On a wintry Chicago night in 2000, Davy Rothbart found a note stuck beneath the windshield of his car. It was addressed to Mario.
He opened it anyway.
“Mario,” the note read. “I fucking hate you. You said you had to work. Why is your car here, at her place? You’re a liar, a fucking liar. I hate you. I hate you.” Signed “Amber,” the note included a postscript: “Page me later.”
That letter changed Rothbart’s life. While working as a ticket scalper (Bulls games, Riverdance, Barney on Ice), he began devoting his days to collecting the coolest, strangest, most heartbreaking notes and photos he could find. He and a few friends assembled them into Found Magazine no. 1. More issues of the zine followed, as did a journal for racier items, called Dirty Found. Rothbart began to tour the country, reading these finds to live audiences. He published a couple of books and made appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman.
Speaking by phone from Michigan while on a visit to his parents, Rothbart assesses his career: “Running Found Magazine is kind of a weird job.”
It’s about to get weirder.
On September 18, the Atlantic Theater, home of heavyweights like David Mamet and Martin McDonagh, will present Found: A New Musical. This two-act tuner, with songs by Eli Bolin and a book by Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree, will feature at least 150 found items, spoken, sung, and projected. As the creators decided they needed a story to connect the ephemera, they’ve written a script not so loosely based on Rothbart’s life and girl problems.
See also: The 2014 Fall (Arts) Issue: An Index
As fun as an issue of Found is, it doesn’t seem a natural candidate for a musical—too haphazard, too slight, too in-jokey. “It’s crazy, right?” says Bell, giggling nervously about the prospect of shaping so many random documents into an evening of theater. “Yeah. It’s crazy.”
Still, Bell and Overtree are pros at adapting crazy stuff to the stage. Bell co-created the unlikely Broadway transfer [title of show], an antic musical about a group of artists maybe, probably, sort of deciding to write a musical together. Overtree heads Story Pirates, a collective that takes tales from elementary-school kids and transforms them into fully realized musicals. “All I do all day long is adapt unconventional material for theater,” he explains.
But the musical version of Found proved a tough nut to crack. The “finds” themselves, which Overtree describes as “some of the funniest, saddest, weirdest things you’ve ever come across,” are almost unbearably compelling. A few minutes on the Found website yields an anguished note about extra chili, a flyer about a stolen bay leaf tree, a picture of a chubby girl smiling slyly as a house burns behind her. “I don’t think that anybody looks at the notes without it firing their imagination—who these people are, what they look like, what the stories behind the notes are,” he says.
Overtree did try a version with no overarching story. It was fun, he says, but too lightweight. The creators next tried a tale of a brother and sister sorting through the junk their dead father had hoarded.
That version worked even less well. “We didn’t want it to have such a morbid storyline,” says Overtree.
“I think we were treating the finds as obstacles,” Bell recalls. “We needed to find a way to celebrate these finds.”
So he and Overtree returned to an earlier idea, centering the show around, as Overtree explains, “Davy and his friends and the things that happen when friendship and work and passion and art and love are combined, how complicated that can make life.” But even this scenario took some work. An early draft featured a Davy character who was almost painfully unlikable.
That didn’t really bother Rothbart. According to Bell, his attitude was, more or less, “Go rock out. See what the hell comes up.” What did concern Rothbart was making sure the musical’s creators treated the found items and their authors with respect. “Some of the notes are really bizarre and fucked up, but they’re still relatable in some way,” he says. “They make you remember a time you’ve been in that weird place, you’ve had those hard, difficult feelings.”
Bell and Overtree have respected the finds while gently disrespecting Rothbart, making Davy an epic dumbass when it comes to women. Rothbart doesn’t mind. “It’s possible that the Davy character is stupid with women in different ways than I am,” says Rothbart, who titled his recent book My Heart Is an Idiot. “That’s OK. I’ve made mistakes in love relationships and had plenty of misadventures.”
Nick Blaemire, who will play Davy in Found, takes a rather more admiring view of Rothbart’s romantic aptitude. (Maybe he has to. Asked if it was stressful performing in front of Rothbart, whom he greatly admires, Blaemire says, “Yup. Yup. Yes, it was.”) Describing a recent workshop, Blaemire notes, “There were definitely some fine ladies around when he was in the building. I’ve been trying to capture that. I definitely don’t have his swag.”
With casting now complete and rehearsals underway, Bell and Overtree are still tinkering with just how to integrate the factual finds. They’ve found that the finds work best when they illuminate something oblique, communicating a feeling a character can’t or won’t express. “The finds need to be added value,” says Overtree, “a little weirder and more off center.” He and Bell are also mulling over whether to include any of the items from Dirty Found. “I don’t know if there will be a topless find or not,” Bell teases.
Right now, they’re in the enviable position of having more terrific material than they can possibly use. After hanging up the phone, Bell emails a flyer for the Liberty Belles, a mid-’80s USO troupe with short skirts, big hair, and a possible pantyhose addiction. “Even if it doesn’t make it into the final show, I want to do a spinoff called The Liberty Belles,” he writes. Found: The Sequel?