Interview: John Ross Bowie Brings the Ramones Back to the Stage
Bowie's play Four Chords and a Gun will be performed with an all-star cast via Play-PerView.
Home viewers might recognize John Ross Bowie from long-running TV hits like The Big Bang Theory (playing Barry Kripke) and Speechless (Jimmy DiMeo), but what you probably don't know about this veteran improver and character actor is that he's a huge theater fan. He grew up in New York and has fond memories of seeing the original cast of Annie, Derek Jacobi in Cyrano, and Spalding Gray in Our Town, among other shows. His first trip back to the theater since the pandemic started — the Fountain Theatre's new outdoor production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's An Octoroon in Los Angeles — made him weep.
For his first foray into the world of playwriting, Bowie created Four Chords and a Gun, a dark comedy about the punk band The Ramones and their conflict with mega-producer Phil Spector as they recorded the album End of the Century in 1979. The play has been seen in Los Angeles, Toronto, and Chicago, and will now get a virtual premiere via Play-PerView on Saturday, June 26.
Jessica Hanna's virtual production features a "dreamy" cast: Justin Kirk (Weeds) as Johnny Ramone, Ben Feldman (Superstore) as Phil Spector, Brendan Hunt (Ted Lasso) as Marky Ramone, Bobby Conte. Thornton (Company) as Joey Ramone, Michael Cassady (The O.C.) as Dee Dee Ramone, and Lena Hall (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) as Linda Daniele.
And Bowie can't wait to see them do it.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What made you say "I want to write a play about the Ramones"?
I've been a Ramones fan since I was 14, and as I delved into the stories behind them, I found them a group full of contradictions. They dress like tough guys but only Johnny was an authentic tough guy. There was something aggressive but also sweet about their music. And then, there was a really interesting dynamic about the band recording their fifth album, which is the one they did with Phil Spector. Here was a band that was used to working fast and cheap, keeping it really punk rock and banging it out in a week for a couple of grand, and suddenly, they were working with this guy who was famously meticulous and precise.
On the surface, there was a push-pull between people who just wanted to fire out inspired punk rock blasts and a guy who was trying to craft a perfect pop record. Then, you go deeper into it and you learn that the Ramones were going through a vicious love triangle at one point, their bassist was struggling with addiction, and Spector was, obviously, famously crazy and eventually died in jail serving time for a murder charge, and basically all of this was happening around the same time. The play compresses that time a little bit, but it struck me as an interesting way to look at how people approach art and work, and how those two things grind against each other.
Knowing that you're a copious consumer of theater, when you started writing this, were there tropes or things that you knew you wanted to use or avoid in the storytelling?
I was mindful of the fact that I was working in a medium that has a very long history, and I'm very specific about what I was influenced by and what I straight out stole. I'm comfortable saying that because what the Ramones did was take pastiche work like the '60s girl group sound and combined it with the guitar work of the Stooges.
Even though it's not a musical, I was mindful to give it some musical beats. The opening scene sets up the world, and the second scene has what you'd call the "I Want" number, which is a monologue Joey gives about his relationship to creation. The other thing I was mindful of was making sure that if the actors had an intense scene, they'd also get a break. And I didn't want to be the kind of playwright who is so in love with their writing that the dialogue just sounds like writing. I did a ton of readings to make sure the dialogue was speakable and grounded, and if it was ever not grounded, that there was a good emotional reason for it.
Tell me about what your cast brings to the piece.
I didn't have too much to do with the casting, but I'm thrilled that it panned out the way it has. Justin Kirk did an early reading as Johnny. There's such a relaxed quality to his acting that I've always envied, and then when it's time for his character to lose his shit, it's so involving as an audience member. Ben Feldman did an early reading as Phil Spector and the only reason he didn't do the premiere was because Superstore got picked up. Lena Hall is playing Joey's girlfriend Linda, and she's great for it. She's got a phenomenal Broadway voice, but she's got some real grit. I heard her work on the Hedwig cast recording and then after she got cast, I did a deep dive. She's got these cover Eps that she put out, one of which has a very credible cover of "Anarchy in the U.K." by the Sex Pistols. So even though it's not a singing role, she gets what we're trying to do.
Brendan Hunt, who plays Marky, is new to the project, but he's an L.A. theater stalwart. I don't think people realize how much stage work he does here in L.A., and he's also an old school improv guy like I am. He's doing it from London, where he's shooting the second season of Ted Lasso. Marky was their longest-serving drummer, the drummer who played on the most albums, and he had a massive drinking problem at the time. He's the only surviving member of the band from this session, and for the purposes of our play, he's a not-entirely-reliable narrator. Our director, Jessica Hanna, also thought it was a neat idea for him to read stage directions in character, so it's not this disembodied voice. It's almost like he's veering into Our Town Stage Manager territory.
Do you want to take this play to New York eventually?
The fact that this play has been to Los Angeles and Toronto and Chicago and not New York is outrageous, but I don't know that I see it in a Broadway house. It was done in Toronto and Chicago in very large houses, but in hindsight, I feel it works better as a smaller chamber piece. There are moments, particularly when you get into the actual nuts and bolts of the recording session, that are served by a certain amount of cramped intimacy that a larger house doesn't get you to. For the play to really land, you need to feel that you are stuck in the studio with a very volatile producer and people who are struggling with their mental health. If you're too far away from them, it loses something. I do think the Zoom reading is going to come out really well. Again, that cast is dreamy.