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How a Matthew Sweet album inspired the stage musical, 'Girlfriend'

Ryder Bach, left, and Curt Hansen in “Girlfriend,” with book by Todd Almond and music and lyrics by Matthew Sweet. “Girlfriend” is playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through Aug. 9.
Ryder Bach, left, and Curt Hansen in “Girlfriend,” with book by Todd Almond and music and lyrics by Matthew Sweet. “Girlfriend” is playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through Aug. 9.
Craig Schwartz
Ryder Bach, left, and Curt Hansen in “Girlfriend,” with book by Todd Almond and music and lyrics by Matthew Sweet. “Girlfriend” is playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through Aug. 9.
Ryder Bach in “Girlfriend,” with book by Todd Almond and music and lyrics by Matthew Sweet. “Girlfriend” is playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through Aug. 9.
Craig Schwartz

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Can you remember what your favorite album was when you were in middle school? Sometimes that music, embarrassing as it might be, sticks with people for life. And in the case of playwright and lyricist Todd Almond, that album is Matthew Sweet's 1991 record, "Girlfriend."

So when Almond began work on a musical based on his experiences as a gay teenager growing up in Nebraska, it only made sense for Sweet's album to be involved in some way. What ended up happening, however, is that the album "Girlfriend" ended up forming the entirety of the lyrics and music for the show.

When Almond joined us on The Frame, he talked about the loneliness he experienced growing up in Nebraska, how he navigated his awkward teenage years, and the new play he's doing with Courtney Love.

Interview Highlights:

So what was it about this album that affected you so greatly?

There's a small group of us that have this reaction to that album where it just moved us profoundly. I think that there's an operatic-ness about love within that album, and maybe I was just feeling so alone in Nebraska and I wanted so desperately to be in love like the people around me that I saw having this experience. I think that's partly why I'm in theater and why I'm a writer — I was able to internalize all of that angst and all of that frustration and I had to live with it for a long time.

I want to talk a little bit more about that, about the idea of being isolated and growing up in Nebraska as a gay teen. We talked five years ago when the show premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, and here's something you said to me: "There were no Internet chat rooms, no gay celebrities who were out. I look back on that time in my life and my heart was always heartbroken."

[laughs] I wish I could say I feel differently, but that's really true. I think part of the human condition is isolation in one way or another, and I think in that particular time for a gay teen in the Midwest, the isolation was pretty acute.

There was no representation on television and there was no Internet, so you weren't able to log on and see other people like [yourself] at all, and there weren't cellphones, so you couldn't communicate in that way.

I honestly felt like I was the only gay kid in my town — which wasn't true, I now know — and I thought that I was probably the only gay kid in my state, which of course is not true. But that sensation was pretty potent at that time. In retrospect, it was a beautiful breeding ground for art, but also for desperation. [laughs]

Even though this play isn't autobiographical, it's based largely on some of the emotional experiences you went through at the time, and it's also important that Matthew Sweet's record was a rescue for you in some ways. So how did those two things, your experiences growing up as a gay teen in Nebraska and Matthew Sweet's album, coalesce into this show?

There's a moment in the piece when the two boys are driving in a car, and one has given the other a tape of the album and he asks, "Did you listen to it?" The other one says yes, and he says, "I love music a lot. It's the only thing that keeps me from..." — and he doesn't finish the sentence. I feel like that kind of answers the question that you're asking.

I remember making a mixtape for a certain boy who was straight as could be, very nice, and I put all of these songs on the tape and thought, I hope he hears what I want him to hear. Later, when I thought back about wanting to write something about that time in life — which I think everyone goes through, gay or straight — the horror of not knowing what to say to somebody, [wondering] do they feel the same way you do, and how will they react if you say it out loud ... that album automatically starts playing in my head when I think about that time.

It took me a long time to figure out that these boys can use those songs to communicate with each other, so it's perhaps interesting for two boys to be sitting in a car, singing a song with the lines,  "I'd sure love to call you my girlfriend," and hope that the other one is understanding that they actually mean that. But you have plausible deniability: it's just a song on the radio and I'm just singing it, so I don't actually mean what you think I mean, but I really do. [laughs]

I want to talk about one of your most recent shows, called "Kansas City Choir Boy," which debuted at a small theater in New York earlier this year. You not only wrote it, you performed it opposite Courtney Love. How did that collaboration come about, and what's next for that show?

My husband is an agent and he has been working with Courtney for the last couple of years, so I got to know her personally. And for whatever reason we really hit it off and we just have this great friendship. I wrote this piece called "Kansas City Choir Boy," and the Prototype Opera Festival in New York wanted us to do the show.

We had a wonderful Australian actress named Meow Meow who was originally going to do the part, but scheduling didn't work out so I asked, "Well, who can play this part?" You have to look at this character, and the only requirement is that, the second you look at them, you know they're destined for something that none of the rest of us will ever be destined for. They need to wear their destiny on the outside.

And [my husband] said, "What about Courtney?" And I said, "Well, obviously, Courtney Love is the perfect person for this part, but would she want to do a tiny, weird performance in a basement with 80 seats?" I asked Courtney and we had this long conversation about it, and she was like, "Let's do it."

She was flawless in the show, worked so hard, and is really great. We're doing it in L.A. at the Kirk Douglas in October. It's a string quartet, a chorus of six girls, me, Courtney, techno beats, a weird piano that I play ... it's wild.

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