Rock opera shows Broadway is changing

Rock opera shows Broadway is changing

Staff writerMay 2, 2010 

  • "American Idiot" placed near the top of the money chart last week with $777,860 in receipts, according to The Wall Street Journal. Audiences had not been filling the theater during initial performances, but mostly positive reviews have boosted sales.

    The musical has been nominated for two Outer Circle Critics Awards, for outstanding new musical and lighting design.

A decade ago, if you had suggested to bassist Dan Grennes that he would someday be on Broadway, he probably would have scoffed. And yet Broadway is where he performs nowadays, backing up one of the hottest productions on the street.

The Raleigh native, a 1990 Broughton High School graduate, plays bass guitar in the stage band for "American Idiot," the Broadway version of Green Day's 2004 rock opera. It opened last week at New York's St. James Theater to rave reviews, leaving Grennes amused and amazed.

"This just fell in my lap," Grennes admits. "I never thought I'd be here. While I can respect stuff like 'Les Mis,' I never saw myself playing that because I'm definitely more into the rock and pop scene. But the landscape of Broadway is changing. There's a lot of hipper music going on."

Grennes' musical career began in high school, where he played saxophone in the Broughton marching band. He took up bass during sophomore year and progressed enough to get into Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music.

After graduating from Berklee in 1994, Grennes embarked on a have-bass-will-travel journeyman career. He played in a number of bands and projects, including comedian Mario Cantone's "Laugh Whore" and an off-Broadway comedy stage show, "Toxic Avenger: The Musical."

On the band front, Grennes made some headway with Bomb Squad, which won the Dick Clark-sponsored "Coca-Cola New Music Award" contest in 2003. Of more lasting import was Grennes' time in the Tom Kitt Band, featuring pianist Kitt - better-known nowadays as an acclaimed composer and winner of both a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for his score to 2008's "Next to Normal." Kitt is also musical director for "American Idiot."

"I've known Tom for 10 years, long before he was in that scene," Grennes says. "He called me for 'American Idiot' and it's worked out great. We did workshops for it about a year ago and had high hopes, but you never know. It's really come together."

Indeed it has. "American Idiot" seemed an unlikely candidate for Broadway success, a concept album steeped in adolescent angst and uncertainty - not to mention unease over the Iraq War (it was released in September 2004, not long before George W. Bush was elected to a second term).

But the high-concept punk-pop in "American Idiot" is aging well, and the album was successful enough to inspire a theatrical version. Grennes says that Green Day's members took a hands-on role in bringing it to the stage.

"They were around a lot in previews," he says. "[Bassist] Mike Dirnt and I spent some time passing a bass back and forth, where he'd show me some things about how he played different songs. All those guys were really cool, very humble. They definitely haven't been casualties of fame. They're not living the Sex Pistols lifestyle."

After a preview run in Green Day's home turf of Berkeley, Calif., "American Idiot" opened on Broadway on April 20 and drew kudos in all the right places. That means The New York Times liked it, with reviewer Charles Isherwood busting out descriptors including "thrillingly raucous," "gorgeously wrought" and "as invigorating and ultimately as moving as anything I've seen on Broadway this season."

A New York Times review that positive almost guarantees success. And for any working musician, a long-term and well-paying steady gig is Valhalla indeed.

"It looks like we might be around for a good long run," Grennes says. "I'm in it indefinitely, as long as the show runs. I'm about to close on a house, so it would help out a lot if it lasted.

"I've got my own band on the side, too, Uncle Pumpkin - that's my creative outlet between the stuff that makes money. When I have some time, I'd like to take my band on a little tour down there. Maybe after 'American Idiot' closes in a few years."

david.menconi@newsobserver.com, blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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