Instead, the musical is embedded in a specific time and hybridized with video-screen projections that simulate a familiar media-saturated landscape: it's 2004, in the dark years. America has sent its idiot back to the White House, and we're on the brink of Hurricane Katrina. Across that stage comes a series of almost archetypal characters one recognizes from the album: the Jesus of Suburbia, here dubbed Johnny for the lead actor it was written for, John Gallagher Jr., who won a Tony for his portrayal of Moritz in Spring Awakening; his antagonist St. Jimmy; and the rebel girl Whatshername.
Just about a week before the concert, the hyperactive, pogo-friendly energy of a Green Day show appeared to be finding its perfect translation at a rehearsal for American Idiot. Three weeks in, the cast including Passing Strange's Rebecca Naomi Jones, here portraying the riot grrrly heroine Whatshername tackled a round of "She's a Rebel." In leggings and a Green Day T-shirt, Jones bounced on her toes as a barefoot Mayer dispensed hugs to cast members. A scruffily bearded Gallagher circled the group, then took his place in the desk jockey center for "Nobody Likes You." Choreographer Steven Hoggett tweaked the movements of the cast members as they tossed papers and marched up and down a moveable metal staircase
"When someone is a 20-something with all that angst and energy where do you put that?," Hoggett said later by phone, pondering the task of "putting songs on their feet onstage." The goal of the choreographer who won an Oliver for his strong, subtle work in Black Watch and came up in the '90s U.K. clubbing scene: create movement that serves Green Day's songs and isn't "too showbiz." To that end, he took in a Green Day show in Albany, N.Y., and fell in love with the mosh pit. "That was absolutely brilliant," he remembers. "Nerves gave way to absolute revelation. It's just seeing what thousands of people do when they see Green Day this is the world we need to do onstage."
Collaborating mainly via phone, e-mail, and text with Armstrong from 2007 through 2008, Mayer wanted to focus on a trio of friends Johnny, Will, and Tunny as he created the libretto. In true rock operatic form, all the dialogue is sung, using just the songs' lyrics and text from the special edition CD of American Idiot.
Mayer and arranger Tom Kitt, whose work eventually scored him a spot creating string arrangements for Breakdown, took apart the songs "letting them breathe in a theatrical way," as Mayer puts it and placed the lyrics in the mouths of various characters. B-sides and new numbers like "Know Your Enemy," "21 Guns," and "Before the Lobotomy," which Armstrong offered to Mayer during the making of Breakdown last year, were inserted into the flow. Nonetheless, Mayer maintains it was crucial to him to preserve the original track order. "I didn't want to violate the form of the record," he says. "I wanted to expand it, because the record's only 52 minutes, and that's not a full evening, and with these extra characters, they need more material to serve the arcs of their journeys."
It's been a very personal journey for lead actor Gallagher, who confesses that he's been a huge Green Day fan since fourth grade, when he'd wait eagerly for the trio's "Basketcase" video on MTV. His character is Johnny, the Jesus of Suburbia, or as he describes it, "the son of rage and love." Raised in a broken home. Johnny is on "this path, caught between self-improvement and self-destruction, which is something I think we can all relate to," says the actor, who until not long ago had a band of his own. He and Mayer came up with the notion to deepen and intensify Johnny's descent into drug addiction.
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