First commissioned in 2008, the ‘Untitled Unauthorized’ musical by Joe Iconis tells the story of the famously anarchic journalist.
Let’s get this straight: a musical about Hunter S. Thompson, the anarchic “gonzo” journalist with the white bucket hat, tinted glasses and dangling cigarette holder? The rebel reporter who was obsessed with booze, drugs and guns? He, who after his death in 2005 had his cremated ashes shot out of a cannon?
Why not, thought Joe Iconis, the composer, lyricist and co-book writer (with Gregory Moss) of “The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical,” a world-premiere production opening in previews on Tuesday, Aug. 29, at La Jolla Playhouse.
Iconis’ credits include the Tony Award-nominated teen musical “Be More Chill,” as well as rock shows “The Black Suits,” “The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks” and “Things To Ruin.”
“I was interested in who [Thompson] was as a man and how his behavior, his career and his legacy affected the human beings in his orbit,” Iconis said.
“I would watch these interviews of him, his mumbling, his too-many-words-to-fit-his-mouth way he spoke. It was very rhythmic and musical and also the opposite of lyrical songwriting. All these things many years ago made me think Hunter S. Thompson was a terrible idea for a musical — so potentially bad that I had to be the person to do it.”
In 2007, Iconis broached the notion of a Thompson stage musical to Christopher Ashley, the then-new artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse.
“It felt like a perfect storm of things I was interested in,” remembered Ashley, who is directing the musical. “I’d always been a Hunter fan. I loved his writing, how interested he was in the outcasts and the misfits. He’s all the way counterculture.”
In 2008, Iconis’ concept for the Thompson musical became the first La Jolla Playhouse commission under Ashley’s stewardship.
But because of a variety of factors — including Iconis’ many other projects and the COVID-19 pandemic’s interruption of theater — the mounting of the musical comes more than 15 years after that conversation between Iconis and Ashley. It was workshopped at the playhouse last year in anticipation of this year’s staging.
“I started working on it for real in 2012,” said Iconis, who besides writing musical theater has written for television (his hit “Broadway Here I Come” was featured in the series “Smash”) and performs cabaret concerts himself. “The first draft was done in 2015. It’s certainly a show that’s been in my life for a preposterous amount of years.”
The musical draws inspiration from Thompson’s best-known and gonzo journalism works, including “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and the subsequent “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.” Thompson’s designated archenemy, Richard Nixon, is a character in the show.
The cast features Gabriel Ebert, a 2013 Tony winner for his Mr. Wormwood in “Matilda the Musical,” as Thompson; George Abud as Nixon; and Jason SweetTooth Williams as Ralph Steadman, the illustrator who was Thompson’s gonzo collaborator. Also look for puppets created by Animal Cracker Conspiracy, a local company that has performed at several of the playhouse’s Without Walls festivals.
While “Untitled Unauthorized …” is set in the 1960s and ‘70s, “the world has caught up with the script,” Ashley said. “There are real twentysomethings of the 2020s who are every bit as activist and confident in their ability to change the world as young people were then.”
There has, of course, been a feature film about Thompson — “Where the Buffalo Roam” starring Bill Murray in 1980. An adaptation of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” starring Johnny Depp followed in 1998. Depp returned to play another character in the film version of Thompson’s “The Rum Diary” in 2011.
In placing Thompson in a musical, “it feels natural to have him sing,” Iconis said. “He was such a showman and a circus leader. The fun part is how do I try to capture the jaggedness and the weirdness inside his head and the ramshackle quality of his writing in music? I wanted to have a score that didn’t feel like it was a pastiche. I wanted it to feel like its own strange beast.
“I definitely push the character to the limits of musical theater.”
Ashley calls Iconis’ writing for the show “a toboggan ride down a steep hill. That’s a great match for the way musicals can change on a dime. They’re flexible about how their rules are, and Hunter Thompson never met a rule he didn’t want to break. It’s like Joe and Hunter together converged on something that is purely theatrical.”
“This show is a kaleidoscope of Hunter-related experiences. It’s the opposite of naturalism. It can go anywhere,” Ashley added.
“If bio-musicals were people,” Iconis said, “‘Hamilton’ would be like vice president and ‘Hunter S. Thompson’ would be the kid throwing stink bombs.”
‘The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical’
When: Previews Tuesday, Aug. 29, through Sunday, Sept. 3. Regular performances Tuesday, Sept. 5, through Sunday, Oct. 8. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (except Sept. 10).
Where: La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive
Information: (858) 550-1010, lajollaplayhouse.org
— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report. ◆
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