I just saw the musical Nerds. I loved it. Every nerd in Philadelphia should see it. It runs through the end of December. Since I haven’t read a detailed review or plot summary written by a nerd I thought I would do that now. If you don’t want to read spoilers then just go and buy a ticket.
It all started a few months ago when a group called Art Reach helped with an audio described musical called Noises Off. Trish, the woman who does the touch tours, invited me. We also went with her husband and her blind daughter Katie. We ate a homely meal at a beautiful farmhouse restaurant. We had a good time, but the musical had a fast pace, rather like an episode of Fawlty Towers, and I left feeling happy but confused.
Recently I saw another woman from Art Reach. We started talking about musicals, and I said I wished that they would make a musical about something cool, like time traveling robots or something. She said that in fact a musical about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates plays at a local theatre. This sounded right up my alley so Is tarted asking around. Trish’s husband Andy runs Awfully Nice Tours, and lent the theater company a Segway for them to use as a prop, so they comped him some tickets. Because of everyone’s generosity I got to go for free.
We arrived at the Suzanne Roberts theater early. They let us drink in the theater, so we got some wine and headed in. We sat way up high, but it didn’t matter thanks to the wonderful acoustics. Music quietly played while they got ready, and I noticed the Shire theme from the Lord of the Rings, something a nerd would recognize. Nice touch. They also had some visual gags going, loading jokes. Trish read some from the program including the scenes, so I had a bit of an idea of what to expect, and it sounded good.
It began and I felt immediately transfixed. The plot makes no attempt at historical accuracy. It makes up for this however by getting the feelings of the events, companies, and people absolutely right. It also has a serious message.
- Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak meet Bill Gates and Paul Alan at the Homebrew computer club in 1975. Of course, in real life only the two Steves went to Homebrew, but that doesn’t matter now. Gates worries about fitting in, while Jobs worries about getting some pot to roll a joint. They present their rival machines, and the Steves win the competition with their computer with a screen. They get a coupon to a pizza place and a free hamster. Every time Jobs has an acid vision of the future, the Macintosh startup sound plays. A nerdy girl wearing braces which pick up AM radio stations hits on Bill Gates with suggestive chess metaphors, but he rejects her, and tries to pick up Sally, the organizer of the club, but she in turn rejects him. Jobs then overtly hits on her and she accepts his advances.
Bill Gates sings a sad song about feeling like just a nerd and getting picked on by jocks. He’d say “Please don’t hurt me” but they did. Steve Jobs sings a psychedelic rock song about how the revolution stars with one. Not two, just one. Sally interrupts them and buys the first Apple after Jobs wows her with a presentation with the 2001 theme playing in the background. Bill Gates goes to IBM. Female employees sing a company song. The president of IBM, John Watson, fires one of them for singing “It’s the happiest place on Earth” off key, then begins his meeting with Gates. Whenever anyone says IBM the company’s menacing chords play, and Watson sings a song instructing Bill Gates how to stay one step ahead of the competition. This involves stepping on everyone then kicking them to the curb.
Jobs goes to the Paulo Alto Research Center (PARC) to date Sally, but instead falls in love with all the new ideas he sees, such as a printer, a computer network, and of course the mouse. They fall in love while going on a walk in the PARC and she tells him to steal the ideas while Woz plays the sax badly. Gates tries to sing an inspiring song with mixed metaphors. You do whatever it takes. In this case, this means buying an operating system from the perpetually wrong Tim Patterson on the cheap and reprogramming it. A coffee chain wanted to buy it, but Tim turned them down – who would want to pay four dollars for a cup of coffee?
Gates says they’d better go back to IBM to give them the operating system. “No need, we followed you.” says Watson accompanied by another menacing chord. Watson tells Gates to have a nice life and laughs. Gates retorts with a laugh and menacing chords of his own. The chords begin clashing and interfering with their conversation, but it doesn’t matter. In one of the truer bits of dialog, Gates explains that while the industry concentrates on building the best machine, he will sell the software that makes it all run. “It costs nothing! And I can charge whatever I want! It’s called software, and it’s the genius of Microsoft! Mic-ro-soft!”
