Like "Tommy," like "Rent," the musical "American Idiot" has become its own thing: a raucous musical portrait for an ADD generation.
The pop-punk musical based on Green Day's 2004 Grammy-winning album serves as the soundtrack for a generation of suburban youth who came of age watching news footage of planes crashing into New York's Twin Towers, those clips airing over and over again until the images collapsed into propaganda.
The show inspired by the album breaks the conventions of musical theater the golden age of musical theater, that is with its loud rock songs, contemporary storylines and unconventional choreography.
"American Idiot" contains only about three total pages of spoken dialogue, relying instead on the storytelling of Green Day's concept album, with lyrics by frontman and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong and the music of bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool. Armstrong wrote a "genius piece of theater" without even knowing it when Green Day released the album, says Johanna McKeon, the tour's associate director.
A new touring company will perform "American Idiot" Dec. 3-5 at Salt Lake City's Kingsbury Hall.
When the musical opened on Broadway in 2010, New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood called "American Idiot" invigorating and moving, "a pulsating portrait of wasted youth that invokes all the standard genre conventions bring on the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, please! only to transcend them through the power of its music and the artistry of its execution."
There's not a single boring thing about the show, says McKeon, who uses words like "enthusiatic and bombastic" to describe it.
"American Idiot" tells the story of Johnny, who considers himself the Jesus of Suburbia, and his friends, Tunny and Will, who are looking for meaning in a post-9/11 world that doesn't make sense. Johnny and Tunny leave their suburban town for the city, while Will stays home with his pregnant girlfriend, falling into drug and alcohol addiction. Tunny falls under the spell of patriotism as preached on TV, enlists in the military and is shipped off to war, while Johnny falls under the spell of drug addiction and the love of a girl he calls Whatsername. The trio eventually reunite back in their hometown, all of their lives altered.
"It's the most physical show I've ever been in or seen," says Jared Nepute, who plays Johnny, the show's lead, in a phone interview from Portland, Ore. His character has a huge arc over the course of the 90-minute show, but he begins with a near musical riot. During the opening songs, Johnny jumps into shopping carts, climbs up scaffolding and directly addresses the audience. "Plus all the choreography, which is incredibly physical," says Nepute, 24, who graduated two years ago with a degree in vocal performance from New York University.
Playing Johnny reminds him of a past role, playing Orlando in an off-Broadway production of "As You Like It." Comparing a character written by Billie Joe Armstrong with Shakespeare? Absolutely, Nepute says. "Because there are moments in the show where it is just me and the audience, and I'm literally looking them in the eye and telling people what just happened and what is about to happen."
McKeon praised the musical's unusual orchestrations by composer Tom Kitt, who won a Tony and shared a Pulitzer for the score of "Next to Normal." For "American Idiot," Kitt created a vocal orchestra out of the cast's voices, in the way he assigned different musical lines to different characters. For the touring show, the actors' six-part harmonies play against recorded strings and cello, with musicians playing electric guitars, bass drums and keyboards onstage. "Everybody is just trying to keep up with Tom Kitt's genius every night out there," McKeon says.
Singing, that is, while performing Steve Hoggett's grueling choreography, which resembles emphatic flailing rather than traditional dance moves. "I love it because it's exactly how you want to move when you hear the music," Nepute says.
'American Idiot' goes live and loud
The national tour of the musical written by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong and director Michael Mayer, who won a Tony Award for his direction of "Spring Awakening." The show's choreography is by Olivier Award winner Steven Hoggett ("Black Watch") and orchestrations and arrangements by Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Kitt ("Next to Normal").
When • Tuesday-Thursday, Dec. 3-5, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Kingsbury Hall, 1395 E. Presidents Circle, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $42, $52 and $64.50 (plus handling and facility fees); two $15 student tickets available for every show; 801-581-7100 or kingTix.com.