Diana DeGarmo and other performers in Nerds

Half a dozen nerds cross the stage at the A.J. Fletcher Theater holding their homemade computers, hoping to launch their careers and, more importantly, make friends. Behind them, a computer motherboard acts as a backdrop, with dozens of LED screens providing commentary. Director Marc Bruni stops the action: the screens are blank. “The lights aren’t talking to each other,” says a technician. Thus this rehearsal, for a new musical about the rise of the digital world, has to pause in order to fix a computer.

North Carolina Theatre’s Nerds: A New Musical Comedy, running from Jan. 18 to Feb. 2 at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, is the story of Bill Gates (Stanley Bahorek) and Steve Jobs (Darren Ritchie), the two men most celebrated for the rise of personal computing.

“We thought it would be fun to watch nerds singing,” says co-writer Jordan Allen-Dutton. “In any type of musical you have to believe that someone at anytime can burst into song. And in order to do that, you need characters who are really over-the-top, bigger-than-life characters. And these two guys fit that model.”

Allen-Duton, along with writing partner Erik Weiner and composer Hal Goldberg, have crafted the story of how two lowly nerds rose to the highest levels of wealth and success. The heart of the show, however, is Gates and Jobs’s personal rivalry. In real life, their companies, Microsoft and Apple, were fierce competitors for decades, and the play makes this competition personal: Gates the insecure geek, Jobs the brash stoner, both trying to overcome the social limitations of being a “nerd.”

The celebration of nerds in all their forms is a major theme of the show. Producer Carl Levin notes that nerds have transformed from being social outcasts to leaders of the world. “They’ve evolved. I think now being a nerd is cool.”

Covering the years 1975 to the present, the show also uses the music as a way of exploring history and the characters. “We define Jobs as a rock star in a lot of ways,” says Goldberg, “so that comes through musically. Whereas Gates, he starts off in more of a traditional musical theater way, which is nerdy.”

At rehearsal, it takes no time at all to fix the LED screens. Such technology, of course, is possible thanks to the show’s real-life subjects. “I think the show is really a celebration of American ingenuity and innovation,” says Allen-Dutton.

“Over those 30 years that the show focuses on, we went from seeing a computer that was the size of a city block to a computer in everyone’s pockets at all times. And that was a lightning speed transformation.”

The NC Theatre production is the very first time Nerds is being performed for an audience. After being given a chance to workshop and premiere in Raleigh, Levin hopes to bring the show to New York and, eventually, the world.

“People in Europe and Japan, they really know Bill Gates and they know about Steve Jobs.”

It surely can’t hurt the show’s chances, then, that nerds are a universal subject.