Next, we go to the 1984 worldwide computer convention. Myrtle, the nerdy girl, again tries to hit on Gates and again he rejects her, even after her mention of having the Kama Sutra read by Leonard Nimoy. Jobs shows up with Sally and mistakes Gates for a valet. Sally agrees to park his car: “It’s in the handicapped zone.”
Gates and Alan present MSDOS, and sing the song that made me laugh the most. He says that the whole presentation runs on DOS, and you just have to type c:\runmusicalpresentation. As a nerd I have to nitpick and point out that MSDOS filenames could only have eight characters and no spaces. An eight-bit drum track starts playing. I remember those sounds well, so it really made it extra funny for me. The two of them start to wrap over it:
DOS is amazing, it’s one of a kind
DOS is cool, it will blow your brain
DOS is incredible, DOS is fun,
DOS can be enjoyed by everybody.
DOS is powerful, no bugs at all!
[The computer beeps and the drum track starts to stutter]
DOS can –
[The track stops with a final beep]
Error 453? I thought we debugged this? Well can we reboot it? Just give me a sec – Suddenly, an Apple sign comes down, and Steve Jobs sings a hard rock song about the Macintosh, clearly blowing away the competition. He reprises the line: Because the revolution starts with one.
Gates laments the presentation. “Steve Jobs gets the girl and we go home with our disks in our hand!” He asks: “Where are all the DOS groupies?” Alan suggests Myrtle, but Gates again rejects her, and tries to show him what cool means with an equation, something nerdy in itself. Gates says “I want to see less nerd and more action.” The two of them start yelling “Nerd action!” while slapping each other in a very gay way. This puts Gates over the top, and he realizes that he has to learn how to become cool.
The Steves go to Time Magazine, and Jobs monopolizes the interview, but “forgets” where he got the idea for the mouse. When the reporter challenges him that employees feel unhappy and say Jobs has a messianic complex, he asks “Who said that? I’ll smite them!” Jobs asks about getting on the cover or perhaps a centerfold. “Once you go Mac you never go back.”
Sally confronts Jobs about his attitude, then the two girls sing a sad song about their loves. Jobs calls Sally. “I realize I haven’t made time for you and – hold on I’ve got another call.” He goes to the other line and hears nothing, as ominous music plays. Suddenly Bill Gates appears.
Jobs worries he has come to bust him for drugs, but Gates wants his secrets, and ties Jobs to a chair. After hitting Jobs in the face, Jobs confesses everything, and tells Gates all about the graphical user interface. Gates rips it all off to make Windows. He then forces alcohol down Jobs’ throat, putting him to sleep. The next day Woz revives Jobs and feels furious when Jobs tells him what happened. Jobs decides to leave and start his own company, but Woz will not join him. “Let him have our secrets! What’s he gonna do with them anyway?” A gangster rap song then plays, proclaiming the praises of Windows. Again, they did a great job capturing the feeling of the Mac’s true coolness versus Windows fake coolness. And that ended act one.
Act two picks up twenty laters after the Homebrew Computer Club, in 1995, and everything runs Windows. Everyone feels down and out in Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs lives in a cardboard box. Woz can’t find his hamster. Sally feels worried about the state of the world. Paul Alan wants to play basketball. Myrtle has founded a startup but still hasn’t found a guy. John Watson has become a crack addict. It can’t get any worse.
Microsoft has begun converting the world to Windows by force. They inject a Mac user at the creative writing department at Swarthmore with the Microsoft virus. I loved the local reference, since I lived in Swarthmore for much of my life. A helicopter lands and they inject Steve Jobs. He feels his creative urge slipping away and decides to reach out to God by emailing email@example.com. He asks if God has abandoned him just like his parents and by Apple. He feels he can call God “G” because they have a lot in common. He gets an immediate reply – from a mailer daemon. He curses the demon and officially signs out after closing and force quitting his open apps.
