When musical theatre writer Joe Iconis was in high school, he was just a somewhat reserved nice guy. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was shy, but I certainly was not doing anything that was described in Hunter S. Thompson’s writing,” says the Tony-nominated composer-lyricist, “which I think made it really appealing to me.”
Iconis’ first introduction to Thompson was the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro, the buddy road trip (emphasis on “trip”) comedy has become a cult classic. In it, a journalist and his attorney travel to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race, but a trunkful of mescaline turns the assignment into a psychedelic ride. First serialized in Rolling Stone, then published as a book in 1972, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was really a critique of the downfall of 1960s counterculture.
Thompson is considered the founder of gonzo journalism, which firmly plants the author as part of the story, often written in first person and lacking objectivity. And Iconis has written a musical about him. Commissioned in 2008 by La Jolla Playhouse and almost 15 years in the making, The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical, featuring music and lyrics by Iconis and a book by Iconis with Gregory S. Moss, is wrapping up its world premiere run this weekend.
Although always attracted to the wild accounts that were so opposite his own life, it wasn’t until Thompson’s death in 2005 that Iconis really clicked into a real curiosity for Thompson. “There started being all of these pieces with folks who knew him giving first-hand accounts of experiences they had with him, anecdotal stuff about his life. So many of the stories felt like they were in contrast to what I thought I knew about him and his public persona,” says Iconis. He'd envisioned Thompson as just a wild person, “moving about the world like a human hurricane, doing drugs and causing destruction.”
But Thompson’s friends were painting a more complete portrait. “Here was this guy who cared so deeply about the art of writing, and really believed that writing had the power to change the world,” Iconis began to discover. “Underneath all his depravity, he really was a moralist, and he had this strong sense of people who feel like there’s no place for them—outcasts, misfits. He felt that writing could make a place for those people.”
That yearning for change through his writing and his struggle to affect it is the jumping off point for Iconis’ musical. In a broad sense, The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical is a bit of a biomusical. It does tell some of the story of Thompson’s life, concentrating mainly in his gonzo journalism decade, 1963–1972, but also bouncing around into the 1940s, the 1980s, and the early 2000s. “It really feels like the show itself is kind of infected with the gonzo spirit, as opposed to being a traditional biomusical,” explains the composer, calling to mind the erratic bursts inherent in Thompson's writings.
During the early years of the musical’s development, Iconis was really trying to wrangle the events of Thompson’s life into the narrative. He says it first became more about the politics and the issues of the time than about the man and his writing. It was another one of Iconis’ musicals that helped him focus his lens on Thompson: Be More Chill.
Written with Joe Tracz, and based on the book of the same name by Ned Vizzini, Be More Chill premiered at Two River Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey in 2015. A cast recording from that production fostered an online following for the musical, which led to a 2018 Off-Broadway run and a 2019 Broadway transfer. The sci-fi tuner, about a bullied outcast who tries to take a magic pill that will help him be cooler, really resonated with teen theatre kids.
When Iconis wrote Be More Chill, he didn’t set out to change anyone’s life. He was, of course, aware of the truths and issues lurking deep in the musical comedy, but the interactions he began having with his audiences surprised him. “I was meeting so many young people who were so deeply affected by that show,” he says. “Seeing how important it was for them to see themselves reflected on stage, and the issues they are dealing with be discussed in a piece of art that wasn’t putting those issues in a tragic box, but was funny and had a flippancy about it, gave me a new perspective for what I was doing.”
When Iconis began to see his own career and his own writing with more import, he began to home in on the storytelling center of The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical. “What Thompson was really trying to do was make a place for the people who felt like they didn’t belong, for people who felt like there was no space for them. That thread is just carried through in such an enormous way in his writing, and it really connected for me to these young people I was meeting who were so affected by not only my show, but by theatre in general.”
The cast includes some of Iconis’ regular players, including his wife Lauren Marcus, and George Salazar, both who appeared in the Off-Broadway and Broadway runs of Be More Chill; and Lorinda Lisitza, Ryan Vona, and Jeannette Bayardelle, who are among the many names joining the composer for his Joe Iconis and Family cabaret shows. And those Family cast lists are long. Iconis collects people, always adding new members who will show up and sing a song of his at a holiday concert. And with The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical, he’s now got George Abud and Gabriel Ebert, both of whom he was excited to meet and work with and even more thrilled when they clicked and he discovered they were his “kind of people.”
And what are those kind of people? The misfits, naturally. “They’re a chorus line of misfits,” Iconis says of his cast. “They’re gorgeous, and they look like actual human beings who walk the earth. They’re all strange. And their voices do not blend. And that’s been the best part! They are all their own individuals.”
When he starts to bandy the term “misfits” about again, but this time referring to his own friends and not the counterculture kids of the 1960s that Thompson so desperately tried to make space for, the connection between the two writers is all too obvious. Iconis didn’t see at first. He'd managed to gonzo himself into his Hunter S. Thompson musical.
“When I first started writing this show, I did not at all see myself in the character of Hunter S. Thompson. Even though he was a writer, I felt like he was a different species of person,” says Iconis. “I write so many characters that are thinly veiled versions of myself, but I did not feel that way about Hunter. But over the course of this process, I started having these inklings of ‘Oh, I guess I kind of relate to that thing I just wrote for him to say.’ It wasn’t until the two-week workshop last summer when I finally saw it the first time that I was like, ‘Oh. This is the most autobiographical thing I ever wrote.’” He laughs recalling the realization. “It seems so silly, because it’s about a writer who’s trying to connect with people, which is ostensibly the thing I’m doing. Making these pieces of art for people who feel like they don’t fit in.”
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