Posts Tagged ‘American Idiot’

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What do you get when you mix punk rock with Broadway? That question sounds like the setup of a cheesy joke that you might hear on an elementary school playground. Taking the question at face value, it couldn’t sound much more ridiculous as a premise. The two styles of performance art are almost never mentioned in the same breath. The audiences of each style also could not be any more different either. All that being said, What DO you get when you mix punk rock and Broadway?

I went into DPAC with a set of expectations for the show that were rooted in my love of Green Day and my inexperience with Broadway. I was of the mindset that the music from Green Day’s American Idiot album would be watered down or otherwise dulled to make it fit Broadway. I knew that Billie Joe and the guys all got music credits for the show, but I felt that there was no way that the power and angst of such an angry album could be turned into a musical and still retain its original traits.

I had also been told by others who are more versed in the world of Broadway that this show was, “not going to be very good.” That sentiment was followed up with, “it’s a concert pretending to be a musical.” Needless to say, I was not expecting very much as I sat in my seat waiting for the show to start.

When the show begins, the first of the senses to be engaged is your hearing. Before the curtain goes up you can hear the sounds of someone aimlessly channel surfing. The sounds are of the nightly news, cartoons, reality TV, and anything else that can be found. Whoever has the remote control is clearly bored and searching for something to excite him.

Once the curtain rises your sense of sight is then aggressively engaged. The set is almost more than you can take in at a glance. There is the façade of a building complete with a functioning fire escape. Mounted to the façade are 20 or more television screens of varying sizes all jumping from image to image. There are lighting trusses that are aimed directly at the audience that are flashing with colors that complement the sounds and images on the screens.

The cast is seen milling around the stage almost aimlessly. Center-stage sits a bed with a young man sitting on the edge; he appears to be the channel-surfer. After about 10 more seconds of surfing, the man on the bed jumps to his feet and the band immediately starts playing some of the hardest punk rock you will ever hear.

The young man, Johnny, is now jumping around the stage thrashing like he is in the most intense mosh pit ever. The lead guitar is screaming, the bass guitar thumping, the drums are thunderous. The music is as hard and as intense as any concert that you would ever want to go to. The screens that are built into the set are all showing images that are almost too fast to appreciate. The light effects from the trusses are as intense and rapid fire as the music, almost blinding to the unprepared. All of this stimulation bombards you before you ever hear the first lyric.

Once Johnny belts out those first lyrics, “Don’t want to be an American idiot” you realize that this Broadway musical has some very real edge to it. As the rest of the cast joins in on the performance of the song you feel the power and angst of the music. Each delivers their individual part with strength and a rage. The ensemble takes the stage and begins a set of choreographed moves that is probably more appropriately called, synchronized moshing and head-banging.

After the first musical number was complete all of my fears about a dulled or weakened American Idiot were gone. The first number was no fluke either, the remainder of the show ran with the same intensity and power all the way through. Songs that were favorites from the album like; Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Know Your Enemy, 21 Guns and Holiday are performed in a way that added to the songs and, dare I say, improved on them. Songs like Are We the Waiting, Give me Novacaine, and Letterbomb were given real emotional depth that will be hard to forget as well.

The central lead of Johnny was played by Alex Boniello. He was making his tour debut on this particular night. That should mean there is some drop-off in ability since he is an understudy right? Dan Tracy was in the role of Tunny and Casey O’Farrell played Will. The central cast was rounded out by Olivia Puckett as Whatsername, Mariah MacFarlane as Heather, Carson Higgins as St Jimmy, and Taylor Jones as Extraordinary Girl. All of them gave justice to the music they were performing and stayed true to Green Day’s work.

As amazingly powerful as the music is, American Idiot is a show that relies more heavily on seeing the story instead of hearing the story. Hearing the music of the show on its own can tell a story that is at times compelling and emotional, but on its own is shallow. The light design by Kevin Adams, scenic design by Christine Jones, video/projection design by Darrel Maloney, and choreography by Steven Hoggett add a visual experience that makes the story feel significantly deeper than what the lyrics of the music provide on their own.

The light design invokes so much emotion as you hear the music that it accompanies. As the colors change and the strobes flash you are given a sense of what the song wants you to feel through the eye. During the song Give me Novacaine, the lighting is dimmed and a strobe is used to compliment the choreography meant to depict Tunny, Dan Tracy, being severely wounded in battle. As the scene comes to its completion and you see Tunny being carried from the battlefield a feeling of fear and loss is hard to escape.