At Microsoft, Bill Gates asks for an acquisition report. They own 76% of everything. The head of Netscape arrives, and Gates prepares to take over yet another company. He feels shocked when Myrtle walks in. She has lost the headgear and become a fashionable woman. He tries to impress her by telling her to name anything. She replies that she wants a traditional Italian clown. Gates hits a buzzer and sure enough in walks a traditional Italian clown, complete with accordion. He tasers the clown. Myrtle considered the demonstration impressive and terrifying.
Myrtle tells Bill to give it to her straight, and they sing a ridiculous tango about feeling the urge to merge, with plenty of innuendo. After the song he confesses his true goal of crushing everything in his path. “Before I was a pawn, but now I’m the king and I’m inviting you to be my queen.” he says smugly. Myrtle would rather drink wine and watch Titanic. Gates says he has Celine Dion locked in a dungeon, but she starts to leave.
He threatens that if she walks out the door he will copy her browser and build it into Windows. Myrtle says that she’ll sue the pants off of him, and he promptly removes them. She leaves. “Hey, at least you took your pants off, that’s progress.” chides Paul Alan. Gates orders him to copy her browser.
Paul considers it immoral and illegal. He wants to play in the NBA, especially now that he owns a basketball team. He leaves Gates as well. In a rage, Gates orders the Paultron 3000 sent in. A robot with a discordant voice enters and they sing a duet, the song Gates sang before about doing whatever it takes. The robot’s voice locks up in the middle of the performance.
Meanwhile, Woz has to revive Jobs from the Microsoft virus. “Shutting down in 30 seconds.” “Abort, retry, fail.” Woz calls Apple tech support. A man from India answers and introduces himself as “…Derek.” A hilarious tech support dialog ensues.
“Is your friend turned on?” “I don’t think so. I hope not.” “Would you turn your friend on?” “How am I supposed to do that?” “Can you take off the front panel, blow on his motherboard, then reach around the back and flip the switch?”
Woz refuses. Derek tells him to perform a reboot by taking off his friend’s boots then putting them back on. He then admits he doesn’t know what to do. Suddenly Woz hears a crash over the phone. Microsoft has broken in and have injected him too.
As a last resort, Woz hooks up a device to Jobs’ heart in an attempt to install anti-virus software. He sees the spinning busy indicator on the screen and realizes it will take a while. Jobs has a near death experience in which he sees a ghost who looks and sounds like Sally, but who identifies herself as Oracle. She sings a inspirational song telling him to think different, and instructs him to return to where it all began – at the Homebrew Computer Club. There he will find a group of nerds uniting to stop Bill Gates. “May your life be brief and fruitful.”
At the United Nerds convention, Myrtle doesn’t know the password, and the guard challenges her with a security question and a CAPTCHA. Everyone has a different idea about what to do. Myrtle, who now uses the handle IHeartJohnnyDepp27, believes the internet will become the future. The perpetually wrong Tim Patterson believes people won’t want to search the internet, and would rather go to libraries. He turned down 50% of a search engine company called doogle or google or poogle or something.
Another girl envisions the internet as a big long tube, sort of like Ted Stevens, and sees people putting themselves online, and calls it a you-tube. Her first video shocks everyone. “Hi, I’m Tom Watson and I’m addicted to crack.” he announces, mistaking the event for a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. The traditional Italian clown talks of how Gates hurt him. “He hit me with a taser. I said hey! Don’t taser me bro!” They all fall into discord, when Steve Jobs makes his triumphant appearance.
He says that they have a common enemy blinded by greed, and he knows because he became blinded too. He admits that Woz invented the first personal computer. “You did it, Woz.” “We did it, Steve.” says Woz, and everyone says awww.
Jobs goes on and says that he misses Sally. She ended up making eco-friendly hooded burlap muumuus. He says he would apologize. A girl wearing an eco-friendly hooded burlap muumuu says she would ask how she would know he doesn’t just feed her more lies. He asks Sally to forgive him, but she says not yet. She does feel ready to fight back though, and says that they just have to think different, reminding Steve of his experience with Oracle.
Steve Jobs asks people what they like more than everything. One girl likes pictures of kittens. A guy likes the music of William Shatner. The clown would buy a tangerine-colored computer. Jobs has a vision of Angry Birds. Jobs suggests a class action lawsuit. They sing the song about how all it takes is just one, but this time each nerd brings their own talents into the mix.
