Book by Todd Almond
Music and lyrics by Matthew Sweet
Choreographed by Joe Goode
Directed by Les Waters
Limited Season · Thrust Stage
April 9–May 16, 2010
Running time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Romance unfolds in a new musical wound around the tender love songs of Matthew Sweet’s landmark album, Girlfriend. Meeting in homeroom. Cruising through town. Holding hands. Cheering from the stands. That awkward first kiss. In the world premiere of Girlfriend at Berkeley Rep, boy meets boy. It’s an eternal story turned upside down, a dual-Romeo duet directed by Les Waters that’s innocent—and Sweet. “Girlfriend is the breathless testimony of a fool for love,” raves Rolling Stone, “a rock ‘n’ roll valentine that delivers subtle wisdom with an exhilarating kick.” Fall in love with the boy next door at Girlfriend.
Todd Almond · Book / Vocal Arrangements / Additional Orchestrations
Matthew Sweet · Music and Lyrics
Joe Goode · Choreographer
Les Waters · Director
David Zinn · Scenic and Costume Design
Japhy Weideman · Lighting Design
Jake Rodriguez · Sound Design
Julie Wolf · Music Director
Michael Suenkel · Stage Manager
Mina Morita · Assistant Director
Ryder Bach · Will
Jason Hite · Mike
Julie Wolf · Rhythm Guitar / Keyboards / Backing Vocals
Shelley Doty · Lead Guitar / Backing Vocals
Jean DuSablon · Bass
ieela Grant · Drums
“Love is in the air at Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage…A gentle, heartfelt, two-character chamber musical that celebrates the pain and joy of first love…Adolescent insecurity and the awkwardness of first romance inform every glance, gesture and warbled note in the performances of Ryder Bach and Jason Hite…The music, two attractive actors, and music director, keyboard player and vocalist Julie Wolf’s electrifying four-woman band make it an exhilarating joy.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“A rare treat—authentic, intimate and romantic, and, as the ‘I’ve Been Waiting’ lyric goes, ‘perfect in so many ways.’”—San Francisco Examiner
“A delicate gem of a musical that’s genuinely, well, sweet…The show soars during the musical interludes as Sweet’s pop anthems sweep us away with their irresistible exuberance…At its most powerful, Girlfriend takes you back to the time in your life when your favorite pop songs took on an almost-religious significance. It’s as if you turned up the dial on your own redemption.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
I think humanity can be divided into two distinct categories: those who hated high school and those who loved it. (If you derived even mild pleasure from the experience, you fall into the latter group.) I hated it. At least that’s how I like to remember it. Spent most of my time feeling astonishingly weird, even in what should have been the most comfortable of circumstances. I was pretty sure that everyone was looking right through me, that my skin was not actually skin but some kind of translucent surface designed to give onlookers the best possible view of my quivering self. And what self were they looking at? There wasn’t much of a self there, as far as I could tell.
But there were things that could save me, even on the darkest of days. My friends, for one. Or this really tight pair of pants that I wore with a pair of really pointy shoes. And music. Always the music. Music that spoke to my secret self, a self that was fantastic and brilliant and irresistible. If only the world knew what the music was telling me. If only I had the courage to act on the music. Like a zillion other teenagers on the planet, I sat in my room playing music—some albums over and over again, some songs on an endless loop. I played music not just because I loved it, but because my life depended on it.
Girlfriend is a story that captures the eternal and impossible yearning of the adolescent heart. Two high school boys try to come to terms with their feelings for each other. At stake are their identities, their relationships with their families and their futures. Set to the rock music of Matthew Sweet (whose 1991 album of the same name was the inspiration for the story by Todd Almond), the play is an attempt to capture the sweetness that is buried within every teenage heart. It is a story without guile, without irony, without pretension. How oddly refreshing.
The intrepid Les Waters is at the helm again, wielding his directorial magic with a trusty team of sure-handed designers and two gifted young actors. It was Les’ inspiration to back the boys on stage with an all-girl band, giving the audience a full complement of interpretive choices. Because at the end of the play, it’s all about the choices. The ones you made or didn’t make. And the music you were listening to when you made them.
In it for the long haul: This Girlfriend is here to stay
By Madeleine Oldham
Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend may not have been a multi-platinum bestseller, but it captured the heart of many a discerning listener. Legions of fans remain fiercely devoted to Sweet’s emotional songwriting and underdog persona. When the album first came out, no one expected it to become the sensation it did. We talked with playwright Todd Almond and other diehard Matthew Sweet fans to find out what’s so special about this unassuming yet captivating collection of songs.
I listened to Girlfriend every day when it came out in the early ‘90s. I dubbed copies (on cassette tape, of course) for my friends. I made my family listen to it on long road trips. I’ve bought it, misplaced it, replaced it, loaned it, uploaded it (these days), downloaded it and gifted it over the years. I wrote a musical about it, for heaven’s sake. Girlfriend is a thing on the planet that I love very much, and this musical is as much a love-letter to that album as it is anything else.
