Tensions simmer as the band listens to snippets of recorded music pulsing from the control room speakers (2024) | Chelcie Parry

It’s crowded in the recording studio, and the band members are arguing. Yes, their new-found success means they’ve received an enormous budget from the record label and free reign to create however they want. But sex, jealousy, and addiction are driving them apart. Fueling the conflict are rumors that the lead singer will become a breakout solo star, and not helping matters: alcohol on tap and a giant bag of cocaine.

This could be the story of Fleetwood Mac—or any number of other bands falling apart even as they rise in popularity and acclaim. The image of musicians in a recording studio beset by interpersonal tensions—while making their best music—is so familiar it leads a listener to wonder, Is the strife all somehow necessary? That’s the point of playwright David Adjmi’s Stereophonic, which illuminates this murky pocket of creative life by dissecting the social dramas of a 1970s band on the brink of collapse. Following a sold-out run off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, Stereophonic begins performances at John Golden Theatre this April, for a 14-week run.

Adjmi’s play is set entirely in a recording studio. The constraint in space demands an attention to detail immediately evident in David Zinn’s set for the Playwrights Horizons staging: a California-based music studio so realistic that I almost believed I’d stumbled into the wrong building when looking for my seat. It is fragrant with the heady blend of weed, incense, and creative ambition, lit softly with yellow overhead lamps. Split between a control room in the foreground and a recording space at the back, the stage is separated by thick glass. Sound designer Ryan Rumery was able to resonate dialogue and music on either side of the glass so clearly that we, in the audience, imagined ourselves in the control room alongside the sound engineers, recording and mixing the band’s tracks. 

Having these two stage areas—the control room and recording room—separated in this way fuels the play’s drama, with events on either side of the glass revealed or concealed at different moments. Director Daniel Aukin drew on the histories and experiences of numerous bands to replicate and incorporate this tension. Sometimes, the control room is silent, and we hear only the events in the sound room; at other times, the sound engineers secretly leave on the mics to overhear private dialogue between band members and keep abreast of all the dramatic goings-on. We become eavesdroppers to the band’s creation experience while also being kept at a distance, yearning to absorb their musical output while judging them from afar, as we do of musicians in real life. 

Onstage, we see five members of the band and two sound engineers at work—and failing to work—on the music: Peter (Tom Pecinka) is the head songwriter on vocals and lead guitar, self-obsessed and in a toxic relationship with Diana (Sarah Pidgeon), an anxious and deeply talented vocalist. Reg (Will Brill), the bassist, is struggling with alcohol addiction and will lose his wife, keyboardist and singer Holly (Juliana Canfield), arguably the most down-to-earth band member, if he can’t clear up his act. Finally, the drummer, Simon (Chris Stack), laments the destruction of his marriage due to being absent from home for so long. One of the sound engineers, Grover (Eli Gelb), is resentful, deeply ambitious, and lied about his experience to secure the recording gig, and the other, Charlie (Andrew R. Butler), absorbs everything around him with the vacant expression of someone forever high. 

Over the play’s four-act, three-hour duration, the cast performs six incredibly catchy 1970s-flavored rock songs composed by former Arcade Fire band member Will Butler (I’ve been scrolling Spotify ever since, hoping for the playlist to go public). The music comprises tender, bitter ballads about heartbreak, hope, and moving on. They evoke Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors from start to finish, even if Adjmi cites many other inspirations for the play, like listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” on a flight to Boston, which got him thinking about the other experts and artists in the studio on the day of recording, all vital components for crafting such emotive music. 

We hear the songs in snippets or in full as the band revises and argues over the perfect arrangements in  a year of recording. They’re determined to express themselves through the music, each insisting on their own vision. Diana writes songs with too many verses, and the band berates her as she tries to reach a perfect high note. Reg wants to show off his brilliance on the bass when everyone else wants him to shut up. Engineers Grover and Charlie—and, by extension, the audience—contend with all these clashes from the control room. We gain insight into the combination of inspiration and struggle involved in art making and how artists can feed off one another, even while fighting, up to the tantalizing moment that a creative target is hit: when all the pieces fall into place (the instruments, vocals, egos,) and the band records a perfect take. In these moments, music engulfs the theater, and we glimpse incandescent beauty so awe-inspiring that we understand, just for a moment, why the characters are enduring their unhappiness. 

To be successful, the band must determine one another’s strengths and weaknesses—or their perfect takes will be short-lived, as they often are, until someone messes up or Grover abruptly stops the recording to point out the drum set needs tuning. Towards the play’s close, we’re no longer only invested in whether the band completes the record without breaking up—it’s their artistic commitment to growth and destruction that is perhaps most gripping. They can harmonize in a beatific refrain while simultaneously hating the process and the people around them. As the album slowly evolves, one song after another, we see how cathartic writing, performing, and creating can be—but how it won’t fix a creator’s personal life. Diana admits, at one point, that she used to think she was getting “things out” with her music, when, in fact, her internal conflicts were only becoming “submerged and hidden in some other weird pocket” of her psyche. 

When Grover has a late-night heart-to-heart with his crush, Holly, she asks what happiness means to him, and he shrugs, replying that humans exist to suffer. After she leaves, he is alone again in the control room, crouched over the dials. Like us, he will listen through the glass for as long as he can—for the pleasure of a piece of music that transcends, in its beauty, the lives of the people making it. Adjmi shared in a playwright’s note that he was considering quitting theater when the idea for Stereophonic came to mind. He and Grover are alike, too, it seems, in their need for the thrilling chase of creating something breathtaking with the right timing, people, and environment,even if it makes its creator miserable. 

Does the greatest music flourish from staying the course despite the unhappiness attached? Perhaps Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsay Buckingham answered this best when he yelled into the mic at one of the band’s final performances of “The Chain,” a song about an undying union between people who loathe one another: “We’re here to show you that we just refuse to go away.” 

In upsizing to Broadway, Stereophonic is enacting its own storyline. The play’s huge success has driven these artists into closer quarters, encouraging them to continue performing so that we, a desperate audience, can see life’s pain conquered through a stunning art form. Will the artists survive this success? Maybe. At the very least, there’s scope for fresh inspiration to sink into their psyches, feeding the creation machine, delivering us art.