I didn't know nobody
And then I saw you coming my way
Don't you need to get in the arms of a good friend?
Oh, cuz believe me, I'd sure love to call you my girlfriend.
The two kids know the words to Matthew Sweet’s love song very well, but the teens are only beginning to grasp that the lyrics might have a deeper personal meaning. That's because the young couple in this Nebraska romance are two boys grappling with their sexual identity and mutual attraction.
So even though Will and Mike are singing about a girlfriend, they are really starting to talk about their emergent romantic feelings for one another -- as they struggle with the local rules of high school romance, which don't easily accommodate Midwestern kids who aren't straight.
The scene is central to the narrative focus of "Girlfriend," featuring many of the songs from Sweet's 1991 breakout album of the same name. As envisioned in a book by Todd Almond under the direction of Les Waters ("In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play"), last week's world premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre uses Sweet's music and lyrics to express private yearnings and doubts that otherwise might not be voiced by the show's two classmates.
"Music is a way," says Waters during a break in rehearsal a few weeks ago, "to express your secret life." The production's central drama is whether that secret life can somehow be shared.
Although the show is not purely autobiographical, its thematic outline was shaped by Almond's teenage years in Alliance, Neb. The lyricist and playwright ("Kansas City Choir Boy," "People Like Us") says there "was no sort of gay youth culture" in the early 1990s and that he told only one female acquaintance that he wasn't straight. "There were no Internet chat rooms, no gay celebrities who were out," Almond says. "I look back at that time in my life and my heart was always heartbroken."
With hardly anyone to confide in and no boyfriend, Almond instead turned to music for solace and companionship. It was Sweet's "Girlfriend" album, an occasionally country-twinged chronicle about falling in and out of love, along with Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" that became a recurrent selection in his tune-filled life.
Almond would occasionally put some of Sweet's songs onto a mix tape, and gave them to boys he knew, hoping "the person I make this for gets the code" -- that the songs were about his feelings, not about his taste in music.
But if the target acquaintance wasn't receptive, Almond could insist it was just an innocent assembly of favorite compositions. It was a safe way, in other words, of expressing a potentially dangerous communication. The tactic didn't lead to any early boyfriends, but it did plant the musical's conceptual seed.
A musical code
In the usual conceit of musical theater, characters burst into song to declare their desires as clearly and as publicly as possible. Simba in "The Lion King" states that he "just can't wait to be king," while Nellie in "South Pacific" says she's "gonna wash that man right out of my hair."
What was happening in a relatively bare rehearsal hall was taking the convention into another direction.
The more the two "Girlfriend" characters sang something, the more a divergent version of what they were singing was true. Mike, who's less sure of his sexual orientation than Will, sings "Winona" about a third of the way into the show. Sweet's lyrics are straightforward enough, describing an unrequited crush on a film actress: