In the realm of creativity, inspiration is currency, and the muse holds unimaginable power. While the famous figurehead may get the glory, it is the “almost” famous that make the magic. Their power is exerted publicly in small ways, their impact outsized through the megaphone of their chosen creative. These figures often take on mythological significance: Yoko Ono and John Lennon, Jane Asher and Paul McCartney, Pattie Boyd and George Harrison—just to name the Beatles corollaries.
Decades after the swinging '60s shot many of these muses to backstage stardom, the “rockstar girlfriend” aesthetic remains a trending fashion touchstone, ranging from the glamorous confidence of mid-century figures like Bianca Jagger to the casual cool of modern icons like Alexa Chung.
In Almost Famous the Musical, these women are called the “Band-Aids” (don't call them groupies). They fulfill a similar role onstage as their real-life counterparts did in the wings: Led by the borderline-divine Penny Lane (based on the real life Pennie Ann Trumbull, and brought to life onstage by Solea Pfeiffer), the quartet are based directly on the women Cameron Crowe met as a teenager on the road for Rolling Stone. It was their influence that inspired the Oscar-winning Almost Famous film, and now the stage musical.
Playbill met up with the show's stars Katie Ladner, Julia Cassandra, and Jana Djenne Jackson, along with costume designer David Zinn, to explore how they crafted each Band-Aid's distinctive look.
How would you describe your particular Band-Aid?
Julia Cassandra (JC): Estrella is, I would say, the most feminine, flowy, very earthy star child.
Jana Djenne Jackson (JJ): Polexia is free love, sexual, and very free in her body. I get a lot of shorts, no dresses, so I can ride road boxes across the stage. She's fun.
Katie Ladner (KL): Sapphire is definitely the hardcore rocker chick. She’s raw, honest.
The women you are portraying are incredibly enigmatic; they’re simultaneously above it all, and intertwined. How did you find your way in?
KL: In a word, puppetry. When we listen to these men, because it was men that were in the forefront up on the stage at this time, what you’re hearing is them seeing us. We inspire the music. They saw us—the way they relied on these women’s point of view made these men. The muses could choose to play the game, and their life became attached to moving these men. Julia and I have a moment in “Ramble On” with Drew [Gehling, who plays Stillwater frontman Jeff Bebe] where we tell him what to wear, we decide who he should be onstage that night. We decide.
Each one of you has a unique fashion signature. While Penny Lane had her afghan coat in the film, all four Band-Aids now have moments of sartorial splendor in the stage production. How did you collaborate on this visual language?
David Zinn (DZ): There's a similarity to the girls in the film that we very blessedly don’t have in the stage show. Sapphire’s obviously cool rock—the hard rock 'n' roll girl. Estrella has a kind of woo-woo spirituality about her and a sort of eeriness. Because they cast this beautiful Black woman as Polexia, it immediately inspired me to look at Betty Davis, who was Miles Davis' wife and a funk singer from San Francisco. She had a kind of sexuality and a free spiritedness that feels like California to me.
JJ: I had a conversation with David, and he let me keep my own African waist beads in the show. They make me feel a lot more confident and a little bit more me.
KL: Sapphire's duster is iconic. Throughout this process, I also trusted David to know my assets. There was a moment back in San Diego where everyone was in bathing suits and I was in this cool custom-made jean jacket. That jacket lives in [the number] "Tiny Dancer" now, because I wanted to show my skin a little more.
For Sapphire in particular, it seems like there's something political in showing a plus-sized woman being as physically comfortable in showing her body as her skinnier compatriots.
DZ: Katie is not a rock 'n' roll girl in real life, but she's so strong and she's so beautiful and she carries a lot of that energy. In “It Ain’t Easy” in the hotel room in Greenville, we see her fairly undressed as well. When the actor feels comfortable then the audience feels comfortable. That's what is so beautiful about what Katie brings. Sapphire’s a really interesting character because she kind of stands outside of things—she does her own thing and is suspicious of people. Finding what part of her is wanting to join in and what part of her wants to be a little bit closed off from people was really a fun balance.
KL: Being female identifying humans in this industry, we rely a lot on our bodies. They’re literally sitting in the audience, paying to look at us. It does a number on your psyche. But you can see, in pictures of these real women, how they carried themselves. You can tell if someone was shy, or you can tell if someone came out swinging with a champagne bottle. In the show, I literally do the latter.
One of the blessings of working on a period piece like this is that you can look back at the people who really lived through what you're portraying. Did you have any touchstones, in addition to the aforementioned Betty Davis?
DZ: I tried to bring them real pictures of people. I went to all of the Star magazines [a 1973 teen magazine that focused on the Los Angeles groupie scene], we dove into Bebe Buell and all of those classic figures. Neal Preston photos, there's a beautiful photo series on a bunch of David Bowie fans in 1973 that fed into some of the Polexia stuff—some of the Sapphire stuff came from that.
I also looked at some modern figures. Beth Ditto (an indie rock plus size fashion icon) was somebody that I went to for Sapphire. Estrella is in some ways the most classically '70s: the '70s wearing the vintage '30s or the '70s reimagining the '30s. There was an amazing magazine in the early '70s called Rags that was all about vintage, which in the '70s was the '30s stuff. And of course, yearbooks.
David, Penny Lane is both the leading female force in the musical, and the leader of the Band-Aids; what were the challenges in bringing her to the stage?
DZ: Kate Hudson is gorgeous and iconic and perfect in every way and Solea is a different version of that. We knew that people loved Kate and loved that movie and felt an attachment to her. The looks and the things that she wore were made iconic. We wanted you to recognize those things, and also find another way in for Solea.
Solea is twice the height of Kate Hudson. She’s a glorious beautiful amazon, and is of mixed-race. Even if we'd cast a white blonde person with Kate's height, we wouldn't have replicated the movie. So, we're paying tribute to what was so beautiful, but finding a new way in. We learn a bit more backstory about the coat in this version, we played with antique stores and things she could have made on the road. I thought about Kate Moss a lot actually. She's one of those offhandedly stylish people, which Solea also is in real life. She's one of those magic creatures. I threaded in an eclectic and vintage feeling, with lots of lush suede and velvet, and crochet. Penny Lane has elements of all of the ladies: the velvet speaks to Sapphire, Estrella is very soft and homemade, and of course, Polexia and suede.
There has been a movement in recent years to reassess the women labelled as "groupies," and the ways in which their contributions to the rock 'n' roll movement were denigrated. Do you see yourselves as powerful when you're portraying these women?
JC: These women were powerful. A lot of people see these relationships as exploitive, like the men were exploiting these girls. But we made the choice to be there. This was a liberating time for women to make choices— to explore themselves and explore their sexuality and their lives, of wanting to be with artists and wanting to be in the room. I think that is a very powerful choice, to connect. Estrella is very, very heart. She makes each connection strongly, she’s not someone who brushes people off. She looks into someone’s eyes and truly knows who they are and connects their hearts.
KL: They relied, back in the day, on these women’s point of view. They held so much power and I think they knew it.
JJ: We are representing women knowing and owning their power, and owning what they can choose to do for others. Choosing and being confident in our choices. They’re beautiful people that have no limitations and we represent that. Polexia falls in love so easy—a lot of people see that as her weakness, but I feel like that is her strength. She’s so loving and fun, and open for anything. That’s why she gets to go on tour and listen to the music that she loves all the time.
She chooses love.