American Idiot: Berkeley

I remember anticipating and then purchasing Green Day’s "American Idiot" in 2004. We were at the tail end of a heated presidential election – the first one in which I was eligible to vote for POTUS. W. was the incumbent and Senator John Kerry his opponent. On campus, you couldn’t get through the student union without passing by wranglers for both sides. Even my crush was getting into it, manning a booth and canvassing his neighborhood. (Unfortunately, he was supporting what I thought was the wrong side.) Folksiness and ignorance were being celebrated while intellect and an inclination toward analysis had to make its case. The country was at war (with one another – figuratively – and with countries abroad – literally) and I was hungry for someone or something to speak to me – to express the rage I had for those who celebrated ignorance and a feeling of being eschewed by a country whose most vocal majority probably didn’t know what “eschewed’ meant. Along came Green Day and its punk rock artistry.

Released on September 21, 2004, Green Day’s "American Idiot" was an instant classic and, for a while, it permanently resided in Lucas (my first car.) I believe an artist’s job is to express what we, collectively, are feeling but can’t quite articulate. The artist feels the same things and shares them with the world as pure and honest public group therapy; art allows us to experience our emotions and collectively rejoice, rock and roll in the commonality of these shared human feelings. "American Idiot" did this and still rings raw and true today, over five years later.

From the first listen to the album (I drove needlessly around campus just to continue listening!) I began picturing the action on stage. Written as a rock opera, complete with characters’ postcards in the liner notes, imagining "American Idiot" on stage was no stretch. Lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong said that from the time the album was released he and his band mates, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool, fielded offers to turn their punk-rockin’ concept album into a stage production and a film. Finally, sometime in 2007, high off his Tony winning turn as director of Spring Awakening, Michael Mayer reached out to Green Day and a beautiful collaboration ensued, leading them to premiere American Idiot on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre this past fall.

Mayer and Armstrong wrote the book, which is very light and serves mostly as an expository device, and remained faithful to the album. Character names and relationships were taken from the liner notes and those postcards became the basis of the scant dialogue. Using all the songs, in order, from "American Idiot" plus a couple of B-sides from that record and a handful of songs from Green Day’s latest album, "21st Century Breakdown," itself a rock opera, Mayer and Green Day presented a show telling the story of suburban youths in revolt – revolting against the mainstream; Moms and Brads; government; circumstances; or just sheer directionlessness and the results are spectacular.

To bring the musical to theatrical life, Mayer assembled a crack team of theatre vets, many of whom he’d worked with on Spring Awakening. Chief among them, though not someone who was involved with Spring Awakening, was Tom Kitt. As mentioned in my review of Next to Normal, Tom Kitt is an extraordinary musician whose talent and rock & roll sensibility is unparalleled in the theatre world. Kitt was brought on to orchestrate American Idiot. He more than delivered. Songs that I am so used to hearing with only a guitar, a bass and a drum kit come fully to life with Kitt’s affecting arrangements. (Green Day thought so too: Tom worked so well with Green Day in the early days of American Idiot’s stage life that the band called upon him to write orchestrations for "21st Century Breakdown.")

While the orchestral enhancements shed new light on the familiar songs of "American Idiot," they weren’t the only element at work. The real thrill of "American Idiot" becoming a stage production with a full cast of characters was hearing Green Day’s music interpreted by female vocalists. This might have been the most powerful part of the production. Watching and hearing “Letterbomb” in context and as sung with pure, unadulterated emotion by a woman had lasting effects: I still tear up when I listen to the song, over a month after having seen the show. Imagine hearing something one way for so many years and then all at once every idea you had about that song is turned upside down – in a great way! It’s revelatory. (It also speaks to the power of what a great cover can do; read: Jimi’s Star Spangled Banner.) Hearing these songs differently allows you to rediscover the music – the lyrics, the notes, the emotions – and fall in love with it all over again.

If Green Day had only made this record, dayeinu. If Michael Mayer had only staged it, dayeinu. If Tom Kitt had only arranged the score, dayeinu. If women had only given voice to the poetry of "American Idiot," dayeinu. But, folks, we’re in for a real treat: John Gallagher, Jr. leads this ensemble of misfits and he’s never been better.

Johnny Gallagher is a favorite of mine; he is a talented musician, a truly gifted actor and sincerely grateful for the support of his fans. I have a huge, ridiculous crush on his talent and if you ever have the pleasure of watching him live on stage you will know why. Since coming into my life in the spring of 2007 by way of a little show called Spring Awakening, Johnny has never disappointed me. (I should note that although Spring Awakening marked the first time I saw him on stage, Johnny actually had a supporting role in the season four opener of The West Wing!)
At the time I discovered Spring Awakening and John, he was in a band called Old Springs Pike; I took a road trip from DC to Philly to catch them play at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and was hooked. Johnny has since left the band and continued as a solo singer-songwriter. The remaining three incredibly talented musicians, James Cleare, Heather Robb and James Smith, persevered as a trio, changed their name to The Spring Standards and are putting the finishing touches on their debut LP. Their live shows, by the way, are not to be missed.
After Spring Awakening, Johnny gave a heartfelt performance (and maintained a decent Irish accent) in Conor McPherson’s Port Authority, holding his own on stage with Brian d’Arcy James and Jim Norton. Then in fall 2008 he rightfully received raves for his turn in the world premiere of Beau Willimon’s Farragut North, a political drama in which Johnny played a 25-year-old wunderkind campaign operative. (Side note: When living in DC, I worked off of Farragut North. I’d been hearing about this play since its early gestation when it was going to be optioned into a movie starring either Leonardo DiCaprio or Jake Gyllenhaal. I would have been excited to see this no matter who played the role of Stephen. The fact that it was Johnny was just the delicious cream cheese frosting on the red velvet cake.) After Farragut North, Johnny played a couple of solo shows around town and appeared in a supporting role in Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, all while participating in readings and workshops of American Idiot. When the show was officially booked to premiere at Berkeley Rep, Johnny was cast in the lead role, named for him, creating a role that is in his bones.

Now, I say that with a little trepidation because the character Johnny is a little unseemly and the person Johnny is a wonderful guy; but the raw emotion the character feels is brilliantly channeled by the actor living his dream by working with and playing Green Day’s music on stage. Like me, Johnny has been a Green Day fan for years; he even covered "When I Come Around" at a show at Joe’s Pub in August 2008 (and surely at other shows at which I was not in attendance). Within the stage production of American Idiot, we get the pleasure of watching Johnny, alone on stage, armed with only his guitar and his voice, sing "Wake Me Up When September Ends." It is truly and wholly awesome. That moment alone was worth the entire trip. (I traveled out to Berkeley from New York to catch American Idiot in its world premiere. I don’t even like going to the Lower East Side because it is not on my train line but I could not miss the combination of Green Day, Michael Mayer, Tom Kitt and my dear Johnny Gallagher.)

American Idiot concluded its twice extended run at Berkeley Rep on November 15, 2009. Almost immediately, it was announced that Green Day were heading into the studio with the cast of American Idiot to re-record their current hit single (and number in the show) "21 Guns." It is now available to stream and will be available to download at the end of December
. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of art I've ever experienced. Listen now and then listen again. Now the important question is: When is it coming to New York? While it’s been confirmed that the show will run on Broadway, a time table is not in place as there is not a theatre lined up. Be assured that as soon as a theatre is announced and tickets go on sale, I’m booking myself for the opening night of previews, opening night and several other dates because American Idiot, live and on stage, means expression and artistry have a place in this world and to miss out on it, you’d have to be an idiot.