NYC’s Joe Iconis previews the world premiere of ‘The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical’ at La Jolla Playhouse

It’s a busy summer for the ever-prolific musical theater writer, concert performer, and fan favorite Joe Iconis. The Long Island native – a recipient of the Ed Kleban, Jonathan Larson, and Richard Rodgers Awards, who created a world-wide sensation with his Tony-nominated musical Be More Chill (with Joe Tracz) and cast album that has been streamed over 500 million times, and on screen with his song “Broadway, Here I Come!” from the NBC TV series Smash – has three big events in the works that are coming to the stage this summer, fall, and winter in California and back at his home base in NYC.

Joe Iconis. Photo by Marques Walls.

Currently on the West Coast in rehearsals for the already extended world premiere of The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical at La Jolla Playhouse, with an opening slated for Sunday, September 10, the new musical by Iconis (music, book, and lyrics) and Gregory S. Moss (book) recounts the controversial life and career of the eponymous counter-culture icon, gonzo journalist, and author of two autobiographical novels, The Rum Diary and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, both of which were later adapted for the screen. Equally well-known for his excessive use of illegal drugs and alcohol, contempt for authority, and advocacy and ownership of a vast arsenal of firearms, Thompson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2005, after which his ashes, per his request, were fired from a cannon, marking another milestone in his irreverent larger-than-life legacy – as will Iconis’s explosive new bio-musical.

While in Southern California for the show’s debut, Joe Iconis & Family – his close-knit group of musical-theater friends and collaborators – will play a one-night-only concert at The Bourbon Room in LA on September 25. Prior to that, his 45-track recording Album – a collection of his original songs, performed by a roster of stars, and available for streaming and download since 2022, will be released in a five-LP vinyl box set by Ghostlight Records on Friday, August 18. The special collector’s edition will include a sixteen-page booklet with complete lyrics, artwork and design by Rob Carmichael, and photography by Marques Walls. Then, upon his return to New York, Iconis will begin work on The 13th Annual Joe Iconis Christmas Extravaganza, a wild cabaret celebration of the holidays with an all-star cast of Family favorites, back at 54 Below for a three-night, six-show engagement December 8-10, after a three-year pandemic hiatus.

Joe generously made time in his busy rehearsal schedule for a lively phone conversation during lunch break, to answer my questions about the genesis, development, and content of the Hunter S. Thompson Musical, before previews begin on August 29.

What first inspired your interest in Hunter Thompson and made you want to create a musical about him?

Joe: I was first inspired by the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I guess I was vaguely aware of who he was and I was a big movie fan, so I saw it when it came out in 1998, and I was intrigued by it. Then when he died in 2005, I started seeing all those accounts of him by people who knew him, and that’s what piqued my interest. So the tension between his public and personal life was what got me into it

Workshop draft of The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical. Photo by Joe Iconis.

When did you get started on it and what has been the most rewarding and the most challenging part of the development process?

The show has been in the making for a very long time. It was commissioned by the La Jolla Playhouse in 2007, by Artistic Director Christopher Ashley, who is directing the show. I began in earnest around 2012, the same time I was working on Be More Chill, so it’s been a long path and the longest gestation period ever – frustrating at times and also rewarding. That amount of time has allowed me to make a show that feels current and timeless, since things have changed over time and resonate differently now, and I’ve made the changes or have developed a new perspective on it.

Did his style of gonzo journalism affect your style of writing for this?

Oh yeah, for sure. The idea is the whole show is infected with the spirit of him, so I really tried to connect with the way he wrote. It’s totally subjective, as is theater and the people in it; anything can happen. It’s a natural fit and a pretty wild and raucous theater experience.

George Abud (left) and the cast in rehearsal. Photo by Joe Iconis.

What do you consider the most fascinating episode of his life that you’ve included in the musical narrative?

What I always enjoy working on and seeing in rehearsal is that after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he was afforded a bit of the celebrity and success he’d been chasing. The next thing he did was Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, and it’s exciting to see him fired up and really great at his job, not just painted as a drugged-out caricature. He was a basket case in so many ways, but he was also an incredible journalist.

If you could have asked him one question, what would it be?

I would ask him if he likes the musical I’m working on about him. That’s what’s on my mind. He was never shy about expressing his opinion, so I think I kind of know what he thought or would say about a lot of things, but not about this.

How do you see him and what one message or take-away do you hope audiences will get from the show?

I hope they look at him and see a complicated character, who is not an easy sell, without smoothing him out or forcing them to come to a particular opinion. It’s rare to see in a musical a lead character that is so complex. Did the good things he did make up for the bad things he did? He also had a strong moral compass and tried to make a place for outsiders and misfits – as most of my shows do – so I hope everyone feels that there’s a place for him, and them, in this work.

Lorinda Lisitza, George Salazar, Jason SweetTooth Williams, and Lauren Marcus in rehearsal. Photo by Joe Iconis.

Were you involved in the casting at La Jolla Playhouse? 

I was, very much so. It’s a cool combination of the Family – George Salazar, Jason SweetTooth Williams, Lauren Marcus, Lorinda Lisitza – and people who are new to the Family that I’ve wanted to work with, like Jeannette Bayardelle, George Abud, who plays Richard Nixon, and Gabriel Ebert. From the minute Gabe auditioned for the role of Hunter, it was immediately clear that he was born to play him. They’re a really eclectic mix, who feel like a true collection of misfit toys.

What are you enjoying most about being on the West Coast?

That they’re doing my show here! And I’m also doing a concert at The Bourbon Room in LA in September. I have to be honest, I do miss New York and sometimes feel like a fish out of water, wearing all black and trying to walk across the highway.

Joe Iconis. Photo by Joe Iconis.

It was on the news this week that NYC is now the top seller of legal marijuana in the world, so do you think you might have a built-in target audience for bringing the show here soon (I hope)? 

I certainly hope so, too! Maybe part of the publicity angle should be that it’s the weed-smokers’ favorite musical. But my dream is that it will be a mix of people together, who are familiar with Hunter Thompson and who aren’t, young and old, theatergoers and new audiences, including the stoners – as long as they can stay awake through the two-and-a-half hours of the two acts!

Do you know yet who’ll be joining you at 54 Below for your December return with The 13th Annual Joe Iconis Christmas Extravaganza?

I cannot say because I do not know exactly, but a lot of the familiar faces will be there. It’s been really heartbreaking not to be able to do it for the past few years and it’s been felt by everyone, especially since, with our different schedules, we would all look forward to getting together with family and friends over the holidays. So I’m very excited to be able to be doing it again this year and I’ll turn my attention to it after Hunter Thompson closes.

It was so good to catch up, Joe! Many thanks for a great conversation and giving our readers a preview of your upcoming shows. I look forward to seeing you, and them, soon!

The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical plays August 29-October 8, 2023, at La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA. For tickets (priced at $25-90), call (858) 550-1010, or go online. Masks are not required but are recommended inside the theater.

Joe Iconis & Family plays on Monday, September 25, 2023, at 8 pm (doors open at 6:00), at The Bourbon Room, 6356 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA. For tickets (priced at $35-50, plus fees, and a two-item minimum per person), go online. Masks are not required.

The 13th Annual Joe Iconis Christmas Extravaganza plays December 8-10, at 7 pm and 11 pm, at 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, cellar, NYC. For tickets (priced a $50-$100, plus fees and a $25 food/beverage minimum per person), call (646) 476-3551, or go online. Masks are not required.


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