The scenic and the video/projection design complement each other in a way that makes the world on the stage feel huge. The building façade that is primary set piece, with the embedded TV monitors, is dynamic and moving when it needs to be active and engaging. The same backdrop effectively portrays a rundown apartment, peaceful suburbs and a violent warzone, at times simultaneously. When the physical structures on stage were not able to support the song effectively, dynamic projections took over. During Holiday and Boulevard of Broken Dreams, the projections that are used give the stage performance a truly cinematic feel. The building façade that was so engaging and powerful seconds earlier was virtually invisible and subservient to the projection of a city street or skyline.

Another area where the show really makes a mark is in the choreography, blocking, and physical acting. None of the choreographed movements or routines are overly complicated, or even rhythmic. What they are is eye-catching and emotional. As you watch each cast member move about the stage you can see the anguish, anger, and frustration that each character feels. The realism that is used is also a major point in the overall visual impact of the show. The two sex scenes will the cross the line for some viewers and the blunt depictions of heroin use will also catch some off-guard. But as a whole, when the musical and visual acting components are working together the story is instantly deeper and richer.

My original question was, “what do you get when you mix punk rock with Broadway?’

The answer:

You get Green Day’s American Idiot, a musical that has all the grit and balls of the hit album that spawned it. You get a show that is almost cinematic in its visual appeal and close to overpowering with its musical punch. You get an emotional roller coaster than travels the spectrum of negative emotions felt by the youth of today. You get shocked and enthralled at the same time.

If you are a “theatre snob” that thinks that the only form of Broadway shows that are worth seeing are golden-age style musicals, which American Idiot is not, then PLEASE carry on with your ignorance. I am begging you, skip this show! The rest of us that are open to seeing and experiencing new things will gladly snatch up that ticket you are leaving behind! I plan to see American Idiot over and over again!

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Dan Tracy (Tunny) in AMERICAN IDIOT (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)Dan Tracy (Tunny) in AMERICAN IDIOT (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Billie Joe Armstrong is the lead guitarist and front-man of one of the most successful rock bands of all time, Green Day. Armstrong is accompanied in Green Day by childhood friend, co-founder, and bass guitarist Mike Dirnt, drummer Tre Cool, and guitarist Jason White, who officially joined in 2012.

As a group, Green Day is one of the best-selling musical groups of all time having sold over 75 million albums worldwide. The band has released a total of 11 studio albums and has been RIAA certified Platinum over 20 times. Their 1994 major label debut album, Dookie, is listed as one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone Magazine. The group has been honored with 5 Grammy Awards and is one of VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

As impressive as their list of musical accomplishments is on its own, there is one additional piece of acclaim that Armstrong and Green Day can lay claim to that VERY few other rock musicians can. The members of Green Day created and produced a show that made it from a small regional theatre in Berkeley, CA all the way to Broadway. That show was eventually nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical and won two Tony Awards for Scenic and Lighting Designs.

Green Day’s American Idiot, which is based on the Green Day album of the same name, is the story of three young men, Johnny, Will, and Tunny, who attempt to escape the confines of suburbia. Johnny flees to the city and embraces drugs, Tunny chooses the military life, and Will has to accept the role of father. The three young men are forced to face the lives they have and the lives they have lost.

American Idiot opened at the St. James Theatre on Broadway in the spring of 2010. The show ran for almost exactly one year with 400+ shows when it closed on April 24, 2011. It was directed by Tony Award winner, Michael Mayer with music composed by Green Day and lyrics by Armstrong. The cast of the original Broadway production included members of previous Broadway productions Spring Awakening, A Man for All Seasons, Journey’s End (2007 Revival), Avenue Q, and Rent.

After American Idiot closed in 2011 it almost immediately went on tour and has since spanned the globe.The touring cast has changed over the years as the various tours began and ended. The current cast has been together since October of 2013 and will be making a stop on April 29th at the Durham Performing Arts Center for two nights. After the Durham, NC show, the tour will move on to Atlanta, GA and then to the west coast for a series of shows in California. The current tour is scheduled to conclude at the end of May in Denver, CO.

