Some people never forget their first girlfriend, and some people never forget the first time they heard Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend.”
The luscious 1991 album of confessions, hopes, dreams and wistful resignation has been the soundtrack to many a lovelorn summer.
Sharing the wonders of “Girlfriend” with friends is a common practice among power-pop enthusiasts and sensitive young souls. Playwright Todd Almond, who experienced firsthand the effect that album could have on a lonely misunderstood teen, used “Girlfriend” as the basis for an innovative musical that features just two characters plus an onstage rock band. The show premiered in 2010 and has been done around the country for years. It’s particularly popular this month, with separate productions in Oklahoma City, Detroit and now Hartford — it’s being staged March 22 through April 28 by TheaterWorks at the Wadsworth Atheneum. (TheaterWorks’ own theater is undergoing extensive renovations this spring and summer.)
Sharing the songs of “Girlfriend” is contagious. In the midst of rehearsals for the show, TheaterWorks’ Producing Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero invited me (a huge Matthew Sweet fan from way back) to a special sing-through of the score, with the show’s stars David Merino and CJ Pawlikowski vocalizing, Pawlikowski also playing guitar, and music director Evan Zavada at the piano. The actual show features a five-piece rock band, plus Pawlikowski’s character strumming an acoustic.
The play is a romance between two high school students in Alliance, Neb., in 1993. Mike is a football jock, with a girlfriend, going to college (pre-med, full scholarship) but finds things missing from his life. Will doesn’t have college or career plans; he’s just glad high school is over. The young men spend the summer finding themselves and bonding with each other, which means singing Matthew Sweet songs together.
Almond’s preface to the published script requests that we observe “the long, slow, agonizing way these two boys inch toward each other. They’re Midwestern, so they engage in polite conversation, but subtextually, they are in agony and searching for clues from each other.”
“This is not a traditional musical,” says Ruggiero, who has directed many traditional musicals at the Goodspeed Opera House (including “Showboat,” “Oliver!” and “La Cage Aux Folles”) and whose last musical at TheaterWorks was the mesmerizing, decidedly nontraditional “Next to Normal.”
“Will and Mike bond over their love for music. The boundaries of friendship get blurred.”
The musical uses eight of the 15 songs from the “Girlfriend” album, plus the ballad “Reaching Out” from Sweet’s “Altered Beast” album and a snippet of the punchy “Sick of Myself” from the album “100% Fun.”
The listening session
The private rehearsal studio concert shows just how into these songs everyone is.
Merino and Pawlikowski perform as grandly as if they’re onstage in a full theater, harmonizing expertly on such tricky, text-driven numbers as “Looking at the Sun” and “We’re the Same.”
Zavada pounds the piano loudly — a good sign, since these are tough-minded pop songs, not showtunes. The scripted dialogue
winds eloquently in and out of the song lyrics.
Ruggiero provides commentary: “They’re at the drive-in. It’s a lovely, awkward adolescent scene. Will thought it’d be different than it was. He goes home, goes into his room, puts on headphones.”
Later in the show, the actual Matthew Sweet recording of the title song from the “Girlfriend” album gets heard, over a car stereo.
Mike: “It’s a little loud.”
Will: “It’s not loud, it’s rock ‘n’ roll. Come on, you love this song. Forget about your dad!”
Mike and Will take over the song — singing along, acting out, joking around.
“It’s a good example of how they use a real song there,” Ruggiero comments. Then he wants to hear “”We’re the Same,” which the director calls “on the opposite end of ‘Girlfriend.’ They’re talking about life, connecting. It’s a beautiful little scene. The scene is in the song. It’s the opposite of rocking out.”
After the impromptu performance, Merino and Pawlikowski discuss their own connections to the themes of “Girlfriend.” The actors are in their 20s, so it’s not surprising that Matthew Sweet circa 1991 was not their muse in high school. Yet they can relate.
“For me,” Pawlikowski says, “it was Dashboard Confessional in 2007.” For Merino, “as a teenager, nothing understood me like my iPod. Will, to me, defines my middle school period more than high school — not blending in, only having music, challenging myself, forced to confront my sexuality, my identity.”
A few Sweet words
Matthew Sweet, reached by phone at his home in Omaha, is pleased to hear that his work still resonates so strongly, onstage as well as behind the scenes. He remembers being approached about the project over a decade ago.
“Todd came to my management company around the turn of the century and asked for permission to use the songs. I read the play, and it was a no-brainer for me to say yes.
“What made it the most interesting for me was that it was a gay take on a love story. It’s so cool that it’s being done in so many different theaters now.”
Not for lack of trying, but Sweet has never seen the "Girlfriend” musical, largely because of his own busy touring schedule. He has met actors who’ve done the show, and has “quite a few friends who’ve seen it, and they have only nice things to say about it.”
Sweet hears all the time about how deeply his “Girlfriend” album has touched people: “The personal emotions portrayed on it, people really took it to heart and used it in their lives. If they were sad. If they were rocking out. Both things.”
Sweet has done 20 albums besides “Girlfriend,” including two (“Tomorrow’s Daughter” and “Wicked System”) that were released last year. But at his concerts — some of which take place in theater spaces — he hears complaints if he doesn’t play at least four or five songs from “Girlfriend.”
“My late mother used to say ‘You should do a musical,’ but I never had an urge to do it. I’ve always been open to it, but I just didn’t have an angle. It’s great that this play exists. It makes me really proud.”
GIRLFRIEND — book by Todd Almond, music by Matthew Sweet, directed by Rob Ruggiero — runs March 22 through April 28 at the Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. There are no performances on March 25, April 1 and 3. $20 to $70. 860-527-7838, theaterworks.org.