How 'Stereophonic' made musicians out of actors
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How 'Stereophonic' made musicians out of actors
Will Brill on bas and Chris Stack on drums during the play “Stereophonic,” at the Golden Theater in New York, April 1, 2024. The new Broadway play conjures a group as dazzling as peak Fleetwood Mac. Its five actors with limited musical training (one never held a bass) took some unusual steps to find their inner rock star. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK, NY.- About a week into rehearsals for the off-Broadway premiere of David Adjmi’s latest play, “Stereophonic,” Will Butler sent an email to the cast. Butler, a former member of Arcade Fire, had a new band, Will Butler + Sister Squares, and a new self-titled album. A club in Brooklyn would soon host the record release party. Butler, the composer of “Stereophonic,” had a proposition: The actors should open for him.

Sarah Pidgeon, a cast member, remembered reading the message last August during a rehearsal break. “I immediately said no,” she recalled. “Because what if it’s a failure?”

She had taken piano lessons as a child, but Pidgeon didn’t consider herself a musician. Neither did any of the other actors. “Stereophonic,” which opened last week at Broadway’s Golden Theater, is set in recording studios in the mid-1970s, and conjures an unnamed band as dynamic, dazzling and sexy as peak Fleetwood Mac or Led Zeppelin. It would be daunting enough to impersonate a band of that caliber onstage after a full rehearsal period. But to play a real show in a real club after just a few weeks. This was an invitation to public humiliation.

Juliana Canfield (“Succession”), another cast member, was also a no. “I was like, Geez, we can’t get through one tune without falling apart,” she said. “This could be really, really embarrassing.”

But the men in the fictional band insisted. (“We suffered from peer pressure,” Pidgeon joked.) Which explains how on Sept. 23, the five actors — Will Brill on bass, Canfield on keyboards, Tom Pecinka on guitar, Pidgeon on tambourine, Chris Stack on drums — stood onstage at the Williamsburg club Elsewhere, in front of hundreds of ticket holders who didn’t know the group was only pretending to be a band. There were no scripted lines for them that night, no characters to hide behind.

Brill described it as “a really extreme piece of exposure therapy” and “just horror.” But the therapy worked. At Elsewhere, for the first time, the actors — panicked, exhilarated — felt like a band.

Adjmi (“Stunning,” “Marie Antoinette”) had begun dreaming of “Stereophonic” about a decade ago. He brought on Butler, whom he knew through friends, soon after. Butler was wary of writing 1970s pastiche. So instead he asked himself what kind of music a quintet would make if they had grown up on the Beatles’ White Album a decade before, and what would Kurt Cobain have listened to in the ’80s. The compositions, he said, had to feel both of the era and timeless.

“I was trying to think of it on a continuum,” he said. “It wasn’t like, let’s make something in 1976.”

Butler, Adjmi and the director, Daniel Aukin, weren’t necessarily looking for musicians to play these songs. When auditions began last spring, the emphasis was on finding actors who felt right.

“I was like, as long as someone is musical, any idiot can be in a band,” Butler said. “I can write to whatever level.” Later Butler realized that this was perhaps naive.

Auditions and callbacks went on for months. Some who auditioned were dedicated amateurs. Some couldn’t play at all. “That was really rough,” Adjmi said.

Pecinka had taught himself some guitar over the years, but he was by no means an expert. Asked to learn a riff for one of the play’s song, “Masquerade,” an eerie bayou stomp, for a callback, he took the music to a teacher at a guitar shop. The guitar teacher told him that he would never be able to do it. But something in the quality of his performance was enough.

So Pecinka was cast, as were the other actors, who varied widely in musicianship. Brill had never held a bass before. Stack had played in plenty of bands. (An experienced drummer was needed for his role because the coordination required for drumming takes longer to learn.) Pidgeon is perhaps a better pianist than her character, Diana, but she had done little singing. Though Canfield had taken piano lessons in elementary school, she had never played in front of an audience. Even playing for her fellow actors was daunting.