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In advance of the show Eastern Carolina Style’s Michael Smith spoke at length with Dan Tracy. Tracy plays one the three leads, Tunny, and gave some poignant perspective and insight on the show…

MAS – This show is so different from traditional musical theatre in so many ways; why not try something, “safer” as your first?

Dan Tracy – I think that taking risks is one of the most exciting things about doing this. And having the taste of what it is like to be a member of Green Day also doesn’t hurt.

MAS – The show has won so many awards and has been loved by so many since it opened back in 2009, did that acclaim add any extra pressure?

Dan Tracy – No, any good show is going to have won awards. You definitely do your homework and put the time in to give the detail that it deserves. That is a big part of my job; it doesn’t add any pressure at this point.

MAS – How do you ready yourself for a show? Touring shows have to take a lot out of you, what do you do to make sure every performance is the best it can be?

Dan Tracy – I do a lot of reading to keep my brain excited and learning about the craft of acting. I keep researching different things. I stay up to date with the news to try and get myself in the mindset for the political side of the show. From there it is about keeping my body, voice, and mind clear and open and executing what I know is supposed to be the show.

MAS – Tell me about you character, Tunny. What does the audience need to know about this young man?

Dan Tracy – Tunny is a confused guy; he grew up in a tough family situation in suburban California. He is looking for an answer to make the pain go away. He’s got a rich emotional rift that he tries to hide from everyone. He decides after taking a trip to New York with his best friend Johnny to enlist in the military. He persuaded by this character called the favored son. The military poses that answer for him, kind of giving him a purpose. He has a difficult time with that too; he can’t seem to catch any breaks. He ends up seeing through all of the darkness into more positive light.

MAS – What do you want the audience to leave the show with, in regards to Tunny?

Dan Tracy – It’s about a person who has almost everything taken away from him and then still be able to move on and find the good. I think that a lot of people can relate to that in whatever way they personally see that story. Not many people have experience losing a limb in the middle-east during a very violent war. But, a lot of people have lost loved ones or they are dealing with addiction or the other themes that this deals with. My character can help contribute to that; as does Will and Johnny.

MAS – How do you, and the rest of the cast, handle questions and criticism from people that come to this show thinking they are getting something closer to the album than what it is? Considering the album has sold 15 million copies worldwide, there is a lot of room for lofty expectations from audiences.

Dan Tracy – There is a pressure on us, at the back of your mind. Every time I stand out and look at the audience when I am singing “Are We the Waiting” there is a lot of my emotional journey, my actions through the story of the show that are on the forefront of my mind. In the back of my brain is that fact that this song could very well be the favorite song of somebody out there in the audience. You try and think of that so that you know that you are putting in the work that you should. It is another way to motivate yourself to do your job every night when you have to do it 150 times in a row.

I have never heard anyone say that they didn’t like the changes that have been made from the original album to what you hear now. They are not even really changes. It is not like anything is gone, nothing is missing they have only added things. I think some of the orchestrations have really added significant richness to certain songs.

People had no idea of what they were going to get, they come to the show, they don’t know what it is about, and they are just taken aback.

MAS – To build on the criticism that I have seen and heard. Some people have said that this type of show is really just a concert trying to be a musical, how do you respond to that?

Dan Tracy – It doesn’t look like a golden-age book musical; it has the form of something you would see in an avant-garde movie. It is not very linear, there are so many things happening at once, there are so many pieces, there are a lot of metaphors happening, there is a lot of interpretation of different moments and there are a lot theatrical devices being used. Some people don’t see the richness when they walk in and see it the first time.

It is the type of show that every time you watch it you see something deeper and more complex. It is a lot for people to take in on their first watch

The cast of the show that will be appearing in Durham:

Main Cast:

Jared Nepute Johnny
Dan Tracy Tunny
Casey O’Farrell Will
Olivia Puckett Whatsername
Taylor Jones Extraordinary Girl
Mariah MacFarlane Heather
Carson Higgins St. Jimmy


Ensemble and Understudies:

Alex Boniello
Liam Fennecken
Sean Garner
Francesca Granell
Antwaun Holley
Andrew Humann
Alison Morooney
Johnny Newcomb
Michael Pilato
Eric Presnall
Turner Rouse, Jr.
Josephine Spada
Chelsea Turbin