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How Stereophonic Became the Most Tony-Nominated Play in History

How Stereophonic Became the Most Tony-Nominated Play in History

David Adjmi did not intend to re-enter the world of theater.

With a handful of credits under his belt, Adjmi had sworn off playwriting after a high-stakes collaboration fell apart. Then, as he sought to fulfill one last playwriting grant obligation, he landed on the idea of Stereophonic, which was nominated for 13 Tony Awards this season, becoming the most nominated play in history. 

The process of creating the play, about a fictional band trying to record a hit album in the 1970s, has both challenged and rewarded the collaborators, including Arcade Fire’s Will Butler, who wrote songs for the band, and the actors, who were called upon to perform those songs in the play, even though most of were not musicians before joining the cast. And for Adjmi, the play morphed into a deeply personal look at his career.

“I think the play is almost my unconscious, or some deep part of myself telling me not to give up on myself as an artist,” Adjmi said.

Stereophonic follows the five-person band through the lengthy process of recording their album, which is often interrupted by escalating tensions between the two sets of couples within the band, as well as by the lead guitarist, Peter, who can be brutal in his pursuit for musical perfection. The three-hour play puts a documentary-style focus on the process, peppered with the technical minutiae of audio engineering, naturalistic dialogue and the playing of songs on the set consisting of a soundproof recording studio and a control room. 

The play, directed by Daniel Aukin, premiered Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in the fall, before opening at Broadway’s Golden Theatre in April. 

Adjmi landed on the idea in 2013 while listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” on a flight. He said he was drawn to the “emotional volatility” within the song, and the possibility of using the sonic opportunities of a recording studio, including turning the mics in the sound proof booth off and on, and songs themselves, to flesh out a story. Fleetwood Mac was one reference for the interpersonal turmoil, he says, but not the guiding force. 

As with any work of fiction, Adjmi had the pressure of finding songs for the play that would convince the audience this fictional band was headed toward stardom. He hedged this a bit in the script by only allowing two of the band’s songs to be played in full, building up the anticipation with snippets of other songs, and with the reveal, late in the play, that most of the songs played for the audience did not make the album. 

“I did that very deliberately, because I wanted people not to focus on this as a presentation for you, the audience, but as an insight into the process,” Adjmi said. 

Before the script even materialized, he enlisted the help of Butler, who he trusted to write the score. Butler, a multi-instrumentalist and former member of the band Arcade Fire, had not previously written for theater (he had contributed the film score for Her), but said he was intrigued when he heard the pitch of a band recording beautiful songs that never make it to the album, amid tensions and infighting. 

“The gestalt of it was very clear from the get-go, because I’ve lived that life, and I’ve lived that heartbreak where it’s like, ‘Oh, this 90 seconds of music is transcendent, and then we ruined it,’” Butler said. 

Stereophonic‘s David Adjmi and Will Butler.

Valerie Terranova

As bits of the script materialized over the years, Butler began crafting the band’s sound by listening to the albums he thought musicians in the ‘70s may have been influenced by, ranging from David Bowie to Mexican and Jamaican artists and ending with Tom Petty, which he played on a loop. In the end, Butler arrived at a sound that he calls “very post-Buffalo Springfield “ with “big meaty drums,” and “really beautiful vocal harmonies.”

When it came to writing “Masquerade,” the first full-length song heard in the play, Butler said he tried to ignore the pressure of composing a hit song and focused on a guitar riff that he liked, later filling it out with medieval, layered harmonies. The process was somewhat similar to writing for his own band. 

“Nobody ever knows if it’s a hit song ‘till you put it out. You put it out and sometimes it’s a flop and sometimes it’s a hit. It’s so determined by forces outside of your control. But within the world of the play, I was like ‘This definitely works, and I think it’s pretty good, man,’” Butler said. 

The score, including that song, has since been lauded by critics and was nominated for a Tony Award for best score, a rarity in a category typically populated by musicals.

The script itself, which ended up coming in 210 pages, is also scored out ”within an inch of its life,” Adjmi notes, setting up exact rhythms for a hyper-naturalistic dialogue, in which actors interrupt each other and have concurrent conversations, or lulls of silence. Because of the demands of that script, the casting process involved looking for actors first, who could later learn to become a band.

Tom Pecinka, who is now Tony nominated for his role as Peter, the band’s prickly lead guitarist, entered the auditions only able to play a few chords on the guitar. During callbacks, he started taking guitar lessons twice a week and pressed on even after his teacher told him he would never be able to play at the level needed – a fact he didn’t share with the production at the time. 

“I played it cool. I tried to play it as confident as I possibly could,” Pecinka said. “I just worked really hard.” 

The Off-Broadway run was still “incredibly nerve-wracking,” he notes, but after more than 100 shows and after recording the show’s cast album, he now finally feels more comfortable playing onstage, to that point that he can have fun.

Sarah Pidgeon, who is now Tony nominated for her role as Diana, the band’s lead vocalist and Peter’s girlfriend, still gets some onstage nerves, but has learned to channel them through her character, who she notes is also dealing with the ups and downs of the recording process. 

“Now that I’ve done this role and now that I have an album out, I can’t say that I’m not a singer anymore. It’s also something that feels very vulnerable to me,” Pidgeon said. 

Tom Pecinka, left, Will Brill, center, and Sarah Pidgeon, right.

Julieta Cervantes

Learning the play’s hyper naturalistic dialogue took a lot of repetition, and that’s now become second nature, Pecinka said. A continued challenge for both is combining performing music on stage with the emotions needed for the play – Pidgeon references a scene where she has to immediately go from crying backstage amid an argument with Pecinka’s character to finally hitting a high note in the recording booth after several failed takes. 

“The play’s a beast without the music,” Pecinka said. “It’s one thing to be a band and play a concert, just song after song, but to go and do a really emotional scene, and then you have to go and play a song, it’s a very different experience.” 

It was during the audition process, as characters recited certain lines over and over, that Adjmi realized the play had become autobiographical. He had to leave the room at one point, as he felt physically sick. It’s not one specific character or scene, Adjmi said, but rather he sees parts of himself reflected in all the characters. 

“I think that there’s a war in this play between creation and entropy and between creation and destruction, and I think that there’s a part of me that is very self destructive, and that wants to kind of not be hurt and not be wounded and not live with the humiliation of those wounds,” he said.

Even now, Adjmi said he has a hard time watching the play, comparing it to “having people watch you take a shower,” in terms of the vulnerability and personal connection. But, he notes that too may be part of the artistic process. 

“I think, in general, that’s my job as a playwright,” Adjmi said. “I don’t like books that are well crafted, but slightly emotionally removed from the writer. I want to feel like there’s skin in the game. And I want to feel that it costs the writer something to make this thing and that they really plumbed and explored the material appropriately. But when you do that, when you really do it, it’s embarrassing. And it’s hard to watch in front of an audience.”

Though the Broadway run is still ongoing, through at least August 18, Adjmi said he’s been having “lots and lots of conversations” about plans for other productions of Stereophonic, both nationally and internationally, as well as possible other adaptations, including a film version.

Adjmi has also recommitted to the world of theater, and is in the process of working on a two-part play for the Public Theater and a rock opera with Butler. While the critical praise and Tony nominations provided some affirmation for Adjmi, he says creating Stereophonic provided the ultimate motivation for him to continue. 

“The play itself, and making it with my collaborators, who are some of the best people I’ve ever known and ever worked with, that is the thing that healed me. And that strengthened my resolve and that healed my wounds,” he said. 

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