'Tis the season for another Spring Awakening from director Michael Mayer, so — fast-forwarding 120 years from that earlier late-1800s-set show — gangway for American Idiot, which laid siege April 20 to the St. James with huddled masses of alienated, disenfranchised youth writhing and Ritalin-ing with suburban anomie. From the look of the spectacular chaos that he has spilled across the stage, Mayer may be not entirely awake but just having a huge hallucinatory riff, brought on by overexposure to Green Day's 2004 concept album of the same name. It was his brainstorm to give the 13 songs of that cult hit (and a few more from the band's later release, "21st Century Breakdown," 2010's Grammy-winning Best Rock Album) an extended play on Broadway.
To that end, he got the band's lead singer and lyricist, Billie Joe Armstrong, to be a willing accomplice and collaborator in concocting what could loosely be called "a musical book" that connects the dots and songs into a narrative, a la Twyla Tharp's telling a Vietnam cavalcade using Billy Joel tunes.
This storyline triangulates into three guys, not unlike On the Town only with bleaker prospects and terrain. Johnny (John Gallagher, Jr.) and Tunny (Stark Sands) bolt from the 'burbs for fresher, more adventurous fields. Left behind is Will (Michael Esper), his fate sealed by a pregnant girlfriend (Mary Faber); booze and a bong send him sinking deeper into the couch.
Adrift in the big city, Johnny first hooks up with a comely Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and then a drug dealer named St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent). Tunny tunes in to CNN too much and goes marching off to Iraq, where he meets a military nurse labeled The Extraordinary Girl (Christina Sajous). A highly jazzed opening-night audience — obviously familiar with the record (it helps!) — cheered consistently at seeing the music visualized on such a grand scale, and then tumultuously at the end when the cast was joined for the curtain call by Mayer and the punk rock trio (bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool have asterisks in the song listing for lyrics not written by Armstrong).
The after-party at Roseland was a dark forest of hot-dog stands — a jungle of junk-food. Vodka-laced slushes welcomed revelers. On stage was a graffiti artist at work or play with paint for the duration of the event. All, presumably, signs of the times.
Mayer, very much the man of the hour-and-a-half, entered Roseland, smiling broadly, radiant with relief. "I'm proudest of this show than anything I have ever done," he said, leaving no room to ruminate further. "It has been a trying trip, and I think I got here with my vision intact — the one I got when I first heard the album."
Armstrong said he and Mayer were on the same wave-length from the beginning — a fact, he thought, was rather amazing since they were both coming from such different worlds. "I think the unique thing about this whole thing is that Michael found the story that I was telling on the record," the punk-rocker relayed. "He brought that story to life, but the actors had to find the characters inside the songs. Usually, you find it in the script or, in a real musical, in the book. They had to find it in the lyrics that I wrote, and that's what I'm blown away by — by Rebecca Jones and Stark and Gallagher and Esper and all of them. What they've come up with is really unbelievable to me. It was like watching your life become flesh and blood on stage."
There are parts of him littered all over that stage in virtually every one of the characters, he admitted. "It depends on what part of my schizophrenia you want to talk to," he laughed, "but, at the same time, it was Michael who really developed the music into a play. I always believed that it was possible to do that, but you gotta find people who believe it's possible, also. He's a genius. I had no real background with Broadway, but, when I saw Spring Awakening, I knew this guy could do it."
The thing that moved him most about Spring Awakening was, in a word, "Gallagher. Between his haircut and his character, I could feel his pain."
[flipbook] Which, apparently, made Gallagher the prime candidate for more pain — Johnny's in American Idiot. "It's a grueling role," the actor allowed. "I have only two little breaks where I get to go off-stage. There's no intermission, so there's not a lot of time to rest. But Billie Joe Armstrong is a new inspiration to me because, when they play the concerts, they go almost three hours, and he really doesn't have a chance to rest. So, anytime that I'm starting to feel tired or sluggish, I just think, 'Billie Joe does this for three hours, and he's the lead singer. He doesn't let anybody else do 'Letterbomb' or any of the other songs for him. He's got to do it all.' Honestly, I keep him in mind every night, and that helps get me through the show.
"Billie has said there are bits of him in every single person on that stage — and I think there are bits of almost everybody up there. I think that people will really surprise themselves if they don't like punk rock music or they think that this music is maybe of a taste that doesn't belong to them. I think that they will be surprised at the things that they will relate to with all of these characters."
