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When Jonathan Flom, the musical theatre program coordinator at the Shenandoah Conservatory, saw the 2010 rock musical American Idiot, he loved it and thought: "We should do it here."
Flom was passionate about staging the musical — about a trio of young males in search of redemption in a world filled with letdowns and challenges — in a college setting from the start. With persistence, he was put in touch with Music Theatre International and offered the rights for the first college production of the Green Day rock opera.
Visit Shenandoah University's Virtual Internet Playbill at PlaybillVIP.com by clicking here. "We hang our hat on being this pop-rock/contemporary musical theatre training program," said Flom. "A few years ago, we [thought], 'How can we step forward and compete with the Michigans and the Carnegie Mellons and the Penn States of the world? What is missing in training right now?' And, our assessment was [that] not a lot of schools were really looking at what the industry is doing right now and preparing their kids to walk out and do that. We sort of led the way. We were the first school to hire a full-time, pop/rock voice teacher, and all of our seniors study with him in their final year of college, and we started programming shows like The Who's Tommy [and] All Shook Up…"
This year, the college is the first school to take on the Green Day-inspired piece, featuring a book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer and lyrics by Armstrong. And, it just so happens that frontman Armstrong and the Green Day gang are currently celebrating the tenth anniversary of their "American Idiot" album.
Although most students were not yet teenagers when the album was released, they "flipped out," according to Flom, when the musical was announced at Shenandoah — especially the trio of students at the heart of the show, Mike Bamford (as Johnny), Connor Alexander (as Tunny) and John Graham (as Will).
"All of them are musicians as well," the director explained. "Those three kids grew up on Green Day, and they grew up playing their music. And, we're very fortunate that we had the three of these guys here because it was a natural fit to have them play those roles."
Bamford, who described himself in his bio as a long-time Green Day fan, bought the album in sixth grade. "This is one of the albums that got me listening to this genre of music, in general," he recalled. "I grew up with it. It's already a huge part of my life, and everyone else all grew up with those songs — hearing them on the radio… I was so stoked to hear that the school was doing it."
Regardless of how old the students were when the album was released, they find an attachment to the material and a strong sense of belonging within the world of Jingletown, USA. Like most young adults, Will, Johnny and Tunny are experimenting with trouble, looking for love, searching for a place to fit in and dealing with the pressures of adulthood.
"I had a great conversation with Johanna McKeon, who is Michael Mayer's associate director on the show, and the best piece of advice she gave me — which we used in the very first rehearsal — was to sit down and ask the kids, 'For each of you, what does it mean to grow up in America? What does it mean to come of age?'"
The students responded strongly and vividly.
"We started on that conversation and then set it aside so they could go home and think about it," Flom continued. "We, a couple days later, got together and sat around and talked about it again, and it was cool because you really had the entire range of: 'I didn't have a father growing up' and 'My mom was a single mom, and she had to struggle, and she's the strongest woman I ever saw'…[to] somebody else saying, 'I had both parents and never experienced major loss' [and] 'Watching how crazy the country gets and [how] television blows up during election season really pisses me off.'
"[With] these conversations — regardless of where they stood politically or what their upbringing was — they were all able to find things that they could relate to." Flom also said that he began the rehearsal process by challenging the students. "The show talks about rage and love," he explained. "I said, 'We have to obviously start with the rage' and 'What are you raging against?' But, 'You have to find the love, too.' It was this really neat process of them kind of finding the yin and yang of both."
Shenandoah's production is the second production of American Idiot since its Broadway run (March 2010-April 2011) and the subsequent professional tours. It is the first production at a college level.
Aside from the raging and passionate twentysomethings at its core, the Shenandoah production of Idiot aims to take a fresh look at the story. The students are examining the sung-through piece lyric by lyric, and the creative team took a trip to New York City to shoot video that helps further the abstract plot points within the script.
How do the students benefit from American Idiot as opposed to a classic?
"From an educational standpoint," Flom said, "learning how to sing in this style and do it in a healthy way and be able to maintain… They're singing the crap out of this show for five weeks of rehearsal and then two weekends of performances, so it's a good experience for them to figure out how to do that in a healthy way."
He added, "It's one of those rare opportunities, where they really get to experience what it's like to play someone who is just like them… It's teaching them to be very vulnerable and bring themselves, so much, to the surface and really play truthfully from their own point of view. I think there's something pretty cool about that."
Performances of American Idiot will be offered Sept. 26-27 at 8 PM, Sept. 28 at 7 PM and Oct. 2-4 at 8 PM at the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre.
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(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)