—Todd Almond, playwright
Can you articulate what drew you to the album?
I was unhappily living in Dullsville (Santa Fe), which is where my Dad lives. I hated it and was trying to move back to San Francisco. I was comforted by this music when I would play it while driving, and it would be one of the few things that I enjoyed doing. But this isn’t so much of a “memory” record for me. I can gladly listen to it nowadays and appreciate it on its own terms.
—Michelle, usher at the Warfield Theatre
If you listen to the album today, what does it make you think of?
I’m listening to it right now, and it makes me think of the girlfriend I just broke up with. These nice little complete and decorated sentiments put that relationship into a bit of perspective. It makes me feel better, actually. Matthew Sweet has a way of pounding my own significance into the ground with backing vocals and searing guitars.
Do you have a particular memory associated with Girlfriend?
Most of my memories of the album are of me driving (or, rather, sitting) in LA traffic singing along at the top of my lungs. “Nothing Lasts” is probably the most emotional song on the album, and I remember driving back to my apartment after breaking up with my girlfriend and playing that song. I didn’t sing along—I simply remember noticing the way the lights outside the car played across the dashboard as I drove. It wasn’t a heartbreaking moment, just a sober realization that it had to end eventually.
—Christian, story artist at Pixar
Do you have a favorite track?
I love all of them, but my top three are probably: “You Don’t Love Me,” “Winona” and “Thought I Knew You.” Oh wait…there’s “I’ve Been Waiting.” Oh yeah…“Looking at the Sun.” Oh forget it—I can’t answer the question. I love the whole thing.
I didn’t know nobody, then I saw you coming my way
By Mike Sablone
In 1992 (in suburban Massachusetts I wasn’t cutting-edge enough to have noticed that the album came out in 1991), I was 15 years old. My music taste, much like that of most suburban kids in a predominantly white suburb, started with comedy albums (Weird Al, Monty Python) and evolved into mostly rap and hip-hop (Public Enemy, Dr. Dre).
I had skipped bands like, say, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Led Zeppelin (I’m not too ashamed to admit that I just Googled their name to make sure I spelled it correctly), or that other band…the Beatles.
So when I first heard “Girlfriend” and “Evangeline” and “Divine Intervention,” it was like someone had plugged in my brain to this astonishing new series of sounds. Melody. Guitars. Drum fills. False endings. Vocal harmonies. I had no idea the history behind the album. All I knew was this record spoke to me.
Hearing the song “Girlfriend,” I finally understood what pop music was there for. It was there for me to understand that I wasn’t alone. It was there to tell me, “Don’t worry, I know you are a ball of terrified emotions right now, but this guy, this guy right here? He’s going to say everything you’re thinking. Everything you’re going to think. Everything that has been thought of before. And it’s all going to be OK.”
Popular music is popular because of this reason. This is why music works—it convinces teenagers that they’re not alone. It allows people to express everything they’re feeling, but in four minutes of perfect melody.
When I got to college two years later I met my best friend by talking to him about this album. We talked about how there was supposedly a college class that examined how perfect this album was. We talked about how pissed off we were that it wasn’t our college that offered this course. We then talked about the radio show we’d co-host for the next four years.
Girlfriend has a special place in my heart, but if I’m forced to say my favorite song it’s “Evangeline.” I remember MTV discussing the song, telling me that it was about a Japanese anime character. I remember trying to find out everything I could about this character. I remember then not caring, and making the song into a song that I wrote about whatever girl I had a hopeless crush on at the time.
You ask if the album still holds up for me? Ask me about the last girl I had a crush on. Ask me if I made her a mix CD. Do you need to ask me if I put “Evangeline” on there?
(Well, I might not have, unless I’m feeling bold. I usually wait ‘til the second or third mix CD. You can’t put “Girlfriend” on there—that’s just too obvious, and also? Kinda creepy. But I can kind of, sort of [but not really] get away with “Evangeline.” Note: this could be why I’m still single. I haven’t found the girl who appreciates this song as much as I do.)
I saw Matthew Sweet perform every time he came to Providence while I was in college. I drove down during the summer to see him in, like, 1995. WBRU, the terrible college radio station in Providence was playing “Good” by Better Than Ezra seemingly every five minutes. Driving around post-concert, I swore that if they played it twice while we hung out I’d buy the damn album to get them to stop playing it (the theory being that once I bought the record the radio station wouldn’t need to sell it so relentlessly to me). They, of course, played it four more times in the next 90 minutes. The next day I went and bought the record. I have no idea where that record is. I can still tell you exactly where my copy of Girlfriend is.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I would take a bullet for Matthew Sweet.
Mike Sablone is a dramaturg working for Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, where he develops new plays and musicals. He warns you not to get him started on anything music related as he won’t shut up. He is currently working on a 500-song Best of the Decade compilation that will rank songs, in reverse order of amazingness from 500 to 1. The CD will also include liner notes.
