When Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend” was released in October 1991, hair metal was fading, grunge was rising, country music was spreading its wings and gangster rap was primed to explode. The pop charts were volatile, confused and confusing.
For many, Sweet’s album was the ultimate tonic.
It was a record built upon the legacy of The Beatles and 1960s pop in general, but with a strong nod toward modern pop and rock. In other words, it was a love letter to music geeks filled with songs that doubled as a love letter to that unattainable girl.
“Girlfriend” pushed a lot of buttons, and Todd Almond was not immune. He was a teenager in Nebraska, traveling with his family to the state high school basketball tournament, when he found “Girlfriend” at the mall.
“I have this indelible image of grabbing that CD and putting it into my little Discman and listening to it over and over,” Almond said in a recent interview. “There was also the thrill of knowing that Sweet was from Nebraska.”
More than two decades later, Almond is bringing his version of “Girlfriend” to Actors Theatre of Louisville, Tuesday-Feb. 17. It’s a musical set in the 1990s, and uses Sweet’s music to help tell the story of two gay teenagers falling in love.
Will is a fringe-dweller who knows he’s gay, while Mike is a football player who thinks he might be, and they both love Sweet, especially “Girlfriend.” A live, all-female band will perform much of “Girlfriend” during the show, with one song each from two other Sweet albums.
Ryder Bach, as Will, and Curt Hansen, Mike, do nearly all of the singing, but “Girlfriend” isn’t a typical musical where the lyrics advance the story. It’s more that the lyrics enhance the story, making it a reflection of real-life romance, where music inevitably becomes part of the relationship’s arc.
“The play is about these boys who love the album,” Almond said. “It’s not like a musical where people burst into song in the middle of a conversation.”
Actors Theatre artistic director Les Waters will direct, and Julie Wolf will be the musical director. Both are reprising roles from the musical’s only other full production, in 2010 at California’s Berkeley Repertory Theater. Both have been key in getting “Girlfriend” to its present form, Almond said, and it was Waters’ idea to place the band on stage and to make it all females, a nod to Sweet’s riot grrl contemporaries.
Wolf will lead the band on keyboard and guitar, and has been instrumental in tearing the intricate songs down to their cores. She’ll be joined by guitarist Kelly Richey, a Lexington native and longtime Louisville favorite; bassist Sara Lee, who has played with Robert Fripp, The B-52’s and Indigo Girls; and Louisville’s Jyn Yates, who has been drumming professionally since she was a teen.
“Kelly took it upon herself to make contact with me prior to the audition, and made a strong impression on me even before the audition,” Wolf said. “She just knocked it out of the park. I have this thing that happens to me when something touches me ... and it’s kind of corny, but I get these shivers along my upper arms, and I remember getting that when Kelly was auditioning.”
All four band members have extensive onstage experience, some dating back more than three decades.
“On stage right behind these boys who are so afraid are these rock chicks who are so confident in who they are,” Almond said. “It’s a brilliant idea.”
A former full-time stage actor (he performed the one-man play “I Am My Own Wife” at Actors), Almond is a composer, lyricist and playwright whose work includes “Kansas City Choir Boy,” “On the Levee” and “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” He’s currently working on a musical version of John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace.”
He first began wondering why musical theater couldn’t sound like Matthew Sweet while at the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music. This was around 15 years ago. Eight years ago, he got serious.
“That music is so tied to specific emotional memories for me,” he said. “I’d hear that music and think of that time of my life and what it was like to be a teenager. I wanted to write something about that time, and still, when I listened to that album, it was really tied to my experience and emotions.”
Although “Girlfriend” is a fiction, Almond said that parts of himself are in both characters. He grew up in a family of athletes and is built like a college point guard, but was bad at sports. Still, he spent a lot of time in a sports environment even as his own sexuality was emerging.
“Much to my family’s disappointment, I’m a horrible basketball player,” he said, laughing. “I have two brothers who were great basketball players, with cheerleader girlfriends, all of that, and then I show up and I’m really tall but I was listening to ‘Les Miserables.’ ”