When Penny Lane, the enigmatic woman at the center of Almost Famous said “If you ever get lonely, you just go to the record store and visit your friends," she might as well have been referring to June 1, when company members from Almost Famous the Musical descended on the Friki Tiki piano bar in Midtown Manhattan to hold a cast recording listening party.
The album, which was released April 21, captured the Broadway version of the show written by Pulitzer winner Tom Kitt and Oscar winner Cameron Crowe. Based on Crowe's semi-autobiographical film of the same name, the constant evolution of the show was fascinating to him. "It's amazing! Theatre really can change from day to day. They lie in the world of movies, and say it can change, but it never changes," Crowe shrugs, taking a moment to think back over the ten films he has directed since 1989. "Maybe 3% from the first time you see an assembly cut changes, but it's basically the same, and it stays the same all around the world. Film is set in stone. It's truly breathtaking how theatre changes, day to day."
In many ways, those variations from performance to performance were a return to form for Crowe, who began his career as a rock writer for Rolling Stone (the inspiration behind Almost Famous itself). No two concerts are ever exactly the same, and stepping into the theatre world was a return to that ephemeral glory. Now, that the daily adjustments have been preserved in amber in the form of a cast recording, hindsight and quasi-parental pride have begun to kick in.
As the cast celebrated on June 1 with cocktails and polaroid film flowing free, Crowe could be seen capturing cell phone footage of the impromptu singalongs and speeches, preserving the evening for himself the same way many parents preserve moments from their children's lives. As Kitt reflected the morning after the celebration, "It's incredibly emotional. To hear it come alive in that space, and hear the record fully...I would never turn down anyone who offered me the opportunity to work on Almost Famous, to be in the rehearsal room, or to perform those songs with that cast."
The glossy white grand piano of the Friki Tiki was certainly put to good use at the celebration, with cast members jumping atop the platform with Kitt to perform a variety of songs from the show, including "No Friends" and "Stick Around," as well as the cut song "He Knows Too Little (And I Know Too Much)."
The cut song, which appears as a bonus track on the cast recording, was an early piece of the Almost Famous puzzle, and is one that Kitt, Crowe, and its performer, Anika Larsen, treasure. By preserving it on the cast recording, they were able to breathe lasting life into the piece, even if it had been removed from the Jacobs Theatre stage.
One of the most moving moments of the night was when the company piled together around Kitt to sing Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," one of a handful of existing songs that had been interpolated into the score as a through line to an iconic scene in the original film. As Penny Lane understudy Jana Djenne Jackson belted it out, and Larsen clung to Kitt for support, Kitt sang the main William Miller line, looking straight out at Crowe and the rapt audience of family and friends that had worked on the production.
The next day, the pair got together and got back to work.
Their tinkering may never be seen by the public eye, but that isn't the point: after spending hours back in the world of Almost Famous, neither Kitt nor Crowe could bear to leave it in the past tense. "I can never get tired of talking about this beautiful story," Kitt says. "This is the music that changed my life. I think with every show, more life is better than not. If you're lucky, you hit it out of the park the first time, but most often with a new musical there's stuff to learn every step of the way. It's been a wild ride with Almost Famous, first with the Old Globe in San Diego, and then on Broadway, and we've learned a lot in both incarnations. I'm excited to see what 'more life' is for this show."
Crowe agrees, relishing the pleasure of returning to the material with fresh eyes after the exhausting sprint of a Broadway preview period. "The key to so many things is rewriting. Sometimes things come in a rush, and they're perfect, and you don't want to touch one thing you write on a napkin, and it never changes. But other stuff is relentless rewriting to make it sound simple and fresh. Just like the first time you ever heard these words. And honestly, that's the fun part."
As the June 1 party came to a close, after shotski's were consumed and hugs were exchanged, the pre-finale interlude "Goodbye/New Day Coming" played overhead. The album had been played through in its entirety three times in a row, and under the friendly chatter, at least one ensemble member could be heard singing along to their backing vocals.
"There's a new day coming. There's a new day."