With more than 20 years, 32 Grammy nominations and nine Grammy wins under her belt, one would think Sheryl Crow knew everything there was to know about writing music. But even the singer-songwriter, who has sold more than 50 million albums worldwide, found she was in for some new experiences when she began writing her first musical.
Crow, whose albums include "The Globe Sessions," "C'mon, C'mon" and "Detours," is making her musical theatre songwriting debut with Diner. The comedy-drama, written and directed by Barry Levinson, is a favorite of Crow's, and she was eager to write for the stage, having grown up watching the "song and dance movies" "My Fair Lady," "West Side Story" and "Oklahoma!" But despite her love for the genre, she did not perform in any of her school productions. Instead, she played the piano, adding, "I was definitely the least likely to become a star in my high school."
It's an ironic statement. Crow has not only become a massively successful recording artist, but she has also appeared on the television shows "30 Rock," "GCB," "Cougar Town" and "One Tree Hill," and just some of her collaborators include the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson and Sting.
Her experience with the music industry led her to think that Diner's journey to the stage would follow a similar trajectory — an assumption she quickly learned was incorrect.
"It's been, for me, a real extreme learning curve," she said. "The theatre world is completely different than any music world I've been in up to this point."
Diner received its first reading in 2011, and a 2012 San Francisco production had been discussed but did not take place. The musical had been scheduled to open on Broadway April 10, 2013, but the production was delayed. It received its world premiere at Virginia's Signature Theatre in December 2014, playing a sold-out run through January 2015. Directed by Tony Award winner Kathleen Marshall (Anything Goes, The Pajama Game), the production is currently in previews at Delaware Theatre Company and will open Dec. 12.
The musical's journey — and the length of it — was a surprise to Crow, who recalled asking the producers, "'How long do you think before… what's typical?' They said, 'It can be anywhere from two to five years before it's up and going,' and I thought, 'Oh, no. That's not possible. Six months, and it'll be up in a year.'"
Comparing the theatrical production schedule to that of the music industry, Crow said, "It's not like making a record and you make the record, the record's done, you do a little artwork, you do a little press, you go out on the road… The sequence is very logical. That doesn't exist in the theatrical world. We did end up going out of town and honing the play... It's really hard to know what to expect. You're constantly going on the hope that you're going to get all the way to Broadway."
The logistics and timing of Diner were surprising to Crow, but it certainly wasn't the first unexpected moment of her time with the musical. She admitted to being puzzled when Levinson approached her with the idea of adapting it for the stage.
The 1982 film, set during the last week of 1959, follows the reunion of a group of friends who have returned to their hometown to attend a wedding. The film featured Steve Guttenberg, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon and Ellen Barkin, garnered Levinson an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay and went on to become a cult classic. Crow, who was a fan long before Levinson approached her about the musical, said, "When it came out, you didn't know any of those actors. Since then all those actors have gone on to do great things. At the time I remember watching it and liking it, but like any great cult classic, it has become more and more wonderful through the years of revisiting it."
The changing relationships of the longtime friends are explored in the film, which does not follow a typical narrative but instead relies on vignettes, and it was that structure that Crow said provided the challenge of adapting it for the stage. "When Barry called me, one of the first things out of my mouth was, 'I'd love to work on it, but how in the world is 'Diner' going to be a musical? Nothing happens in 'Diner!'"
While revisiting the story, Crow has expanded upon the female characters of the film. The time frame in which the story takes place — the last five days of 1959 — provided her an opportunity to explore the changing cultural norms, which created a great deal of tension.
"One of the things that was interesting to me was what was happening with regard to the women of that period," she said. "As everybody knows, the difference between the 50s and 60s is pretty extreme. When you go from women in the kitchen, the stereotypical roles, to suddenly women becoming sort of liberated in the 60s. So some of the songs I wrote were from the perspective of the female, and Barry loved that. 'Let's make this not just about how change is uncomfortable for the men, but also in some ways, liberating for the women.' I think it's fully realized now that we've embraced all the characters that were in the movie."
"Each of the female characters is kind of metaphorical for the roles that women were either staying in or moving out of," she continued. "The young girl is getting married, and then you have the wife who is discontent because she doesn't know what she is supposed to be doing. She feels like she should be doing something more. Then you have the female who's working at a TV station who gets pregnant and has to make a choice between being a working female or doing what would be expected, which is to get married and raise a family. That's what is happening to the three women. On the other side, [you have] the guy who is getting married because that's what you do, the guy who is married and discontent and the guy who's expecting a baby with his girlfriend and facing the uncertainty of not being a conventional couple."
Breaking with convention is nothing new to Crow, who was a member of the Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity for Women and makes her musical theatre debut at a time when many successful composers from the pop idiom have made a move to the Great White Way. Recent additions include Sara Bareilles and Cyndi Lauper, who have joined the ranks of Sting and Elton John.
Commenting on the recent increased awareness in female writers following the history-making Tony win of Fun Home (which Crow has not seen yet but plans to), she said, "I'm always happy when females get the opportunity to do what it is we're already capable of doing, just not necessarily have the opportunity to. It's great."