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Director Cameron Crowe on the opening of his musical 'Almost Famous' in New York this week

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "ALMOST FAMOUS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, vocalizing).

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" is now a musical. Sleeper hit movie released in 2000, the film is based on the director's own experience as a teen freelancer for Rolling Stone who hits the road with a striving rock group called Stillwater, a group of young women who follow them, including Penny Lane. It has laughs, tears, wisdom and, of course, great music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "ALMOST FAMOUS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Stillwater, singing) Come around again, well, that would be the end of the fever dog.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Fever dog - papa showed no mercy (ph).

SIMON: The show began production at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego just before the pandemic. It's now about to open on Broadway. We sat down with Cameron Crowe after a preview, as you will hear, right outside a busy place in the Bernard Jacobs Theater.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOILET FLUSHING)

CAMERON CROWE: (Laughter) That's unfortunate timing for my answer.

SIMON: I think it's great timing. Welcome to the theater.

CROWE: (Laughter) I'm flushed with emotion.

SIMON: (Laughter).

CROWE: I actually am flushed with emotion. It's really - I go on a ride with it every night or afternoon because the characters are based on real people.

SIMON: Including, I mean, you most notably.

CROWE: Yeah, but I'm last on the list of the stuff that makes me emotional. It's - a lot of my mom is up there on the stage, more than the movie. I sense her. We lost her a couple of days before the first audience came in to see the play. And this was, you know, her passion. You know, don't give up. Don't give up. You got to do this play.

SIMON: I'm seeing her on stage - I'm seeing her crawl off the stage and into our conversation.

CROWE: Yes. She was my best editor. I would give her a 73-page profile of Pearl Jam, and she'd read it overnight and call me the next day. And she's like, you're too in love with Eddie Vedder. Stone Gossard, the guitarist, is even more eloquent. You should go with him more. I'm like, thanks, Mom.

SIMON: Was it hard to watch sometimes?

CROWE: I sometimes - I'm at every show, and sometimes I sit in the audience and sometimes I sit at the back, and sometimes I'll be crying, you know, when the lights come up.

SIMON: I was at the end.

CROWE: Thanks, man. I just know that real life is usually the best writer, and there's a lot of real life in the play.

SIMON: You're a famous director.

CROWE: Ish (ph).

SIMON: Had a famous life. Do you feel cool yet?

CROWE: I do not feel cool. You know, maybe cool with a K.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: What's it like to come back to work 20 years after it was a big film?

CROWE: I was nervous about it because I felt like the movie "Almost Famous" is a little bit of a miracle. It was definitely a labor of love. We could have never made it in today's kind of movie, Marvel budget era of moviemaking. So I felt it was like the freebie, the one freebie I would have after "Jerry Maguire." It has that kind of feel, an other worldly place that you can kind of visit. And over time, I realized we might have a shot of doing that in a live theater, and that was the goal.

SIMON: What changes do you make for the 2020s? I mean, firstly, there are a lot of hysterical jokes which take advantage of the passage of time. Like, it's not like you can walk around with a phone or you don't think Mick Jagger will still be - but also Penny Lane and her friends are...

CROWE: Yeah.

SIMON: ...They're more real characters somehow.

CROWE: Thank you for saying that because that character is based on a real person who was the smartest person in pretty much any room she was in.

SIMON: Does she - she knows it?

CROWE: Oh, yeah. I mean, it's mostly based on this woman named Pennie Trumbull.

SIMON: You see the play. You see the musical, and there are so many characters who say, well, this is my family. This is my home. And then at some point, you realize, well, maybe you want it to be but not quite.

CROWE: Yeah. Your found family in the end can lead you back to your real family. And there is a million stories in the world about that. This is mine.

SIMON: There's a lot of loneliness in this story, isn't there?

CROWE: Yeah. It's true of so many of these guys, you know, that can say I love you to 20,000 people or 100,000 people, but the one I love you, the single I love you to a lover, a mother, a child, tougher for so many of these people.

SIMON: How hard was it to get the music for this show?

CROWE: (Laughter) Hard. Hard. It was fun to call them and say, like, OK, well, can you give us one of your songs and cut us a break at the same time? And almost all of them did. Then we came back for - to ask for fewer songs for the, you know, the play. And, once again, Led Zeppelin did let us use their music. But there was a call one day from Robert Plant, and he just came in while we were rehearsing, and he basically said, look, you know, I go to theater, and I like John Waters. I like "Hairspray" a lot. Is this going to be like "Hairspray," though? I'm like, I like John Waters, too. It's not like "Hairspray." And he's like, so you're going to be there, right? It's not like we're making fun of everybody. I'm like, it's the soul of the movie in the theater. And he's like, you got the music.

SIMON: It's funny to note in the musical how many people are complaining that that's not real.

CROWE: Yeah. Yeah. The quest for authenticity, my friend...

SIMON: Yeah.

CROWE: ...They're always looking for it. We're always looking for it, I think.

SIMON: Yeah. So you go to every performance.

CROWE: I do. I missed a couple of them in San Diego, but I love it. I love the actors.

SIMON: Do they - do you give them notes? Do they ask?

CROWE: Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes. I know their parents in a lot of cases, and we've been through a lot of stuff. I mean, they were well aware that my mom was so much a part of the story, and when she passed away, they held that loss closely.

SIMON: Wow. What's it like to see your mother come to life on stage, day after day, night after night?

CROWE: It gives me great comfort. And it makes me laugh because that's her sense of humor, you know? She would quote Carl Jung like, you know, anybody else would eat popcorn.

SIMON: What would you tell that 15-year-old we see on stage from your present perch in life?

CROWE: Never give up - simple but true. Never give up. When I was the age that the character is in "Almost Famous," I was just picking up the phone and calling Ben Fong-Torres. I believed that he would pick up the phone, and he did. I believed that Rod Stewart would like me and would want to answer my questions, and he did. Life later came along and knocked me hard on my ass, and I felt less assured of that confidence, but I didn't give up.

SIMON: Cameron Crowe, thanks so much. Thank you for everything.

CROWE: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "ALMOST FAMOUS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) Hold me closer, tiny dancer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.