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A new play peers into a band's life, from the inside

<em>Stereophonic</em>, a new play on Broadway with music by Arcade Fire's Will Butler, tracks the volatile creation of a rock and roll album over the course of a year in the 1970s.
Julieta Cervantes
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Stereophonic
Stereophonic, a new play on Broadway with music by Arcade Fire's Will Butler, tracks the volatile creation of a rock and roll album over the course of a year in the 1970s.

Updated April 19, 2024 at 15:44 PM ET

Stereophonic, a new play on Broadway with music by Arcade Fire's Will Butler,tracks the volatile creation of a rock and roll album over the course of a year in the 1970s.

The fictional five-member band, on the surface, looks a lot like Fleetwood Mac – it has two couples, one American, one British, and they squabble and break up as they make the record.

But, for the show's creative team, it is a hyper realistic look at the costs and glories of making art.

"There are iconographic elements that I stole from Fleetwood Mac," said playwright David Adjmi, "but I also stole from other things."

He did a lot of research on bands of the 1970s and recording studios of the time and has written the play in a documentary style.

"We're going to ask you to peek in," Adjmi said. "And that's what creates this kind of weird, titillating feeling for the audience and the feeling that you're getting something really, really intimate."

The set for Stereophonic is a working recording studio – from the banged-up mixing console to the 24-track tape machine to the big glass windows looking into a soundproof room where the musicians play and listen on their headphones. The vintage equipment is so real that director Daniel Aukin said, "I've learned recently that the song 'Midnight Train to Georgia' was recorded on it."

Over the course of three hours, the audience really gets to know the band and the engineers. They see the musicians hanging out, eating junk food, rolling joints, talking about movies, and squabbling.

Adjmi said he began writing Stereophonic at a point when he was feeling discouraged with theater and thought about quitting. The fights the characters are having with each other are the internal fights he was having with himself.

"Why am I doing this?" he said he asked himself. "I shouldn't be doing this. This is terrible. It's not worth it. No, it is worth it. It's beautiful. I wouldn't trade this for anything."

Turning actors into musicians

Before he had written a word, Adjmi got together in a diner with Will Butler, of the band Arcade Fire, to see if he'd write music for the play. Butler said he got excited as he learned that in the show, the music would be in the process of being created.

"And you'd hear a demo and then you'd hear them mixing in the vocals and you'd hear fragments of it. And the fragments are so compelling, and you want more, but you can't have more," he said. "And then, just that initial idea was so rich, I was like, 'I would love to do this!'"

But in order to pull off Adjmi's idea, they had to turn actors with some musical ability who could pull off nuanced characters into a believable group of musicians. And that proved complicated.

"It was a long process to find the right balance of people," said director Daniel Aukin.

"We had to have actors who you would want to cast in a Chekhov play, and we had to have actors who had enough musicality that we could project forward, given support, that they could get to where we needed them to be to pull it off."

While Chris Stack, cast as the drummer, was already a solid player, the rest of the cast took music lessons before rehearsal, said Will Brill, who plays the band's bass player.

"I learned to play really badly right before we started rehearsals," he said. "And, really, I mean, did a lot of catching up during rehearsals. Like, I didn't play a note before this thing!"

Butler said it was a leap of faith, hoping these five actors could become a band. For the first few weeks, much of the rehearsal process was spent in band rehearsals, rather than acting rehearsals. Then, Butler asked the quintet to open for him at a club in Brooklyn.

Andrew R. Butler and Eli Gelb as sound engineers use realistic-seeming equipment.
Julieta Cervantes / Stereophonic
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Stereophonic
Andrew R. Butler and Eli Gelb as sound engineers use realistic-seeming equipment.

"And they were great and they learned so much," he said, "and even just getting to the point where they had to stand on a stage in front of people, before they played a note. Like, that taught them so much of what a being a band is like, that taught them the energy that they're bringing to the studio."

The play tracks the band's process of creating an album for over a year.

Brill said he's moved by the final scene of the play, which is just the engineer onstage alone, playing with the faders of that vintage recording console.

"There is this glass box above his head that sort of looks like a thought bubble in some way," said the actor, "and it's as though the artist is sitting alone at his table and you wonder, like, 'Did he dream all this? Did it ever exist? Was this David [Adjmi] sitting alone at his table with all of his demons and gods?' It's very, very moving to me."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.