Artistic creation can be transcendent. But it can also be torturous. And nowhere is that currently clearer than in Stereophonic, a new play by David Adjmi that is making a big splash Off-Broadway. The play is set in a recording studio where a band is trying to record an album. At one point, the band members begin to play a song, it’s a groovy, foot-tapping piece. They get a couple measures in before they’re abruptly cut off. “You need to watch the tempo—it’s getting a little slow,” says the audio engineer, Grover (played by Eli Gelb).
So they try again. No dice, two of the musicians are playing in different registers. Then again. Nope. “It’s like a funeral dirge guys, pick it up,” says Grover. On and on the scene goes, with the musicians on stage restarting the same song again and again. Until finally, the sixth take, they get it right and get to keep playing—the song clicking together beautifully, like magic. And the audience in the theatre is watching that process the entire time.
And it's riveting. Stereophonic is currently in its world premiere run and has been getting rave reviews. The play was extended until December 17 at Playwrights Horizons, and there’s early talks of a future run elsewhere (there had been plans in 2021 to bring it to Broadway via Second Stage Theater, but those talks fell through).
Adjmi was inspired to write Stereophonic after hearing the Led Zeppelin cover of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” He was so taken with Robert Plant’s “Dionysian” vocals that, Adjmi recalls, “I imagined the studio and how it was being recorded. And then I just thought, ‘Oh my god. Has anyone done this before where you take the entire [play] set and turn it into a studio?’”
Even though Adjmi has no background in music (aside from taking piano lessons as a child growing up in Brooklyn), he's been following that initial instinct for nine years and now he has a hit play to show for it.
In Stereophonic, a five-member band gather in Sausalito, California in 1976 to record their newest album, as their first album is climbing the charts. There are two couples in the band, both in rough patches in their relationship. And while they are in the studio, the pressures to create something great, the turmoil from their personal lives, the minefield of egos and strong personalities, and the stress of trying to get the songs just right…it all combines to create a realistic look at the struggles of “finishing the hat” (to quote another well-known musical about creation which also premiered at Playwrights Horizons).
To Will Butler, who wrote original songs for Stereophonic and is a Grammy winner for his work with the indie band Arcade Fire, the concept for the play seemed rife with possibilities. He describes the process of recording an album as a “voyage,” saying: “You're full of love, you're full of anxiety, you're full of excitement, you're completely depressed about the record and that makes you depressed about your relationship. But then, you have, like, 15 good seconds of music, and suddenly, you're friends with everybody.”
Butler has been involved with the project for nine years, ever since Adjmi cold-emailed him one day (through a mutual friend). Butler knows something about the private and the creative life mixing: he was in a band with his brother Win (Arcade Fire), and he’s currently in a band with his wife Jenny Shore, though he assures Playbill: “Me and my wife are a little more chill than the play.”
To research Stereophonic, Adjmi watched “hours and hours” of music documentaries, from Original Cast Album: Company to Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. In fact, when watching Stereophonic, some of the scenes do seem familiar. A moment where a singer named Diana (Sarah Pidgeon) is having trouble reaching the high notes in a song, and needs multiple takes to get it right—it recalls the classic moment in the Company documentary, where Elaine Stritch repeatedly struggles to sing her torch song “Ladies Who Lunch.”
Or another scene, where the band debates which song needs to be cut in order to make the entire album fit on vinyl. That’s reminiscent of what happened on Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” where Stevie Nicks’ “Silver Springs” was removed from the album.
Stereophonic has been described as a Fleetwood Mac bio-play in some articles. And upon first viewing, the similarities are striking: three members of the fictional onstage band are British, two of them are coupled, they all play instruments except the lead female singer who has long hair and drinks a hot toddy with Courvoisier to prime her voice. Says Adjmi: "There's aspects of Fleetwood Mac, there's aspects of Bruce Springsteen, there's aspects of Keith Richards. There's so many archetypal elements in this play that I think it's reductive to just say this is the Fleetwood Mac bio-play.”
Instead, the brilliance of the play is its hyperrealism—like the audience is watching a documentary, seeing a band struggle through and finally tap into artistic brilliance. Rather than a typical rags-to-riches narrative, Stereophonic is more of a meditation on creation.
“I definitely knew from the beginning that I wanted it to feel very granular,” says Adjmi. “I wanted them to talk about very mundane things, because that is what a collaborative process is like. And even though people look really glamorous and really blown out on stage, I can channel this profound energy of when they're living their lives—doing laundry and frying an egg. I'm really interested in that duality. And I just didn't want to do a boilerplate depiction of rock stars.”
Butler helped advise on the technical elements in the play—the theatre created a working recording studio on the stage with a functional mixer, a sound-proof room, and instruments the actors can play (and they do). The takes the actors are doing in the sound booth are being mixed in real time by the sound team at Playwrights Horizons. “When you hear the playback, that is the take they just did,” says Butler.
Adjmi chimes in, exclaiming, “People think it's all fake, ‘Oh, they're not really playing, they're not really singing.’ They're really doing everything. Nothing is being faked in the show. Nothing.”
Adds Butler: “It’s wild.”
Similar to how this is Adjmi’s first time writing a show about music, this is Butler’s first time writing songs for a theatrical work. And both Butler and Adjmi were clear to call the show a play with music instead of a musical. Because the audience only hears two full songs in the show—the rest of it are snippets (similar to the experience of watching a music documentary).
Working off the drafts that Adjmi provided, Butler had to compose songs that would reveal something about the characters, provide narrative momentum, and were catchy (like they could be on a hit record). “The only way I can do it is through collaboration,” Butler says of the frequent workshops the play has had over the years. “Like, [Director Daniel Aukin] often was in the room. A lot of the time, Justin Craig, our music director, was in the room. And you're just, like, catching the vibes off people and seeing people getting goosebumps and asking them if they get goosebumps…It's like you're living in an electron cloud, where nothing is determined, until suddenly it all is.”
It seems Butler’s succeeded—due to popular demand, there are plans to record the Stereophonic songs for an album. And it’s been given the seal of approval from other professional musicians. "It's horribly real,” says Butler, who seems to have a flair for the dramatic. “I have friends in bands who see it. And they come out and they're like, ‘Cool. I hate it. Thank you. That's beautiful. What an amazing play.’”
Though there were some things Stereophonics made a little tamer, Butler says, chuckling, “My friend came and she brought her mom who owned a studio in the ’70s. And she was like…‘The shoes that Diana was wearing, I think those are the shoes that Bette Midler threw at the control room window when she was really mad at the engineer!’” In other words, it's the stuff of great drama.