In 1991, singer/songwriter Matthew Sweet became something of a radio staple after the release of his third album, “Girlfriend,” which was hailed by critics and fans alike, and established the singer as the king of jangly guitar power pop.
Playwright Todd Almond was a huge fan of the album and was inspired to write a coming of age musical based on the songs. The result, aptly titled Girlfriend, will be making its DC area premiere at Signature Theatre under the direction of Signature Theatre Associate Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner.
“Ryan Rilette at Round House and I had talked about doing the show there a few years ago but it fell off the table, and it’s always been a piece I am super-attracted to,” Gardiner says. “As much as gay culture is a part of the theater, I think it’s so rare to see a piece of theater, especially in musicals, to feature a romantic story about two boys. It’s always been a story that I connect with. I love the music and Matthew Sweet’s album and it just felt right for Signature’s audience and a story I wanted to tell.”
Girlfriend comes to life in small-town Nebraska circa 1993, and looks at what happens when college-bound jock Mike and self-assured but aimless Will are suddenly drawn to one another. Their budding romance is set to the score of Sweet’s iconic album.
“To me, it’s a show that is very simple. It’s interesting that films like Call Me By Your Name and Love Simon have come out recently, because this is a voice and a story we are aching for, but at the same time, there’s a sort of simplicity and minimalism to it that allows the audience to place themselves in the story,” Gardiner says. “It’s not filled with a bunch of crazy plot twists. It’s really about these two people and the scary, amazing, awkward moments of first love, particularly what that means when you’re a young, gay man living in the Midwest.”
Back when the story takes place, there were no big celebrities out, no chat rooms devoted to talk about it, so a feeling of isolation is very prevalent in the story and Gardiner feels many people who grew up in the’80s ’90s, or even the 2000s can really relate to.
“Regardless of whoever you are, this is a universal theme about first love and what the power of meeting someone for the first time and feeling that person understands you on a whole other level and that goes beyond being gay,” he says. “I think this piece speaks to everyone and there’s no one that won’t relate to it on some level.”
The album came out when Gardiner was in elementary school, so it’s not like it had a big influence on him then. However, he notes that as he got older, he became aware of the music and grew to love the songs.
“What’s interesting about what Todd Almond has done with the score. He took these songs, that are about a heterosexual relationship, and without changing the pronouns or anything about the lyrics of the song, allows these characters to express their feelings for one another,” he says.”Todd said the reason he wrote this piece is because he used to make mix tapes for his friends in hopes that someone would hear a secret message and I think that idea of using songs written for a heterosexual couple in this way is both subversive and interesting and speaks to how young men in that time period may have communicated with each other.”
Produced by Signature Theatre
closes June 10, 2018
Details and tickets
Girlfriend will star Jimmy Mavrikes (Constellation’s The Wild Party) as Will and relative newcomer Lukas James Miller (Virginia Musical Theatre’s Freaky Friday) as Mike.
“Jimmy has been around Signature for a while but never in a lead role, but he’s done a lot of leads in smaller theaters around town. It seems like a perfect fit for him. He’s a young, gay man and a great actor, and was a no-brainer to cast him. Lukas just graduated from James Madison so was an unknown to me, but when he walked into the audition, he just had a lot of the traits of this character.”
At the callback, the director was impressed with the chemistry between the two actors and thought it would be an ideal pairing.
“They didn’t know each other but you can get a sense in a callback about how the two might interact with each other, particularly in a situation where you are casting two people that have to have a strong relationship on stage. That audition becomes a little bit of a date,” he says. “They were very open and honest with each other and truthful.”
Having only two performers always adds a different dynamic for a production and Gardiner notes his role as director is a little different, as he must ensure every beat, every objective and every detail is clear and nuanced in what is a much more intimate process.
“You become a little more of an acting coach,” he says. “Trying to find variety is difficult. Trying to make sure that with just two people on stage that you continue to hold the audience’s attention. More energy is placed in the choices the actors are making and it becomes less about distracting the audience with scenic changes and costume changes and things of that nature. It’s much more about the relationship between two people.”
Although Girlfriend has had several productions through the years, mostly on the West Coast, Gardiner himself had never seen it live. Ironically, Sweet also has yet to see a performance of it, though the popular singer will be playing the Birchmere on June 13 and told me recently he was hoping to come to Virginia a few days early and check out Signature’s version.
“Everyone I know who has seen it says it’s really charming,” Sweet says. “It’s been cool to see it have a life of its own and I’m looking forward to seeing it. It’s a fun thing and I am rooting for it.”