Erik Weiner and Jordan Allen-Dutton want to take you on a journey back in time, to an era before “geek chic” was a thing, before “early adopters” meant something other than advance family planning and before “nerd” was transformed from a dismissively derogatory term to a proudly aspirational one.
The duo’s latest play, NERDS, which opens Nov. 29 at Philadelphia Theatre Company, is a musical comedy based on fictionalized interactions between Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs as their companies evolved from laughed-at startups to culture-changing colossi.
How much have these two men changed the way nerds are perceived in America? Allen-Dutton says that a passing glance at any sidewalk will provide all the evidence necessary. “It becomes more verified every single day,” he says. Instead of making fun of the high tech-obsessed, “people are now walking around with white headphones and staring zombie-like into their smartphones!”
While there is no doubt that this attitudinal sea change is thanks in large part to the single-minded determination of tech visionaries like Gates and Jobs, does that mean the story of the revenge of the nerds is fodder for a light-hearted musical?
Weiner and Allen-Dutton, both 36 and California natives, have previously proven that they can tackle and transform subject matter once thought immutable. Their 1999 debut, The Bomb-itty of Errors, a retelling of the Shakespeare play, The Comedy of Errors, done by reinterpreting the Bard’s words into hip-hop and rap performances, continues to be produced around the country and the world. They have also reimagined the variety show format with programs like Cartoon Network’s Robot Chicken, and America’s Best Dance Crew and the comedy sketch show, Scratch & Burn, both MTV series.
The genesis of NERDS actually came from a comedy bit in an episode of Scratch & Burn, recalls Weiner. “We had Bill Gates come back as a fictional messiah character to some high school nerds,” he says. “He told them that if they could just hold on, all those guys threatening and bullying them would someday be working for them; we thought it was a great arc that the most picked-on nerd in elementary school would become the richest man in the world.”
The fact that Gates is no longer the richest man in the world points out one of the ironies affecting a play about the computer industry: Even though it has been well-received in every venue it has played since its 2004 debut (it was a 2007 Barrymore Award-winner for Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Original Music after its premiere here), the major changes in the industry and in the lives of Gates and Jobs have forced changes to NERDS — just like hardware and software companies are constantly coming out with new revisions that obsolete older versions.
“When we started writing this play, no one knew who Steve Jobs was, and then he became a public figure,” Weiner says. “Bill Gates went from being a monopolist to being a philanthropist. Steve Jobs went from being the underdog to Gates to Apple being the monopolist itself. Every time we did a production, we would be trying to tell a different story — it’s like software. Now we’re on OS Mavericks — NERDS Mavericks.”
One of their production updates does not accurately reflect changes in the industry: four of the 11 cast members are female — a much higher percentage of women in principal roles onstage than in Silicon Valley. Weiner emphasizes that this inclusion is not a commentary on the issues “about gender in Silicon Valley per se. We chose to have these female characters in order to personify the moments with fictional characters. We never wanted to delve into the personal lives of Jobs and Gates — we wanted to tell the story of the intersection of these people in a magical space that isn’t exactly real.”
For Weiner and Allen-Dutton, both of whom are Jewish, a play set in an industry populated by leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Marissa Mayer at Yahoo! and Sergei Brin at Google is an opportunity to explore a classic Jewish theme through non-Jewish characters. Because of their then-radical ideas about their world, Gates and Jobs were both considered to be the outsiders, to be the “other” — a condition well known to Jews. Weiner says that the correlation is an easy one to make. “It is such a universal theme, to feel like you’re on the outside, disenfranchised and not taken seriously.”
Considering Gates’ success with Microsoft and the nonprofit Gates Foundation, and the continuing market and cultural dominance of Apple two years after Jobs’ death, no one has a problem taking either of them seriously now. Both Weiner and Allen-Dutton — hoping that the Philadelphia stop is one of the last before their show is deemed Broadway bound — are counting on changing that perception a bit, at least for a few hours.
IF YOU GO
Opening Nov. 29
Philadelphia Theatre Company
Broad and Lombard streets, Philadelphia