they’re not.”

    A show’s life, post-Broadway

    Gavin said that a show’s life doesn’t stop once it leaves Broadway. There’s a whole other life for it to go into.

    “Isn’t that the perfect time to potentially revisit and see if there’s another way or a new way that makes sense for the next part of its life? You can always take a new look at something,” Gavin said.

    Kitt noted that people tend to revisit their work years later, but he hopes this project will spur others to realize they don’t need to wait that long.

    Gavin would love to do more of this at the O’Neill.

    “Since I’ve been here, I’ve wanted to find new and inventive ways to support work in progress or the process of work development. The conferences will always be the conferences. That is part of the model at the core of what the O’Neill is,” she said.

    “But there are so many ways in which we can support new work. It takes years for new work to make it through its journey. I like being a part of that. It’s what we do. I just feel like we have the framework and the expertise here — I have an incredible staff, an incredible team of people I can tap that know how to do this. I feel like other folks are looking for that kind of support. We’re trying to do it.”

    Gavin said she worries that development processes are shrinking because producers think they are expensive or are taking time or money away from other things.

    She said she hopes that, through the O’Neill’s alumni residencies and other residencies, people will be reminded of how much it helps artists evolve.

    Gavin said, “I’m just really excited that we’re doing this. I hope that we can do more with other folks and people understand the value of development. … There’s always more that can be gained from being in a safe development space.”

    If you go

    What: The musical “Almost Famous”

    When: 7 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday

    Where: Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, Rufus & Margo Rose Barn Theater, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford

    Tickets: $33

    Visit: theoneill.org

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