When Kristin Hanggi picked up the script for a new musical last fall, good vibrations must have been in the air. She was even getting excitations.
The script was for “Surf the Musical,” a new show being developed in Las Vegas that’s drawn from and incorporates the music of the Beach Boys.
As the director of the musical “Rock of Ages"— she was nominated for a Tony Award for her work — Hanggi was familiar with the process of building a narrative around well-known pop songs.
“I read it and, like a Tetris game in my mind, I could just see what needed to be done to make it work. That really excited me,” Hanggi says. “And I did grow up on the beach.”
Six months later — fast by industry standards — “Surf” begins previews at Las Vegas’ Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino this month.
The show features hits such as “Good Vibrations,” “I Get Around” and “Surfin’ USA” alongside the more atmospheric “Heroes and Villains,” “The Warmth of the Sun” and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” often sung in trademark harmonies and with period-appropriate orchestrations, Hanggi says.
She had a very specific concept in mind regarding the tone of “Surf.”
“I really wanted it to feel like we opened up a photo album, we crawled inside one of the grainy images, and we got to sit there and watch our family and friends unfold,” Hanggi says. “And they were all wearing really cute outfits.”
Perhaps that’s because her own family lived a version of the mid-20th century Southern California life the Beach Boys sang about. Hanggi was raised in Huntington Beach. Her mother and aunts were “beach bunnies” in the late 1950s. Her uncle was a big-time surfer. Her brother worked at hamburger stands during the summer.
“Surfer Girl” was her favorite Beach Boys song. “I thought that was me,” she says. "[This musical] is a little bit of a love letter to my family.”
Musicals based on popular oldies catalogs have filled Broadway stages and national tours in recent years. “Jersey Boys” (“Masterful,” Hanggi says) tells the story of the Four Seasons; “Mamma Mia!” (“So naughty in how fun it is”) showcases ABBA. Hanggi’s own “Rock of Ages” — the movie version of which opens June 15, starring Tom Cruise — exploits ‘80s rock. This isn’t even the first go at the Beach Boys. A Broadway musical called “Good Vibrations” famously flopped in 2005.
Many critics find the number of these jukebox musicals troubling, but their proliferation doesn’t worry Hanggi.
“I’ve almost stopped thinking about musicals as jukebox at all,” she says. “How do we take good music and put it onstage with a story that’s compelling?”
She says she’s been doing a version of that all her life.
“When I was a little kid, I used to put albums on, I would lay on my bed and I would visualize the story that went along with the music,” she says. “That was naturally happening to me.”
In “Rock of Ages,” Hanggi found her story in Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” It gave Hanggi her two leads, a small-town girl and a city boy. The Beach Boys’ “That’s Not Me,” an album track from “Pet Sounds,” provides the narrative and main characters for “Surf.” The speaker regrets his decision to split for the city and pursue fame. In “Surf,” he returns to his Southern California hometown, to his community, his friends and — of course — his girl.
“In a way, we had unearthed something thatBrian [Wilson] had already written — from the characters, from the breadcrumbs he left behind,” says “Surf” writer Jason Setterlund.
Setterlund was so confident of the narrative strength of the Beach Boys’ songs that an early draft of “Surf” was entirely sung-through. Hanggi argued for some dialogue, but even now there’s never more than a page between the show’s 20 or so musical numbers.
It was Setterlund who came up with the musical’s title.
“When we called it ‘Surf,’” he says, “it’s less about the sport of surfing than about the ocean itself, about surf as a force of nature, as a metaphor for the things we have to negotiate in life.”
“Surf is everything,” adds producer J Burton Gold, who saw the Beach Boys in concert four years ago and decided at intermission to make it a musical. “It’s the pulse of the tides pulling you in and taking you out. It encompasses the music of the ‘60s, when times were just a little bit easier.”
But don’t think the whole show is nostalgia overload, Hanggi says. This being 2012 — and Las Vegas — there are some flashy modern elements. Most obvious will be the five LCD screens that provide the show’s backdrop — images of waves, sunsets, coral reefs, ‘60s-era advertisements. They enable Hanggi to show surfing on a stage, one of her prouder achievements.
“Going into Vegas, where people are used to spectacle being so big, it almost allows us to be adventurous,” Hanggi says.
But the focus is on the songs — which, in a lucky accident, are in the public eye as the Beach Boys embark on their well-publicized 50th anniversary reunion tour.
It’s the strength of these songs — “the genius of Wilson,” as Gold puts it — that motivates “Surf’s” creative team.
When Hanggi still wasn’t sure if she was going to do the project, she read Wilson’s liner notes on “The Smile Sessions,” a box set of the band’s most mythologized, famously delayed album.
“Many years ago I said that, ‘Music is God’s voice,’” Wilson wrote. “I’ve often felt that I was on a musical mission, to spread the gospel of love through records.”
“I read that and I was like, I’m doing this show,” Hanggi says. “That’s what I want to do too. I want to spread the gospel of love.”