A conversation with Matthew Sweet
By Madeleine Oldham
Picture someone who has dedicated his life to rock ‘n’ roll: Matthew Sweet is hardly the first person who comes to mind. A polite, generous, hard-working Midwestern boy, Sweet comes across as, well…very sweet. Born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1964, he has built a lengthy musical career through talent, perseverance and authenticity that defies traditional stereotypes of the raging, self-destructive musician. He has managed to remain his approachable and unpretentious self in the face of a world that revolves around flash and image. Berkeley Rep’s dramaturg and literary manager, Madeleine Oldham, had a chance to talk with Sweet last year during his Sunshine Lies tour, and the following are excerpts from that conversation.
You’ve been making music for a very long time now. Is it still fun?
You know, that’s a really good question. I think it is still fun for me. It’s a very hard business as far as trying to make it support you and your life and all that, and so I think there’s always this tendency when things aren’t going well to think, “Well, maybe I just have to do something else.” And I’ve gotten to a point a couple times where I felt that way. But I always tend to feel a lot better when I do music. It’s just what I do. I think there were times when I was afraid nobody cared, and I had to get used to the idea that no one else has to care about it but me.
But other than that, I think it’s always remained pretty fun for me. People will ask me, “Why did you get into music when you were really young?” And it’s the same kind of thing—it made me feel better than anything else, and I could lose myself in it and feel somehow freed a little bit from life, you know? And I think it’s still that way when it’s fun because it’s just something different; it’s a whole other way of feeling and thinking. It just kind of takes me away from real life.
And when you had those moments of “maybe nobody cares,” did you ever seriously think about doing something else?
I don’t think so, really. When I started out, I didn’t have any concept of what it would be like to have fans and all that. I really only cared about recording and writing songs and making a record. I didn’t really realize that you won’t get to keep doing that if you don’t sell some, you know? And my first couple records didn’t really sell, but I was lucky enough to follow the guy who had signed me around to a couple of labels. Then when Girlfriend took off, which was kind of a slow process, it was like this whole other dimension of what people thought about me. That sort of freaked me out and also added a lot of pressure, business-wise, to come up with something someone was gonna like, which wasn’t the kind of artist I was to begin with. So I think it put a damper sometimes on my spirit, just knowing there was that kind of pressure there, and in a weird way, even at the times I did the best, there was still this feeling it was not enough. And the music business was already heading the way it ended up at the end of the ‘90s, where it really started dissolving into people caring less and less about the music and more and more about actual numbers they could move.
So I think only when I was asking myself, “Will I get to make more records?” did I ever start to get worried and lose faith. But I like to go on my own MySpace page and see what everybody says about me and interact with people. Whenever I get it together to release something, I’m always really surprised that there’s anybody out there that cares. And it doesn’t need to be a large amount now, cause I’ve been around for a long time and the game has changed so much and I can sell small amounts of records. We’ll break even and make more records. And I think there’s some correlation between the less big business it is, the more I’m able to relax and get back to feeling like I did initially, which was just excited about music and doing it really mainly for me.
I also love playing live because you find out there are people out there who really do care about music, and they also care about seeing music live. And so I think that right now, people like me are trying to figure out how exactly you get to the people who do care if you release something.
And do you have thoughts about how you do that?
It’s really the same way we got going on Girlfriend in the beginning. I mean, it wasn’t like it suddenly happened. It started really small on a grassroots level, and lots of people worked hard to get other people turned on to it.
And that’s how we used to feel about so many artists—all those artists that we just revered from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Then records became less important as computers came in, and the Internet and all that, and there were just so many things to look at and be into. Back when we were into records, we would just sit in our rooms and it was all you had as your shield against your parents, or whatever.
How do you see the music business now?
Music itself is so unique, that I think it really can be independent of all those things. That’s why I think if you’re a musician who just does it, you can get in the mode of it, and it has its own life. And you hope it will find some people that like it so you can make a living. I mean, I wish somebody would just give me millions of dollars, and I would give my music away for free for the rest of my life—I’d rather do that! Before people were downloading music I would say to my manager, “Can’t we just, like, give it away free and just make money some other way?” ‘Cause I hated that feeling of pressure on the music to be successful.
Why do you think Girlfriend was such a successful album for you?
Well, I think basically people related to it. I was talking about feelings and relationships at a time when really it was an era of bands that were much less clear about what they were saying. The record didn’t sound like any other records right then either. So it was kind of radical sounding at the moment, which gave it this sort of grooviness thing. But I really think people just related to the feelings in the songs. It’s an interesting thing to see, and it’s really cool how much impact that can have. Like, that makes someone really never forget you, you know?
We’d like you to meet our wonderful new Girlfriend! Take a peek.
Les Waters and Todd Almond
Fall in love with the boy next door at Girlfriend, a Berkeley Rep world-premiere musical event inspired by songs from the 1990’s breakthrough album by Matthew Sweet—introduced by director Les Waters and writer Todd Almond.