蘑菇影院

Meet Will Butler, the singer-songwriter who makes Broadway鈥檚 鈥楽tereophonic鈥 rock

Share

NEW YORK (蘑菇影院) 鈥 The assignment was daunting: Write a song for an onstage moment of transcendence. Make it kind of funny and exciting and for a five-piece band. Write it so it justifies an audience sitting in their seats for two hours before they hear it. And, oh, it must plausibly be a rock hit in 1976.

That was the job facing singer-songwriter Will Butler and the music arrangers for just one of the songs that stud the Tony Award-nominated play 鈥沦迟别谤别辞辫丑辞苍颈肠,鈥 a leading contender at the June 16 Tony Awards.

鈥淚t鈥檚 like, 鈥極K, that is a lot of things to think about, but let鈥檚 just try it out and we just tried it out,鈥 says Butler, who left Arcade Fire in 2022 and has a new band, Sister Squares.

鈥淪tereophonic鈥 is playwright David Adjmi鈥檚 story of a Fleetwood Mac-like band in the mid-鈥70s recording music over a life-changing year, with personal rifts opening and closing and then reopening.

The music that accompanies the drama includes full-on rockers like and 鈥淒rive鈥 but also fragments and demos as the band reworks tunes. It is a wonderful slice of funky, classic rock for a fictional band that became a real one onstage.

鈥淚 was trying to get in their heads. I was also a lot of the time just trying to make a great song, which is a hard enough task. And then hopefully a great song can support many interpretations 鈥 that鈥檚 the dream.鈥

Butler was connected with Adjmi by a mutual friend, and they first met at a diner about 10 years ago. Butler had just moved to New York and writing for theater intrigued him. It was a relaxed meeting and they hit it off: The two talked about 鈥淢oby Dick鈥 for an hour.

Adjmi hadn鈥檛 yet written a word of 鈥淪tereophonic.鈥 He had the title, a vague concept and wanted it set in a recording studio. Butler over the next five years would submit 鈥渞andom鈥 demos, like a song that someone might write if they listened to Phil Spector all day or one inspired by Sylvester in 1973 in San Francisco.

Once a script appeared, Adjmi leaned on Butler to fill in the song gaps. One moment had Diana, a young singer-songwriter, nervously play a new tune to her controlling boyfriend, the band鈥檚 de facto leader and guitarist.

This image released by O&M/DKC shows the cast of "Stereophonic." (Julieta Cervantes/O&M/DKC via 蘑菇影院)

The cast of 鈥淪tereophonic.鈥 (Julieta Cervantes/O&M/DKC via 蘑菇影院)

What would it sound like? It could have been a Stevie Nicks-inspired I鈥檓-looking-at-you takedown, more a Joni Mitchell-ish mystical journey or a Neil Young 鈥淗eart of Glass鈥-like approach. Butler wrote lots of options, some which ended up on his new band鈥檚 2023 self-titled debut.

He tried to give the musicians a sonic backstory. They likely listened to Nina Simone and girl groups growing up. They likely heard Glenn Gould and folk music change from Peter, Paul and Mary into Bob Dylan.

Butler credits the whole team 鈥 Adjmi, sound designer Ryan Rumery, orchestrator and musical director Justin Craig and director Daniel Aukin 鈥 for refining and refining the songs. All have Tony nominations.

鈥淭he music that I鈥檝e always made is just a very deep collaborative art form. And theater, by its nature, is deeply collaborative,鈥 says Butler.

鈥淲e were all just going to have each other鈥檚 backs, and there wasn鈥檛 going to be a hierarchy. We were just going to dig in on this and work on it until it was good.鈥

Butler was also able to help the cast understand what long hours in the recording booth are like and helped with technical details 鈥 like that it might take an engineer 15 seconds to rewind a piece of music 鈥 but left the writing alone.

鈥淭he emotional world is completely accurate to my experience. I was in a band with my brother for 20 years and his wife for 20 years, and I鈥檓 in a band now with my wife and her sister,鈥 he says.

Tony Award nominee Will Butler poses for a portrait on Monday, June 3, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/蘑菇影院)

Tony Award nominee Will Butler poses for a portrait on Monday, June 3, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/蘑菇影院)

鈥淚t鈥檚 just like you watch it and you鈥檙e like, 鈥業 hate this play!鈥 This is too real. So, the emotional landscape is completely accurate.鈥

Assembling a cast of actors who could become a rock band was an entirely different task. The show needed a real drummer, since even a year鈥檚 worth of lessons wouldn鈥檛 be enough. They found a drummer-actor in Chris Stack.

They found a competent bassist in Will Brill and a good guitarist in Tom Pecinka. For the two female band members they lucked out on Julian Canfield and Sarah Pidgeon, who both played piano as kids and had lovely, raw voices.

鈥淲e really lucked into our voices. Day one in rehearsal, Tom Pecinka and Juliana Canfield and Sarah Pidgeon sang together, and I was just like, 鈥極K, it鈥檚 going to work out.鈥 It sounded like they鈥檇 been singing together for a decade, and it was just beautiful.鈥

Pidgeon says the experience has been bonding, and the actors now feel like a band, rehearsing every day and watching their egos drop away. The band was even asked to play at Butler鈥檚 most recent album drop party.

鈥淚 feel kind of like an athlete every every night, like a trick snowboarder where I鈥檓 trying to do flips and spins and get my highest score and I need to stick the landing.鈥

Butler, who has a Grammy for Arcade Fire鈥檚 鈥淭he Suburbs鈥 and a Oscar nomination for working on Spike Jonze鈥檚 film 鈥淗er,鈥 now finds himself the toast of New York theater. He admits he was a little skeptical after the show debuted off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons when producers wanted to take it to Broadway.

鈥淚 didn鈥檛 say this in the room at the time, but in my brain, I was like, it鈥檚 your money,鈥 he says, laughing. 鈥淔or it to be a hit is very absurdly pleasing, like pleasing and absurd. Just madness.鈥

___

Mark Kennedy is at

鈥-

More on the Tony Awards: /hub/tony-awards

Entertainment writer, editor and critic