His character, in particular, he hoped. "John, the Jesus of Suburbia, is a martyr. He's a victim. He's selfish. He can be a real brat half of the time. He doesn't shower, which is something that some people might really be able to relate to. But he goes through something very real and very deep, and he comes out the other end alive — somehow, thank goodness — and wiser for going through all the hardship."
Gallagher and Green Day go back a long way — "since I was in the fourth grade," he said, putting a fine point on it. "I saw Green Day on MTV, and I've loved them ever since. And five years ago, when 'American Idiot' came out, it was given to me as a gift for Christmas by my sister. I've played it so much the CD started skipping after a year. I played it till I couldn't play it anymore. I fell in love with it right away. I just can't believe I got this role. I pinch myself every night before I go out on stage just to make sure this isn't some crazy dream that I started having five years ago."
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Fresh-faced Sands, a Tony contender as one of the World War I casualties in Journey's End, reenlists here for the Iraq War, but the character and the actor are miles apart. "For the very first time, I'm playing someone who is entirely different from me," he said. "I'm a very level guy. I'm a very innocent, earnest type of guy. I hate to say it, but I play the all-American a lot because that's the vibe I have in real life. This guy is the opposite of that. Angry — he's full of frustration and rage. He hates his life and wants to find something new. It has been a wonderful challenge — and wonderful therapy, to get up and scream and cry and punch and kick all night."
He credits Mayer with helping him get into the character. "Michael gave me the freedom to build it on my own, but I came to him and said, 'What do you want this to be?' There's so little dialogue that I've got to take the lyrics I've got and find a way to make them work for whoever this guy is. In 'Are We the Waiting,' he says, 'The rage in love, the story of my life,' so I built on that. 'The rage in love' are both the themes of the album and the themes for our musical version of the album as well."
During one dream sequence, he and the aforementioned Extraordinary Girl take flight in fantasy all over the stage. "Flying is one of my favorite parts of the play. Scary at first — scary to learn, scary knowing, 'Oh, my gosh, I've got to do this on stage on Broadway every night.' In the beginning, it was really hard, and I was terrible. But now I love it, and it's one of my favorite things to do in the show."
Sajous, his partner in that segment, reprised the sentiment. "What's funny is I'm actually a daredevil," she boasted. "I love heights, but the one thing that makes me nervous every single night is being graceful. I'm not the best-trained dancer.
Her "fellow flier" helps, however. "Stark is amazing to work with. He and I are very similar. He's a go-getter, a hard-working perfectionist, and having those qualities makes a good performance, makes things that are very difficult possible." She brings personal baggage to the part: "My mom's been in the military for the past 29 years, and it's an honor and a privilege to play a woman in the military. She's there to care for a person who has been hurt and damaged by the war. If anything, I feel most thankful to have a role where I'm a caretaker and a lover and a healer."
Esper, the third musketeer who was left behind and turned into a heavily potted couch potato, can live just fine with his character's flaws. "I love that's he's a screw-up and trying the best he can. I love that he shoots and misses. I think about that a lot before I do the show — like, 'This one's for all those shots missed.'
"I've done those drugs that my character does. He really just smokes pot and drinks a lot, and I've done all the research that I need to do on those things. I'm done."
His favorite moment on stage is singing "Nobody Likes You," he said. "It kills me every night. I find that music and that song to be completely heartbreaking. It expresses something that I've felt and often wished that I could express."
Playing Esper's wife, Faber said she didn't feel particularly hemmed in by the character's mundane plight. "What I like about Heather is how much growth she gets to have throughout the play. At the top of the play, she's pregnant, she has to make a choice, and you can really see her grow by the end. It's not all roses."
Nor is it easy. "Because my character was not necessarily in Green Day's minds when they did the album back in 2004 — it was all boys — I've really been lucky. The pieces that they've given me I've really been able to put my stamp on. In a rock opera, it's not going to be obvious. It's up for interpretation, which I like."
Drug supplier St. Jimmy is no saint, and Vincent is deliciously sinister in the role. He has made himself right at home at the St. James. But, then, why shouldn't be at home there? In fact, he said, "I'm starting a campaign to redub the St. James the St. Jimmy."
Rosie O'Donnell and Donald Trump wound up under the same roof on opening night — without incident. Also: Whoopi Goldberg, Paul Rudd, Tony Kushner and Mark Harris, Edie Falco, T. R. Knight, Michael Urie, Jerry Dixon and Mario Cantone, Zachary Quinto, Camryn Manheim, Tamara Tunie, John Cameron Mitchell, Steven Pasquale, Steve Van Zandt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ana Gasteyer, Marian Seldes and Elizabeth Gilles.