For most of the band's existence, Green Day came across as a gang of lovable goofballs - as easy to like as they were hard to take seriously. But that changed with Green Day's 2004 magnum opus, "American Idiot," an honest-to-God rock opera that has made the transition to theatrical production.
After a well-received Broadway opening, the touring version of the "American Idiot" musical opens Tuesday in Raleigh (with a local native in the cast, no less) as centerpiece of the Broadway Series South season.
The "American Idiot" album was released in the midst of a highly charged presidential campaign, and it seemed very specific to unease over the Iraq War during that conflict's early quagmire period. But the album's angst has aged well, seeming as relevant to today's Occupy movement as it did to anti-war protests eight years ago - and it fits right into the trend of rock musicals on Broadway.
Getting "American Idiot" to Broadway was an obsession for director Michael Mayer, who won a Tony Award for the 2006 rock musical "Spring Awakening" (which was set to the music of pop-rock songwriter Duncan Sheik). Mayer had been a fan since the band's 1994 mainstream breakthrough "Dookie," but doing a Green Day musical never even occurred to him until he heard "American Idiot."
"I'm a theater guy, it's what I do," Mayer said. "When I read a script or listen to a cast album, I get pictures in my head and I started getting that while listening to 'American Idiot.' It's a rock opera with a story, an emotional arc, great artistry and poetry and politics. It's funny and searing, and the songs are kick-ass with amazing hooks. And so I had the gumption to get in touch with Green Day's management: 'Hey, I've got this crazy idea ...' "
It took some doing, but Mayer and co-producer Tom Hulce (who earned an Oscar nomination for playing Mozart in 1984's "Amadeus") were able to persuade Green Day to make the jump from album to stage production. "American Idiot" opens with a bank of 35 television sets showing a montage of news events. One by one, they go dark as the show blasts off with the title track:
Don't wanna be an American idiot
Don't want a nation under the new media ...
All singing and dancing
What follows is an intense 90-minute burst with the songs driving the story, and no breaks. The one-act structure is a challenge for the cast.
"This isn't a show where you walk offstage, chill out a bit and wait around a few scenes before you go back out," said Van Hughes, who plays the lead character, Johnny. "It's a nonstop assault on your body and mind and spirit. But I've learned to love the physical punishment of it. It's made me think that a show not involving my entire being would feel empty."
After a preview in California, "American Idiot" moved to New York in the spring of 2010. It earned a solid critical reception during its yearlong Broadway run, including two Tony Awards, a Grammy Award and a rave New York Times review, which called the production "thrilling and emotionally charged."
The high point of the show's Broadway incarnation was when Green Day guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong did a stint playing St. Jimmy, evil alter ego of Johnny. Given that Hughes was a huge Green Day fan while growing up, that was quite an experience.
"That was insane," Hughes said. "Being onstage with one of my childhood idols, who is playing me - and kissing me on the mouth, proposing during the encore - well, the whole thing was a nonspecific dream come true."
He's in the band
The touring version hit the road in December and Raleigh is the third city on the schedule, with 10 more to follow through this summer. Along with Hughes, one of the holdovers from Broadway is Raleigh native Dan Grennes, who has been playing bass in the stage band since the show's pre-Broadway preview in California. It's been an education for Grennes, who used to look down his nose at music like this.
"I've done a lot of different rock gigs over the years, but this is pretty much my first foray into punk," Grennes said. "I can't say I was a Green Day fan before. When 'Dookie' came out, I was in a very different place - I'd just graduated from Berklee (College of Music) and I was into headier, more complex stuff. So I kind of wrote them off."
But he started to come around when composer Tom Kitt, one of Grennes' longtime friends, approached him about playing in the show's stage band. Grennes was surprised at what a mature album "American Idiot" turned out to be, and it earned his respect.
The fact that this will bring him back to play in his old hometown is a bonus.
"It will be nice to play Memorial Auditorium," Grennes said. "I saw 'Nutcracker' there a few times as a kid."
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