Crafting ‘Stereophonic’: How ‘Terrifying’ Rehearsals, Creative Clashes and a Soundproof Studio Led to Broadway’s Buzziest Show

A little over 10 years ago, David Adjmi was on an airplane, listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” and picturing Robert Plant recording the vocals.

“It’s communicating desire and pain and anguish and torture and lust,” Adjmi says of the song. “I was thinking about all of these conflicting emotions and imagining him singing the raw vocal in a studio — the state he must have gotten into to sing it.”

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Adjmi then started envisioning the room — what it might look like — in his mind. He was captivated by the thought of using a recording studio as a dramatic landscape. “It felt high concept in a way that my ideas usually are not,” says Adjmi, who’s known for “The Evildoers” and “Marie Antoinette.”

More than a decade later, on April 19, he makes his Broadway debut with “Stereophonic,” an epic, seemingly impossible production chronicling a rock band making its sophomore album in 1976.

Set entirely in a studio, “Stereophonic” examines the evolving relationships between musicians in a battle of egos and creative control. There are standout performances and Tony-worthy songs, but the show’s most intriguing aspect is how it plays with sound, conducting audio through a permeable glass barrier separating the control room and the live room.

“The idea felt pregnant with theatrical possibility,” says director Daniel Aukin, who was approached by Adjmi in 2014 and signed on even before there was a script.

For much of the three-hour show, the band members are sequestered with their instruments in the soundproof, fishbowl-like live room upstage. On the other side of the glass, the studio engineers man a mixing console that controls the flow of audio. Sometimes the engineers sever the sound from the live room so the musicians can’t hear their gossipy banter. Other times the audience is shut out of the band’s conversations behind the glass.

Sound designer Ryan Rumery calls “Stereophonic” the “most arduous” project he’s worked on. “This is the first show that I’ve done where everything is real,” he says. Nothing is preprogrammed, none of the instruments are modified and the audio is transmitted to the audience through a real console — the centerpiece of David Zinn’s gorgeous set.

“What’s terrifying about this play is that until we got into Playwrights, we didn’t know if it would work,” Rumery adds. “The rehearsal process didn’t remotely reflect what the performance process would be.”

Starring Sarah Pidgeon, Chris Stack, Tom Pecinka, Juliana Canfield, Will Brill, Andrew R. Butler and Eli Gelb, the play demands more than just chemistry between its featured players. The actors had to develop the musical chops and roots-rock harmony to sell Will Butler’s songs — which accelerate the story and heighten the emotion throughout — as well as execute carefully choreographed mess-ups and do-overs to be convincing as sparring, coke-snorting bandmates.

Butler, a Grammy-winning artist and former member of Arcade Fire, helped the actors become a band by persuading them to open for him in Brooklyn last fall. “They’ve seen shows, but they’ve never stood onstage and felt the power that comes from you,” he says. “We got to layer in some of that history for them.”

And while the play will inevitably draw comparison to Fleetwood Mac and the tumultuous creation of “Rumours,” Adjmi is bemused by the urge to find the “real” story in a fictional play.

“I keep getting the question, ‘Is this Fleetwood Mac? Is it this and that?’ Why do people want to know that?” he asks. “There is no real story. The whole thing is invented.”

With its classic rock soundtrack and California chill, “Stereophonic” has an immersive hangout vibe accentuated by hyper-naturalistic dialogue. Characters are constantly talking over each other in a way that feels spontaneous, but the script — filled with interruptive double-slashes and written in two columns demarcating the separate rooms — is anything but. “Timing is everything,” Adjmi writes in an introductory note. “Nothing is arbitrary.”

“My writing is extremely exacting to a degree that is sort of unnatural in American theater,” Adjmi says. “And I’m a little embarrassed by it because I don’t know why I demand so much from everybody.”

Yet Aukin offsets the writer’s tight grip on the words with a sense of freedom and flexibility. “The push-pull between us really served the play and created a combustible, interesting energy,” says Adjmi.

At a tech rehearsal just days before the show opened previews, Aukin is still completely reshaping scenes and tweaking dialogue, as Adjmi watches nervously from the orchestra. “Let’s do it badly a few times,” Aukin tells the actors while toying with Act II. “We’re gonna find it.”

Five rows back, Adjmi whispers, “This is all new. … It’s terrifying.”

Even after the show opens previews on Broadway, Aukin is still tinkering. “Sometimes you have things that felt absolutely necessary, and then you go, ‘Maybe that was just scaffolding,’” he says.

Still, Adjmi and Aukin fully recognize the irony of writing a play about the sacrifice and compromise required of creative collaboration — even as they wrestle with that behind the scenes.

“Because of the savagery of parts of this play, we talked very openly about having very clear lines of communication among everyone,” Aukin says.

Adjmi is more candid.

“Sometimes people feel like I am pushing them to a degree that is not quite human, and I think they’re right,” he says. “I know that I have to let go, and I will let go. But my job as an artist is to try to get it as close as I can to what I want and then let go, because it’s never going to be exactly the way I want.”

Having reached Broadway more than a decade after his airborne flash of inspiration, could Adjmi finally be satisfied?

“I definitely appreciate what’s happening right now, and I feel awestruck by the whole thing,” he says. “But I am not somebody who is ever going to be happy with anything I do. I am relentless with myself, and I have to be that way.”

He takes a breath. “At the same time, I know I will never achieve perfection. It doesn’t exist.”

Five Touchstones for ‘Stereophonic’

Metallica: Adjmi watched thousands of hours of documentary footage while writing “Stereophonic” and was fascinated by 2004’s “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” which follows the band as the musicians work out their issues with a group therapist. So much so that he even borrowed a couple lines of dialogue for “Stereophonic.”

The Beatles: Butler cites the Beatles as foundational for both his own music and his “Stereophonic” soundtrack, while Adjmi pored over diary entries and studio notes from producer George Martin to get into the nitty-gritty of recording an album. Though the play’s setting and conversational patter evoke “The Beatles: Get Back,” Adjmi says he avoided watching Peter Jackson’s 2021 documentary: “People kept saying, ‘It’s just like your play!’ and I was like, ‘I don’t want to watch it because I’m going to have an anxiety attack because my play is probably never going to happen because of this pandemic!’”

Robert Altman and Maurice Pialat: Two filmmakers inspired Aukin’s approach to “Stereophonic.” “It’s like if you took a Robert Altman movie and transcribed the text, including where and how people overlap speaking,” he says, referring to Altman’s 1975 musical dramedy “Nashville.” Of French director Pialat, Aukin says, “There is something so bracingly present and raw about a number of his films. He works a lot with actors and nonactors, often in the same scene, and achieves a really rare and unusual quality.”

“Sound City”: David Zinn didn’t know squat about sound when he was tasked with building a set designed around a mixing console. So he turned to Dave Grohl’s 2013 film “Sound City,” a history of the famed recording studio in Van Nuys. “Dave Grohl made this great documentary about the Neve board he bought,” Zinn says. “And I just studied that.” Next he had to convince someone to loan the production a “$500,000 piece of equipment to sit onstage.”

Arcade Fire: Among all the musical resources at his disposal, it would be a waste if Adjmi didn’t tap Butler. While writing and fine-tuning “Stereophonic,” Adjmi picked the songwriter’s brain about everything from how to tune a snare drum to how a band might ideate a track. One conversation between them inspired a scene depicting the frustration of scrapping songs. “I told David about how you work on a record, and there’s one song that feels like the whole point of why you’re making the record. And then at some point, whether because you didn’t exactly get it right or because your brain can’t process how good it is anymore, you start rejecting it,” Butler says.

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