By Mimi Sells
September 13, 2023
They say there’s no such thing as coincidence. A month ago, I watched a documentary about Hunter S. Thompson. I previously knew only that he was the author of the 1980’s era bestseller Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which birthed the age of gonzo journalism. What I learned was that Thompson held a dark, depressing view of America and its politics and that he ultimately took his own life.
So, when I went to the La Jolla Playhouse to see “The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical” last week, I couldn’t fathom how this chain smoking, hard drinking, drug-consuming, depressive and outrageous writer could possibly offer the makings of an engaging, uplifting musical. I certainly wasn’t prepared to be stunned and stirred. And yet, by the end, we joined in a raucous standing ovation for this new, creative masterpiece!
The Hunter S. Thompson Musical was written by acclaimed and award-winning Broadway writer Joe Iconis (Ex: Be More Chill – won a 2019 Tony). Iconis’ created a lively musical score filled with clever lyrics that come fast and furious. From the bones of Thompson’s biography, Iconis reimagines the story, sharing Thompson’s journey as a young writer from a harsh background who seeks to find his voice (and fame) during two cataclysmic decades of vast cultural shifts in America.
The backdrop is the political storms of the seventies and eighties. Yet, we are reminded that those winds still blow in our own polarized times. A key element of the story is how Thompson finds both his creative muse and his monster in the rise and fall of Richard Nixon. He begins chronicling Nixon’s election losses, wins and ultimately the President’s resignation under scandal.
Along the way, Thompson becomes an acclaimed writer for Rolling Stone writing outrageous stories that break the news media’s rules of objectivity and distance. He throws himself into stories in a way that made him a rock star of journalism– the Gonzo journalist.
But his demons, his failed relations and his failing health are what is left to Thompson in his later years as he ponders his legacy. That’s where this Musical pulls off a miracle of an ending that I won’t spoil.
The Hunter S. Thompson Musical exudes a true “bound for Broadway” aura. From the inventive staging (including a peacock!) to the eclectic, woodsy Americana set, the audience is treated to two and a half hours of musical magic. And foremost, the musical showcases a large cast of hugely talented singers who each get a turn to shine. Extra kudos go to actor/singer Gabriel Ebert as Thompson. Ebert is onstage virtually every minute, singing, moving, acting and always fully believable as Thompson in his ever-present shorts and sloppy Hawaiian shirts. It’s a tour de force!
I asked Composer/Writer Joe Iconis two questions that were haunting me after this engaging yet controversial show.
It was clearly a long journey creating this work. What is your biggest takeaway in seeing your vision realized on stage?
It’s been really heartening to see how resonant the politics and the messages of the show are in 2023. The longer our development process became, the more I realized it wasn’t about name-dropping political figures of the last ten years or making obvious comparisons between social justice movements of the 1960’s and today. The goal became finding the heart of the political issues that were on the mind of Americans in the 1960’s/1970’s, which turned out to be identical to the issues to today. The result is a show that, I hope, feels both timely and timeless.
I wondered how you found the positive in HST’s story– it certainly isn’t a typical “hero’s journey.”.
For some reason, modern musicals tend to center on characters who are inherently good. We were purposefully trying to do something different. This man led a complicated, tragic life. The show isn’t saying he’s a hero or an anti-hero. We are embracing HUNTER as a complicated leading man and letting the inherent contradictions of his story live on stage. I don’t need to sympathize with a character in order to empathize with them or find them compelling, charming, etc. I’ve been really encouraged that our audiences have been feeling the same!
From the beginning, the idea was always that the joy of the piece would stem from the young people of the story; they are the hope. The show is about America. America is always in a state of upheaval and things often seem pretty bleak, especially for marginalized populations. In order to make it through, we cling to hope and that’s what the show itself does.
For all of us who believe in the power of writing, the urgency of storytelling and the thrill of brilliant lyrics and music, catch this show. Instead of fear and loathing in Las Vegas, be prepared for stunned and stirring in La Jolla.
This world premiere musical is playing through October 8. For more information and tickets, go to lajollaplayhouse.org.