The final scene takes place in the supreme court. The judge reads the charges, and Gates pleads guilty – guilty of making people’s lives easier. He offers the court a simple choice: either step into the ring with the richest man in the world, or he can just give them a bunch of money and they can all go home. The judge bangs his gavel, the closing music begins to play, and the curtain starts to come down.
Suddenly, Jobs storms in, and orders the audience to stay in their seats. He invokes the full release clause of the inventor’s constitution of 1593, meaning both parties have to release everything in their pipeline to wipe out the other from the annals of history. Thomas Edison last used it against some guy named Tesla. They then do a combination song and rap to bring the technology up to date. The iMac goes up against Windows and Internet Explorer. Jobs releases the iPod. Microsoft releases the Zune to an underwhelming response. Jobs wins that round.
Jobs has Pixar, Microsoft has the XBox. Bill Gates wins that round. Jobs releases the iPhone. He asks Siri if Bill Gates blows donkeys and she says yes. She doesn’t say that in real life, I checked. Gates introduces bing.com. Jobs releases the iPad. Jobs wins that round and apparently the contest.
Gates pulls out a plastic light saber, but has to hum to power it. He then says “I am a billionaire. You don’t think I can’t create a real light saber? Watch!” He then chops off the clown’s arm. Jobs pleads with Gates: “Please don’t hurt me.” Those words come back to Gates from his youth and from the beginning of the musical. He realizes what he has become.
Myrtle speaks to Bill, and remembers the shy kid who stood next to her at the Homebrew club. Gates replies that he is just a nerd and they fall in love. He tells Paul that he doesn’t blame hi for leaving and tells him to follow his dreams in the NBA. He sends the clown outside to a limo with a biogeneticist who can repair his arm before flying him home back to his family. He apologizes to Tim for ripping him off and offers a position at Microsoft. He gives Sally a check for eighty billion dollars and lets her run his foundation, sort of like Melinda. He gives Woz his hamster. He gives his fancy car to Charity. He asks Myrtle to go out and she says “Let’s merge all night long.”
Steve Jobs asks Sally to take him back. First she says no, then after a second she says yes. Woz clears his throat and says they should hang out. “I think that you’re a genius.” he sings. “I think that you are right.” replies Jobs, but gives Woz a new leather jacket.
And now we have come to the end. SteveJobs releases the iPhone and stock piles billions of dollars for Apple. Bill Gates leaves Microsoft and spends his money fighting malaria and polio. “Not saying one’s better than the other.” comments Gates. Steve Jobs floats into the cloud and gives God a $10 gift card to the Apple Store. Gates says that they both started off as nerds, feeling passionate about something most people didn’t understand, but we triumphed, and those that didn’t understand it saw the world change around them, and came to embrace the thing we had loved. And finally we were accepted, right guys? “Yeah?” I yelled out hesitantly. The musical ends with the entire cast singing “Yes we are not just nerds.” Beautiful! After that the cast came into the audience while singing a parody called Down and Nerdy, of course.
For me, the speeches at the end really made the musical. Despite all the silliness, they made a valid point. Nobody understood what we did before computers became popular. We did social networking twenty years ago, though we didn’t call it that. To this day I have not had as much fun with a computer as when I ran a bulletin board system. And everyone else really did see the world change around them. Now the jocks check their sports scores on their iPhones, and everyone has a stupid Facebook account. I also really enjoyed how at the beginning, Jobs sang that the revolution begins with one, largely referring to himself, but at the end each nerd had a unique skill to contribute, and all the revolutions of one united into something bigger and stronger than any of them. It reminds me of my experiences with the Philly tech scene, especially Indy Hall. Alone we can’t do much, but when we come together we can achieve all kinds of wild things!
I can not reiterate this enough. If you enjoy my blog then you have to see this musical. It stops playing in Philadelphia at the end of the month, so perhaps it will come to your city after that. It deserves to go to Broadway, or so say my theatre-going friends. It me laugh and feel inspired, and I know it will do the same for you. We are not just nerds!