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For a newly formed company developing its first slate for Broadway, Lia Vollack Productions is not starting small, readying 2020 bows for two potentially massive shows with Almost Famous and MJ the Musical.
The first is Cameron Crowe’s stage version of his beloved semiautobiographical film from 2000, which tracked the rookie music journalist’s mind-expanding time on the road as a teenager with a rock band and its entourage in the 1970s. Directed by Jeremy Herrin and featuring an original score by composer Tom Kitt, who co-wrote the lyrics with Crowe, the musical drew rave reviews and record-breaking box office this fall in its pre-Broadway tryout at San Diego’s Old Globe.
The second project is the Michael Jackson musical formerly titled Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, which lifts songs from one of the most successful catalogs in pop history and seems sure to stoke the ongoing debate over how to separate an artist’s creative legacy from his or her controversial personal life.
The show is being spearheaded by the prestigious team of choreographer-director Christopher Wheeldon, a celebrated star of the ballet world who successfully made the leap to Broadway musical theater with An American in Paris in 2015; and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (Ruined, Sweat), who is penning the book.
Vollack spent more than two decades with Sony Pictures Entertainment, heading up worldwide music while also building a theater division for the studio: Columbia Live Stage.
“We had these two projects both moving forward and after 22 years I was really excited about the possibility of starting my own company,” Vollack told The Hollywood Reporter in an exclusive interview. “So in concert with Sony I have transitioned to being out on my own with Lia Vollack Productions. Those projects are now being produced by my company, with Sony staying in as a partner on both shows.”
“Sony Pictures has been fantastic,” continued Vollack. “I couldn’t have imagined a better 22 years of my life. It’s been a great experience and they were really supportive of this move. I feel like I got the luckiest break of my life that this all was able to work out so happily and I’m able to grow my own business and still have a connection to Sony.”
On top of separate projects she’s developing through her New York-based operation, Vollack anticipates having an ongoing relationship with Sony that will likely include tapping additional properties from the film library, while she has entered into a consultancy deal with Sony Music on that department’s theatrical endeavors. Columbia Live Stage will continue to function as the studio’s theatrical licensing arm, currently represented on Broadway by Tootsie.
“When I started circling back to produce theater, Cameron was one of the first people I called because we’ve been friends for a long time,” said Vollack of turning Almost Famous into a stage musical. “When we started talking about it he said, ‘I just want to be sure that it feels authentic.’ It’s a little daunting — how do you mix musical theater with this very authentic rock ‘n’ roll world, and I think that what Cameron and Tom have created is oddly somewhat seamless between the music of the time and the story songs.”
Interwoven with Kitt’s score, the show features a handful of classic tracks that were integral to the movie, among them Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” Cat Stevens’ “The Wind” and Joni Mitchell’s “River.” Vollack says seeing Mitchell enjoying herself at the Old Globe premiere was a high point.
While Broadway casting on the musical has not yet been confirmed, Vollack expects the majority of the San Diego company to reassemble for New York. The production currently is circling theaters for an opening date some time in 2020, depending on availability of a suitable venue.
“I think it will work well in a mid-to-smaller-size house,” said Vollack, though she won’t speculate on whether the show will open before the current season wraps at the end of April. “I think we’ll come in when the right house is available. Almost Famous is a story about community, about finding your family through music, and I think it works best in a more intimate setting.”
Meanwhile, MJ the Musical is midway through a fully cast “work session” as the large-scale production continues to take shape. The show is scheduled to begin previews July 6 ahead of an Aug. 13 official opening at the Neil Simon Theatre. Previous plans for a pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago this fall were dropped when the Actors’ Equity strike earlier this year caused the first full developmental lab to lose three and a half of its planned six weeks.
Vollack is hesitant to dig deep at this point, while the show is still coming together — either into its structure or into how the producing, creative and marketing teams intend to address the noise guaranteed to come from cancel-culture zealots on Twitter. Jackson’s music forged indelible associations for multiple generations, but the child sexual abuse accusations that accompanied the late pop star through the final decades of his career and beyond make this musical a singularly tricky endeavor.
“What I would say about the show is that Lynn Nottage and Christopher Wheeldon are really unique and brilliant theater artists and I think that what we have done for as long as there has been theater is told stories about all kinds of provocative individuals,” Vollack said. “Michael Jackson was a figure in our history who has been dead for 10 years, who had a massive impact on music and dance, on how we view celebrity and race. And it wasn’t just the United States; it was all over the world that he had this impact.”
“He was a creative genius who was complicated and controversial, and all those elements make for great storytelling and great theater,” she added.
As to whether the musical will directly tackle the more sensitive issues clouding Jackson’s legacy, Vollack will not say. All that is known at this point is that the narrative frame will be pegged to rehearsals for Jackson’s 1992 Dangerous tour, widely considered to be the pinnacle of his career. Casting of the title role is expected to be announced in the coming days.
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