It all started as a joke.
Just a way for bored coworkers Andy Stowers and Nick Wells to pass the time at a Lawrence coffee shop.
"Nick and I were working together at the Java Break and needed something to occupy our brains besides doing dishes," Stowers recalls.
"One day we were just screwing around and we started bouncing story ideas off each other," Wells continues. "Somewhere along the line we came up with this idea for a rock opera about a schizophrenic artist drawing with cigarette butts who had an imaginary girlfriend. At one point we started shouting improvisational lines at each other like, 'Tell me the truth, Ruth.'"
Wells soon forgot about the episode, and three or four years went by without seeing Stowers.
"Then one day he shows up at the Java Break and said, 'Hey man, I'm working on the script,'" Wells says.
The pair's fleeting moment of tomfoolery is now finding lasting life as "Johnny Butts."
On Thursday, the original rock musical will begin a run at the Lawrence Arts Center. A live band will provide the sonic backdrop as a cast and crew of around 30 people delivers a full-fledged production with harmonies, choreography, artistic themes and dancing medicine bottles.
"I've done music and I've done theater, but putting them together is definitely an undertaking," says Stowers, whose E.M.U. Theatre troupe is predominantly involved in the project.
The Lawrence theater veteran created the lyrics, while Wells, a drummer with area bands such as Hissy Fit and a former classical bass player major at Wichita State University, penned the lion's share of the musical compositions.
Both collaborated on the show's plot, which started out as a parody and gradually became more serious.
Stowers says, "We came into it with me thinking he would write the music and then I would write the lyrics, and Nick thought I would write the lyrics then he would write the music. It kind of stalled for a while."
Along the journey, other concepts didn't come together as planned.
The idea to make "Johnny Butts" a rock opera a la "Tommy" was scrapped in favor of a rock musical. (The differentiation being that an opera is sung continuously from beginning to end with no dialogue.)
Also abandoned was the notion to make it a PUNK rock musical.
"I started writing in that vein, and it just didn't seem like it was doing a lot of justice to the material," says Wells, who cites "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" as his favorite rock musicals. "So I began branching out into a bunch of different styles."
Now, songs may feature distorted guitar and breakneck beats (courtesy of Wells playing drums in the show), yet there are other sections that flirt with jazzy arrangements and incorporate cello.
What didn't change too much was the play's initial plot concept.
Johnny remains a mentally ill street artist whose drawings depict the images he hears in his head, including that of his imaginary girlfriend, Ruth. His pieces find a supporter in Kim, a neighborhood gallery owner, and she helps turn him into a well-known commodity in the cutthroat art world. But Johnny's condition becomes a roadblock to furthering his career, so he seeks professional help.
"He goes on medication, and he gets blocked up and can't draw," Stowers explains. "So in order to be able to draw, he takes a vacation from the meds and has this psychotic break where he imagines his imaginary girlfriend cheated on him."
To differentiate Johnny's creative moods, two local artists were recruited. Patrick Giroux (a Lawrence Journal-World employee) provides the art Johnny crafts while unmedicated, and Jennifer Cook renders the medicated pieces.
Wells says, "The whole thing started to take on a life of its own after Andy did the casting."
"One of the things we pride ourselves on at E.M.U. is the ability to mold new material," says Todd Schwartz, who portrays Johnny.
"Some portions of the production were not completely finished when we began the rehearsal process. So there was some polishing and finishing that needed to be done, and that was a real challenge."
Schwartz, E.M.U.'s artistic director, who also boasts experience singing with the Iowa-based band Strange Neighbors, says the show's music has been the most entertaining element for him.
"After a musical rehearsal, everybody goes home smiling," he says.
Co-star Monica Huff, who plays Ruth, is enjoying the process despite not being fond of musicals in general.
"The music is usually cheesy and outdated," she says. "I like the fact this is a rock musical, and I feel it's more up-to-date and can reach out to newer, younger audiences who are interested in theater."
The Kansas University theater major admits the work-in-progress nature of "Johnny Butts" was quite intimidating during early rehearsals.
"It felt at first like I was blindfolded and I was just picking and choosing as I go," she says. "But every day it's becoming easier as we start developing our ideas."
While Huff enjoys performing with the live band, she says her most satisfying moments came when the cast went into the studio to record the show's soundtrack, which will be available for sale at the performances.
She says of the overall production, "It's going to be something different than what we've typically seen in Lawrence."
If there's ever been an original rock musical staged in Lawrence during the last few decades, nobody seems to remember it.
"It's something that doesn't get done," Stowers says. "But I'm not exactly sure why, considering there are so many bands in this town and so many little theater companies that come and go."
If "Johnny Butts" sparks audience interest, it could open the door for other atypical theatrical projects to be mounted on Lawrence stages. Or it might mean the show takes root in other cities, with different casts and musicians giving their interpretation of the material.
"I see it as a show that could be performed in a rock-and-roll setting," he says. "It could be done with very little costumes in a bar with little props. Or somebody could go the completely other direction and do it on a grand scale as a big musical production. We're doing it in between."