Preview: American Idiot
By Perry Tannenbaum
Anger, alienation, disillusionment, and frustration were all part of the high-octane fuel that powered Green Day’s punk rock opera, American Idiot, in 2004. The group’s first post-9/11 CD struck a chord, winning awards on both sides of the Atlantic, including Best Rock Album at the Grammys. The targets of the group’s wrath – media, suburbia, Bush Era militarism, and ubiquitous TV – remained fresh enough for Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong and stage director Michael Mayer to transform the celebrated album into a Broadway musical in 201o.
Starting their second consecutive season in exile from their planned-and-purchased permanent home on Freedom Drive, still tangled up in a red tape mess of zoning, safety, and building regulations – on an existing building, mind you – Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has a bit of pent-up anger, frustration, and disillusionment of their own. They may be wrapping all of that into their incoming American Idiot grenade.
The Charlotte premiere opens in previews this week on the campus of Queens University, the second consecutive show that Actor’s Theatre has brought to Hadley Theater. Official opening night will happen next Wednesday.
ATC artistic director Chip Decker not only empathizes with the angst of American Idiot, he gets the band.
“I have loved Green Day’s music since the  album Kerplunk,” Decker boasts. “American Idiot dropped in 2004, and I could not listen to it enough. I think we were all reeling still from 9/11, the wars, etc., and this album gave a release valve to many who were angry, scared, lost, disillusioned and looking for hope in a difficult time.”
The leading men feel at least as deeply about the music as their director. In fact, you can gauge their respective ages by when they climbed aboard the Green Day bandwagon. Matt Carlson, who plays Johnny, the Jesus of Suburbia hero from the album, says he latched onto American Idiot when he was about 14, and that it was the first album he learned to play on guitar from beginning to end.
Jeremy DeCarlos, a mainstay in the finest Actor’s Theatre productions since 2004 –onstage or thrashing his guitar – plays Johnny’s alter ego, St. Jimmy, leading the suburban Jesus into citified debaucheries. He says he got the Green Day bug during the summer of 1994, when “Basket Case” was a hit single off the Dookie album.
“I felt like Billie Joe wasn’t just singing to me, but as me in a way,” DeCarlos recalls. “I ran out and bought the album and wore a hole into it. When my mother presented me with my first guitar, I told myself that if I ever learned how to play one song on it, it would be Green Day’s ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).’ It took me roughly a month, but the first song I ever learned on guitar was a Green Day song!”
So how does a punk rock opera with three characters become a musical that can fill a Broadway stage? Well, Armstrong and Mayer added new characters, and Green Day chipped in with more music, conveniently ripped off from 21st Century Breakdown, the follow-up album to American Idiot.
Now instead of one disgruntled Jesus itching to escape suburbia, there are three – Johnny, Will, and Tunny – along with three women. Johnny and Tunny do escape, respectively to the wicked city and the US Army, but Will won’t, dutifully staying behind when he learns that Heather (the only woman in the show with a name) is pregnant with his child. So yes, we get three depressing outcomes to wail over.
“The book is wafer thin, single ply generic toilet paper thin,” Decker admits, “but I feel like that was a very intentional choice. I was able to find my own voice and feelings in the album, and I think that is what the story lines do in this. They present a thought and feeling, but do not try and insist that the viewer (or listener) accept that view as the truth.”
And just because he reveres the music doesn’t mean that Carlson worships the suburban Jesus he’s delivering to us as the leading man. Johnny actually comes off as something of a jerk when Carlson describes him, and he isn’t sure we’ll like him: “He is the edgy, cocky punk guy you knew in high school who never did anything with his life.”
But the music! That draws a different reaction from the young rocker. Like many of Green Day’s faithful, Carlson was a bit leery and disappointed when he first heard that the punk band was taking their act to Broadway. Had to be an artistic sellout, right?
When he eventually encountered to final product, Carlson was pleasantly surprised. “The American Idiot album is so different versus the stage score,” he opines. “I love the simple punk rock sound of the album, but maybe because I’m into musical theatre, I like the stage version even better. On stage, the concept album is made more complete with the play script and music.”
There’s more music in the musical, but all of it remains guitar-and-drum driven. Instead of muscling up with strings, winds, and brass, Broadway orchestrator/arranger Tom Kitt beefed up the sound with more voices and harmonies. You’ll hear a pronounced difference, to take just one example, if you listen to the Broadway cast album version of “Give Me Novacaine.”
The lyrics come through just a tad more clearly, as if we’re in a theater rather than concert hall. The sound of the steel guitar is noticeably richer, with a more relaxed Hawaiian flavor. With the onset of the thrashing section, the crescendo is more dramatic, louder drums and added male voices yield an anthemic thrust. Reaching the soothing outro, we hear – can it be true? – a group of female backups caressing our ears.
But hold on a second. The prospect of seeing ATC musical director Ryan Stamey lead a Broadway-sized band into Hadley Theater isn’t any more likely than the possibility we’ll see over three dozen flat-screen TV monitors stuck up on the back wall. One violin and one cello are promised, but the instrumental congregation will be trimmed from eight to five, a definite U-turn toward true punk rock intimacy.
Yes, we’ll see two guitars, just like on Broadway.
Decker has been known to strap on a bass guitar himself, and he often lurks in the wings as a sound designer when he isn’t acting or directing. One of the most admirable Actor’s Theatre achievements over the years has been their ability to deliver the youthful energy of such high voltage musicals as Hedwig and Rock of Ages without repulsing their graying subscribers who prefer decibel levels below triple digits.
“You know, this is always a tough balancing act,” Decker says, “because our bands are legit power musicians who want everything to go to 11! But there is so much story in the lyrics of musicals, that if you can’t hear the words, you don’t know the story. So yeah, keeping it balanced and rocking is the challenge. Our cast is doing a great job telling their story, and I think people will dig it. Or you can just go and rock the fuck out. Either way, your face will be melted.”