“I would go into a flop sweat,” she said. “My hands were sweaty. I felt like I was playing on puddles on the keys.”

Brill, who plays her husband, found a kind of virtue in the terror. “It was very, very vulnerable,” he said. “We didn’t have the same kind of protections that we typically have as actors, which was really refreshing and really lovely.”

During the first month of rehearsal, more than half the day was given over to band practice. Twice each week Brill and Pecinka were pulled aside for bass and guitar lessons. The Elsewhere gig, a trial by fire and amplifier, gave the actors a jolt of confidence and the muscle memory of what it might feel like to play in front of a crowd.

Even so, rehearsals remained fraught. The script alone, which runs to nearly three hours and often dilates on the technical minutiae of the recording process, was daunting. The songs were perhaps harder. Integrating the two — playing in character, making the struggle invisible — felt nearly impossible. When Adjmi visited rehearsal, the actors would barely acknowledge him. “They were all in a state of electrified horror,” he said. “They wouldn’t even really talk to me. They wouldn’t even talk to each other.”

Yet Butler and Justin Craig, the play’s music director, were already taking the measure of the cast, reorchestrating the songs for their quirks and strengths. Canfield, Pecinka and Pidgeon had voices that blended beautifully together. “So we decided to really go for it with vocal arrangements,” Craig said.

And as Pecinka and Brill grew as musicians, Craig and Butler could add more licks, more riffs. Butler slowed down the yearning, rootsy “Seven Roads,” because the actors “grooved in a different way than the demo,” he said. Writing for this quintet, however amateur, wasn’t too different from writing for any of Butler’s other bands.

“It was figuring out what people’s strengths are and where the emotion is coming from, and I’m trying to heighten that emotion.”

In October, during tech rehearsal and preview performances for the off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons, something ineffable shifted. “There was a moment when we started communicating with each other as musicians,” Stack said. Rehearsals had felt rushed, fraught. But now onstage, there was finally time to listen to one another. The actors developed inside jokes, riffs, routines, just like bandmates would.

Several actual musicians came to the off-Broadway run, including David Byrne. After the show, Brill asked Byrne if he had any notes on becoming a band. Byrne told him: You already are a band.

Byrne confirmed this. “Yes, it all rings true,” he wrote in an email. “They sound like a real band, a band still figuring out their songs in a studio.”

While there were still mistakes, those mistakes began to feel less important. Sometimes they even added texture. In one scene, Pidgeon’s Diana struggles to hit a note in the heartbreaker folk ballad “East of Eden.” Pidgeon has that same struggle. So she lent her own fear to the character. And as the actors came to know both their characters and the music better, they learned to play in character, letting the emotions of the scenes drive the songs. “What they wind up recording, however refracted through a commercial pop lens, inevitably expresses their heartache, betrayal and fury,” Jesse Green wrote in The New York Times for his review of the off-Broadway production.

The actors weren’t rock stars — not yet and probably not ever — but they began to feel closer to their virtuosic characters.

“Rock star charisma started to come as we started feeling like these were our songs,” Pidgeon said.

A few winter days spent in a real recording studio, in Brooklyn, laying down the tracks for a cast album, which will be released digitally May 10, also helped. “Being in the studio,” Pecinka said, “allowed me to be more confident because I was like, I’m on an album, I’m a real musician.”

In the couple of months between the end of the off-Broadway run and the start of rehearsals for the Broadway transfer, most of the actors said they put their instruments down. When they picked them up again, they found that the music was still there. None of them feel entirely relaxed in front of the microphones, but this time around they are more at ease.

“I’m dancing while I’m playing and I’m making eye contact,” Brill said. Which is a nice alternative to horror.

If they still haven’t played Madison Square Garden, as the fictional band has, they’ve now spent about nine months playing together. They may not be a band, not really, but they feel like one.

“We all hit wrong notes all the time,” Pidgeon said. “But it still works because it’s real.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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