BERKELEY, Calif. — It looks like an innocent radio sing-a-long. In the new musical “Girlfriend,” two adolescents are belting out a pop-rock tune that’s on the radio. Flirting like high school seniors headed to the prom, the couple grows more spirited as the music turns louder, ultimately starting to wrestle playfully as they drive along.
I didn’t know nobody
And then I saw you coming my way
Don’t you need to get in the arms of a good friend?
Oh, cuz believe me, I’d sure love to call you my girlfriend.
The two kids know the words to Matthew Sweet’s love song very well, but the teens are only beginning to grasp that the lyrics might have a deeper personal meaning. That’s because the young couple in this Nebraska romance are two boys grappling with their sexual identity and mutual attraction.
So even though Will and Mike are singing about a girlfriend, they are really starting to talk about their emergent romantic feelings for one another — as they struggle with the local rules of high school romance, which don’t easily accommodate Midwestern kids who aren’t straight.
The scene is central to the narrative focus of “Girlfriend,” featuring many of the songs from Sweet’s 1991 breakout album of the same name. As envisioned in a book by Todd Almond under the direction of Les Waters (“In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play”), last week’s world premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre uses Sweet’s music and lyrics to express private yearnings and doubts that otherwise might not be voiced by the show’s two classmates.
“Music is a way,” says Waters during a break in rehearsal a few weeks ago, “to express your secret life.” The production’s central drama is whether that secret life can somehow be shared.
Although the show is not purely autobiographical, its thematic outline was shaped by Almond’s teenage years in Alliance, Neb. The lyricist and playwright (“Kansas City Choir Boy,” “People Like Us”) says there “was no sort of gay youth culture” in the early 1990s and that he told only one female acquaintance that he wasn’t straight. “There were no Internet chat rooms, no gay celebrities who were out,” Almond says. “I look back at that time in my life and my heart was always heartbroken.”
With hardly anyone to confide in and no boyfriend, Almond instead turned to music for solace and companionship. It was Sweet’s “Girlfriend” album, an occasionally country-twinged chronicle about falling in and out of love, along with Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” that became a recurrent selection in his tune-filled life.
Almond would occasionally put some of Sweet’s songs onto a mix tape, and gave them to boys he knew, hoping “the person I make this for gets the code” — that the songs were about his feelings, not about his taste in music.
But if the target acquaintance wasn’t receptive, Almond could insist it was just an innocent assembly of favorite compositions. It was a safe way, in other words, of expressing a potentially dangerous communication. The tactic didn’t lead to any early boyfriends, but it did plant the musical’s conceptual seed.
In the usual conceit of musical theater, characters burst into song to declare their desires as clearly and as publicly as possible. Simba in “The Lion King” states that he “just can’t wait to be king,” while Nellie in “South Pacific” says she’s “gonna wash that man right out of my hair.”
What was happening in a relatively bare rehearsal hall was taking the convention into another direction.
The more the two “Girlfriend” characters sang something, the more a divergent version of what they were singing was true. Mike, who’s less sure of his sexual orientation than Will, sings “Winona” about a third of the way into the show. Sweet’s lyrics are straightforward enough, describing an unrequited crush on a film actress:
Could you be my little movie star?
Could you be my long lost girl?
But as with the presentation of the song “Girlfriend,” Mike’s isn’t necessarily talking about a woman. He’s really asking about Will, though he dare not ask directly.
It’s one of the musical’s two principal creative maneuvers. “Girlfriend” also uses a device last seen at Berkeley Repertory in last year’s world premiere of “American Idiot.” In that musical, opening Tuesday on Broadway, Green Day’s rock songs were used to tell the musical’s entire story, even though the tunes were only loosely narrative and didn’t readily delineate protagonists.
“American Idiot” director Michael Mayer didn’t want to add interstitial dialogue to Green Day’s music, but Almond has no such qualms. “Girlfriend,” with musical accompaniment from a four-piece, all-female band, alternates between Sweet’s songs (there are nine songs from “Girlfriend,” one from the album “Altered Beast” and two from “100% Fun”) and Almond’s dialogue.
Set in 1993, the musical opens with Will and Mike graduating from high school. Will isn’t particularly bookish — “This year, I resolve to drop my bad habit of learning things,” he says — but confident in who he is.
Mike, a jock, is trying to sort out everything that’s going on in his life. His dad doesn’t believe he’s practicing baseball enough, and maybe Mike isn’t — because he’s daydreaming, playing guitar. He hates his hometown, and isn’t sure he really wants to study medicine.
When he’s with Will, though, everything seems right in the world. The more they sing Sweet’s songs, the more they realize they should be together, even if someone calls them derogatory names.
As the musical’s young cast (Ryder Bach plays Will, Jason Hite plays Mike) worked through the scene in the car, Waters — who is directing his first musical — realized there was only so much choreographer Joe Goode could do.
With the bare-bones production (the show is being staged in the theater’s smaller auditorium), the car was represented by a couch, but even that was limiting. So the dance became a series of hand gestures, small movements in which the actors more or less subconsciously start imitation the other.
“It has to be kept simple.” Waters says. “If it gets too big, it gets away from the real, genuine charm of the piece, which is the relationship between the boys.”
Almond says he designed the show so that audience understands the loneliness of being gay and alone. “I want those boys to feel isolated, like I did,” he says. And yet Sweet’s music gives them (just as it did for Almond) hope.
Sweet, who spent his formative musical career in Athens, Ga., and in recent years has recorded 1960s and ‘70s cover albums with Bangles vocalist Susanna Hoffs, says he’s intrigued by Almond’s use of his songs.
“I thought it was really cool — to show how they are trying to put across all of these feelings in a sideways way,” Sweet says. “I wanted the album to be really universal. The songs were very personal to me, but it makes me proud and makes me glad that other people could relate to it. That somebody who is gay could relate it — that’s fantastic.”