Arts and Entertainment

Almost “Almost Famous,” and Just as Good

“It’s all happening” at the new musical adaption of “Almost Famous” on Broadway.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

“We’re just getting started,” said Cameron Crowe, the writer and director of the classic 2000s film “Almost Famous” (2000), when I spoke to him before the show began. The new musical adaptation of the film just began previews on October 3, but I say it’s already “all happening…”

“Almost Famous,” set in 1973, follows William Miller (Casey Likes), an aspiring journalist tasked with writing a feature for Rolling Stone Magazine on a new band, Stillwater. Journalist and de facto conscience Lester Bangs (Rob Colletti) guides William in his adventure on the road. Despite Lester’s warning to avoid becoming friends with rockstars, the awe-struck William still gets drawn into the gritty lifestyle. William—or “The Enemy,” as the band dubs him—struggles with the reality of the band’s way of life. The tour is not glamorous or all about the music and is instead a desperate struggle to keep the band together while still maintaining a good image. Like the guitarist Russell Hammond (Chris Wood), William begins to long for something more real, more music-centric, than what he experiences. Committed to being honest but also bonded with the band, William finds himself in a bind: Stillwater wants him to portray them well in his article, but the truth is more complex than that. Despite the schism forming in the band and William’s struggle, the play manages to find humor in their situations without making their issues feel like a joke, through elements like the lead singer, Jeff’s (Drew Gehling) often exaggerated reactions to band drama and Lester’s high expectations for “real music.” The humor gives the play a sense of lightheartedness, without distracting from its central message.

At the start of his journey, William is pseudo-adopted by Stillwater’s groupies, the “band aids,” led by the illustrious Penny Lane (Solea Pfeiffer). She and the other groupies were dressed in perfectly eclectic costumes, clad in platform heels, patterned crop tops, and, of course, the iconic shearling coat worn only by Penny Lane. Penny is beautiful, intriguing, and mysterious, but her mantra “no attachments, no boundaries” leads William into a struggle for her affection. Their real connection, though, comes from their shared love for music. In a way, she describes his experience as a whole: he is searching for a personal connection but seems to be looking in all the wrong places.

With reboots becoming increasingly commonplace in entertainment, I didn’t know whether to be excited for a Broadway rendition of “Almost Famous” or dread that it wouldn’t live up to expectation. Could a play illustrate the movement of life on the road with the limitations of theater? Would the nostalgia of the ‘70s on top of the memory of the original film feel kitschy? Pessimistic, sure, but I didn’t want my beloved movie to meet a sour end—I didn’t buy my own Penny Lane coat just for her legacy to be ruined.

“Almost Famous” is not kitschy. It is not static. Rather, it is refreshing and aspirational. Nostalgia for the era is not used as a crutch, but maintains a stronghold in the play. The cast speaks in the jargon of the era, and the script doesn’t feel rigid, conveying the laid-back feel of the group and the ‘70s in general. William’s bedroom was decorated with posters and a shelf of records—Led Zeppelin, The Velvet Underground, Black Sabbath—and John Bonham and Ozzy Osbourne even make brief appearances. The set design was expertly done, decorated with mementos from the ‘70s. Of course, there were complex sets, like the kitchen in William’s home, but the simplicity of the stage allowed for a moment that was truly unique to the play. Stillwater’s hit single “Fever Dog” is central to their tour, but when they perform in the movie, the feeling of live music doesn’t come across as well. Being in a theater, though, the live performance of the song was like a real concert, transporting the crowd not only to a venue, but back in time. Throwbacks like “Simple Man” (1973) by Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Tiny Dancer” (1971) by Elton John also appear in the performance, but aren’t used as mere filler or background music, instead taking command of the show when performed.

This is further enhanced by the play’s original score by Tom Kitt which is fully integrated into the story, highlighting the skillful inclusion of songs from the era and setting them apart from the other music. “Almost Famous” doesn’t include “Tiny Dancer” just to include “Tiny Dancer”; the song is a scene in and of itself and serves to drive the story forward. Sung on the road by the divided band, the performance creates a sense of unity, evoking memories of road trips and the feeling of togetherness. It is a unique, memorable moment in the musical: it captures a balance of both nostalgia and original storytelling. The combination of the two allows for a feeling of relatability, an opportunity for a modern audience to connect with a play about the past. It was clear that this is not a play about just longing for the ‘70s: it is equally about being a teenager and chasing your dreams.

Being a teenager, though, means having certain restrictions. William’s home life is the polar opposite of his time on the road. Raised by his mother, a high-strung professor, William faces constant pressure to be excellent—his mother even enrolled him in school two years early. When William is introduced to the “dangerous and promiscuous” music of Simon & Garfunkel by his older sister, he begins to dream of being a rock journalist. William’s zeal and his commitment to his writing is inspiring—he never becomes jaded or gives up his love for music. No matter how many times his mother demands he come home, William stays with Stillwater; no matter how many times Russell avoids an interview, William persists. In a time when so many Broadway shows are explorations of pain and struggle, it felt refreshing to see a story about a teenager whose struggle is simply trying to make his dream come true.

Despite the dreamy atmosphere the costumes, music, and almost fantastical personalities of the Stillwater members create, there is still something so real about “Almost Famous.” Not everyone will tour with a band and fall in love with a groupie, but everyone can relate to wanting something and the joy and effort that goes into pursuing that something. William Miller’s story is unique, but his innocence, passion, and vibrancy are a poignant portrayal of chasing a dream.

“Almost Famous” has the best of every world imaginable: it is nostalgic, like a love letter to an era, but still contemporary. It’s refreshingly innocent and heartfelt, but still funny. It’s wild, yet relatable. William Miller’s story is unique, but we can all find a bit of ourselves in him.