Tony Award nominee Will Butler poses for a portrait on...

Tony Award nominee Will Butler poses for a portrait on Monday, June 3, 2024, in New York. Credit: AP/Christopher Smith

NEW YORK — The assignment was daunting: Write a song for an onstage moment of transcendence. Make it kind of funny and exciting and for a five-piece band. Write it so it justifies an audience sitting in their seats for two hours before they hear it. And, oh, it must plausibly be a rock hit in 1976.

That was the job facing singer-songwriter Will Butler and the music arrangers for just one of the songs that stud the Tony Award-nominated play “Stereophonic,” a leading contender at Sunday's Tony Awards.

“It’s like, ‘OK, that is a lot of things to think about, but let’s just try it out and we just tried it out,’” says Butler, who left Arcade Fire in 2022 and has a new band, Sister Squares.

“Stereophonic” is playwright David Adjmi’s story of a Fleetwood Mac-like band in the mid-’70s recording music over a life-changing year, with personal rifts opening and closing and then reopening.

The music that accompanies the drama includes full-on rockers like “Masquerade” and “Drive” but also fragments and demos as the band reworks tunes. It is a wonderful slice of funky, classic rock for a fictional band that became a real one onstage.

“I was trying to get in their heads. I was also a lot of the time just trying to make a great song, which is a hard enough task. And then hopefully a great song can support many interpretations — that's the dream,” Butler says.

Butler was connected with Adjmi by a mutual friend, and they first met at a diner about 10 years ago. Butler had just moved to New York and writing for theater intrigued him. It was a relaxed meeting and they hit it off: The two talked about “Moby Dick” for an hour.

Tony Award nominee Will Butler poses for a portrait on...

Tony Award nominee Will Butler poses for a portrait on Monday, June 3, 2024, in New York. Credit: AP/Christopher Smith

Adjmi hadn't yet written a word of “Stereophonic.” He had the title, a vague concept and wanted it set in a recording studio. Butler over the next five years would submit “random” demos, like a song that someone might write if they listened to Phil Spector all day or one inspired by Sylvester in 1973 in San Francisco.

Once a script appeared, Adjmi leaned on Butler to fill in the song gaps. One moment had Diana, a young singer-songwriter, nervously play a new tune for her controlling boyfriend, the band's de facto leader and guitarist.

What would it sound like? It could have been a Stevie Nicks-inspired I'm-looking-at-you takedown, more a Joni Mitchell-ish mystical journey or a Neil Young “Heart of Gold”-like approach. Butler wrote lots of options, some of which ended up on his new band's 2023 self-titled debut.

He tried to give the musicians a sonic backstory. They likely listened to Nina Simone and girl groups growing up. They likely heard Glenn Gould and folk music change from Peter, Paul and Mary into Bob Dylan.

This image released by O&M/DKC shows the cast of "Stereophonic."

This image released by O&M/DKC shows the cast of "Stereophonic." Credit: AP/Julieta Cervantes

Butler credits the whole team — Adjmi, sound designer Ryan Rumery, orchestrator and musical director Justin Craig and director Daniel Aukin — for refining and refining the songs. All have Tony nominations.

“The music that I’ve always made is just a very deep collaborative art form. And theater, by its nature, is deeply collaborative,” says Butler. “We were all just going to have each other's backs, and there wasn’t going to be a hierarchy. We were just going to dig in on this and work on it until it was good.”

Butler was also able to help the cast understand what long hours in the recording booth are like and helped with technical details — like that it might take an engineer 15 seconds to rewind a piece of music — but left the writing alone.

“The emotional world is completely accurate to my experience. I was in a band with my brother for 20 years and his wife for 20 years, and I’m in a band now with my wife and her sister," he says. “It’s just like you watch it and you’re like, ‘I hate this play!’ This is too real. So, the emotional landscape is completely accurate.”

Assembling a cast of actors who could become a rock band was an entirely different task. The show needed a real drummer, since even a year's worth of lessons wouldn't be enough. They found a drummer-actor in Chris Stack.

They found a competent bassist in Will Brill and a good guitarist in Tom Pecinka. For the two female band members they lucked out on Juliana Canfield and Sarah Pidgeon, who both played piano as kids and had lovely, raw voices.

“We really lucked into our voices. Day one in rehearsal, Tom Pecinka and Juliana Canfield and Sarah Pidgeon sang together, and I was just like, ‘OK, it’s going to work out.’ It sounded like they’d been singing together for a decade, and it was just beautiful,” Butler says.

Pidgeon says the experience has been bonding, and the actors now feel like a band, rehearsing every day and watching their egos drop away. The band was even asked to play at Butler's most recent album drop party.

“I feel kind of like an athlete every every night, like a trick snowboarder where I’m trying to do flips and spins and get my highest score and I need to stick the landing,” she says.

Butler, who has a Grammy for Arcade Fire's “The Suburbs” and a Oscar nomination for working on Spike Jonze’s film "Her," now finds himself the toast of New York theater. He admits he was a little skeptical after the show debuted off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons when producers wanted to take it to Broadway.

“I didn’t say this in the room at the time, but in my brain, I was like, it’s your money,” he says, laughing. “For it to be a hit is very absurdly pleasing, like pleasing and absurd. Just madness.”

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This story has been updated to correct the title of Neil Young's song to “Heart of Gold” and fix a typo in Juliana Canfield's name.

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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