George Street Playhouse opens its 40th season with Gettin' the Band Back Together, a new rock musical conceived by theater producer Ken Davenport, who performs double duty with this production, writing the show's book in addition to producing. Directed by John Rando, the musical tells the story of a 40-year-old Wall Street suit who is fired from his job and forced to move back in with his mother in Sayreville, New Jersey. He reassembles his high-school bandmates to face off against their old rivals in a battle of the bands, the results of which decide whether his mother gets to keep her house.
To get started on this new piece, Davenport oversaw a collaborative writing process involving a group of performer-improvisers called The Grundleshotz. "I ‘cast' thirteen actor-writers as the parts that I saw in the show, and we improvised scenes, created character back stories, and even took a field trip to Sayreville, New Jersey…I took the transcripts to all of those sessions and forged them into a script," Davenport explains. It's the same formula he used in creating The Awesome 80s Prom, which just announced a fall closing date following a successful nine-year run.
Emily McNamara and Jay Klaitz, two Grundleshotz members who appear in this production, truly enjoyed the process of ensemble-based writing. Says Klaitz, "Ken would have an idea for a scene, and we would improvise, or write stuff and send it in, or sit around talking about ideas…We always had fun coming up with stuff, and Ken let us be as nutty as we wanted. Ken and [director John] Rando [are] very open to us trying things. We're encouraged to go wherever we want to go and see what happens."
McNamara adds, "As much as I have fun playing the role I created, it's actually more fun for me to sit back and see how the whole thing has come together. And when I hear actors like Alison Fraser or Mitch Jarvis, who I think are brilliant, saying things that we jokingly said in rehearsal four years ago, it's really satisfying. I get to constantly reminisce about how it all developed, and the fun of the process along the way."
Klaitz plays Bart Vickers, the character he created in rehearsals. Even the name was his decision — it's the name of one of his childhood best friends. ("I did it so I could have it to hold over him for the rest of our lives," he jokes.) In the show, Bart "is the best friend of the protagonist. He's a math teacher at the local high school. He's very excited to have his buddy come back home."
McNamara is seen in a number of roles, the main one being Tawney Truebody, a Canadian who recently moved to Sayreville and opened a chain of vegan frozen-yogurt stores called NoYo. "She's this bohemian, hippie-dippy, openhearted beam of light, who ends up becoming the love interest of the piano player. And then I get to do all this other cool stuff [in other roles]," says McNamara.
Both Vickers and McNamara have a lot of admiration for the composer-lyricist Mark Allen, who came on board to write the score after the script was completed. Allen created a mix of book numbers and '80s-style rock songs for the bands to perform. "Mark has written some amazing tunes," Klaitz said. "It's definitely a rock musical, and of course some songs lean more toward rock, some lean more toward musical theater. He's ridden the line perfectly in every case."
Allen's diverse musical background includes theater-composing, playing in bands, recording backup vocals in Nashville, writing commercial music for brands like Corona and Nintendo, and film-scoring. Drawing on his influences to create songs to the required specifications is a familiar assignment to Allen. "What's great is we had time in the beginning for me to just listen to things and go, ‘Okay, that song would be a good model for that moment,'" he says. "So once I had a road map of where I wanted to go, I'd listen to those songs over and over, to understand what's making them work, and then never listen to them again, so I wouldn't copy them. That's been the challenge of this, to make something that feels nostalgic, but also feels current."
Audiences may recognize the sounds of Cyndi Lauper, Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Springsteen, and more. "We wanted to try with original music, to make the songs start in a way that makes people go, ‘I know where we are.'"
The cast and creative team are excited to share this show with audiences. "It's very funny, and it's not ashamed or afraid to go lowbrow and get a little dirty, in a great way," said Klaitz. "It's rock-and-roll, it's comedy, and it's got a big heart to it. There's a song called ‘Do Over' — it's about these guys getting a do-over for their dreams, the things they were passionate about when they were young, having another shot at that. I think there are a lot of people who will relate."
McNamara echoes that the show has both entertainment value and a message. "The dreams that you have as a kid are larger than life. At some point you grow up and get into reality mode. This is a look at what would happen if you got to say, You don't have to be the best, most famous, most rich, most glamorous version of that thing. You can still get the fun and satisfaction and fulfillment of doing that thing." And, beyond that, she adds, the show is simply a good time: "You feel like you're watching a beloved eighties flick — as a musical."
Click here to read TheaterMania's review of Gettin' the Band Back Together.