When Green Day burst into the national teenage consciousness with its major label debut, “Dookie,” in 1994, the last thing on anyone’s mind was Broadway.
Thematically, the album’s hit songs ranged from angst (“Basket Case”) to marijuana use (“Longview”). And it was through these songs and others that, along with bands such as The Offspring and Sublime, Green Day helped put punk music back in the public eye.
On “Nimrod,” the band’s fifth studio album released in 1997, songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong revealed his softer side with the acoustic single “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).”
With a string orchestra backing and a chorus that sings, “It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right; I hope you had the time of your life,” the song earned spots on the playlists of graduating high school seniors around the country, giving Green Day a newfound respectability among mainstream America.
In 2004, the group parlayed that widespread recognition into its most successful album to date, “American Idiot.” Taking Best Rock Album at the 2005 Grammys, the disc was a runaway commercial success, selling more than 14 million copies worldwide.
Unlike Green Day’s previous efforts, which consisted primarily of three-minute pop/punk songs over a three-power-chord guitar riff, “American Idiot” played out like a rock opera, full of social and cultural critiques. Songs such as “Jesus of Suburbia” broke far from the traditional punk formula, stretching into multipart opuses as long as nine minutes.
Even with the thematic approach, Green Day’s Armstrong didn’t have his sights set on a stage adaptation similar to The Who’s “Tommy,” which was converted from album to Broadway musical 24 years after the album’s release in 1969.
Still, when Tony-winning director Michael Mayer contacted Armstrong in 2007 about the possibility, the songwriter flew to New York with fellow bandmates Mike Dirnt (bass) and Tre Cool (drums) to talk it over.
After attending a production of Mayer’s “Spring Awakening,” another rock-heavy musical with themes of teen angst, Green Day ultimately gave the director free rein to incorporate the album, as well as songs in the works for their 2009 follow-up, “21st Century Breakdown,” into an original storyline for the stage.
In June 2008, the band first witnessed Mayer’s adaptation of their music, reworked into choral medleys for male and female singers. The three members of Green Day reportedly found themselves in tears at the immensity of the production.
After debuting on Broadway in March 2010, “American Idiot” maintained a yearlong run of performances, garnering Tony Awards for Best Scenic Design and Lighting Design as well as a nomination for Best Musical and a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album.
In December 2011, a touring ensemble set off around the country with the production, including some members from the original cast. A second tour was soon scheduled for this fall featuring an entirely new cast, including shows across the East Coast and eight markets in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
That tour kicks off Wednesday at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center, marking the new ensembles’ first performance after months of rehearsal.
A fresh cast
“My first time performing in this role will be in Charleston,” confirms Alex Nee, a 20-year-old theater major at Northwestern University (on leave for the year) who stars in “American Idiot” as lead character Johnny. “I’m pretty excited about it and a little nervous, but I’m very ready for an audience.”
Nee spoke with Charleston Scene from New York, near the end of four weeks of daily rehearsals with the full cast.
The entire crew arrived in Charleston on Monday, spending its first week “on the road” in on-site rehearsals at the PAC.
For Nee, it’s also his first time in a touring ensemble, let alone fronting the group in a lead role.
Auditioning for the part after starring in Chicago-area productions of “Rent,” “Tommy” and “Spring Awakening,” the young singer-actor found a natural fit in his role as a disenfranchised youth singing “punk” in “American Idiot.”
“When I was in sixth grade, ‘Dookie’ was one of the first CDs I bought with my own money,” Nee said. “I loved listening to it. It really informed a lot of my musical tastes.”
“I remember ‘American Idiot’ coming out, and I had already fallen in love with ‘Dookie’ and ‘Nimrod’ and ‘Kerplunk!’ (the 1992 predecessor to ‘Dookie’). I was like, ‘What is this?’ I didn’t really have a full understanding of what it meant, and the song (‘American Idiot’) was such a huge hit, on the radio all the time,” Nee recalls. “When you’re young and ‘cool,’ you don’t listen to the mainstream stuff. I didn’t know what to think about Green Day selling out. Then a few years later, in high school, I gave it a second chance.”
During his freshman year in college, during a trip to New York, Nee attended a performance of “American Idiot” with the original cast on Broadway.
“The way the music told the story, I immediately connected with it,” Nee said. “I went back to the album and realized just how complex and original and edgy it is.”
Although Green Day won’t be in Charleston — they’re busy promoting the nearly simultaneous release of three new albums, “Uno!” “Dos!” and “Tre!” — the production is centered around a six-piece live band. And the musicians are hardly your typical “out of sight” orchestra down in the pit.
“It’s pretty exciting how the band gets incorporated,” Nee explains. “There’s a movable staircase that they’re sitting underneath as it wheels around the stage. They have acting moments and interaction between the actors and musicians. Everything isn’t as strict as a more traditional musical might be, so we really get to play off each other and have it be more of a live, organic rock concert situation.”
The storyline, as Nee explains, centers around three young men with little to do but hang out at the corner 7-Eleven store.
Frustrated with their ordinary small-town lives, the trio sets out toward the city in search of purpose and happiness.
“These guys have grown up for their whole life feeling like they don’t belong in suburbia,” said Nee, whose character, Johnny, is the central figure of the three friends. “They’re trying to find something that makes sense; to break through the white noise and political ... media overload that they’re surrounded with.
“The show is about them finding that something that really resonates with them, so they go to the city and find these various escape routes that ultimately leave each of them with nothing. They end up hitting rock bottom before realizing at the end that what they do still have is each other’s support, giving them new eyes and a new perspective.”
At the core of the Tony-winning set design are 53 television sets blaring scenes of world events and the voices of corporate news’ talking heads. Political undertones are a constant throughout the musical.
“It’s basically dealing with the fact that we’re living in a society where a lot of things are dictated to people by the media about how they should think. And the characters are trying to find a new voice and a new way to express themselves and be fulfilled in their lives,” said Nee, emphasizing that the relatively young age of the cast gives the current ensemble a special feel from previous renditions.
“I was only 10 years old when 9/11 happened, so I don’t have the same perspective of how life was before then as the original cast does, who are five or six years older. After 9/11, there was this undercurrent of fear and paranoia that this cast grew up amidst. It’s innately going to be a different show, but the core message and emotions and feelings are going to be the same.”
Much like “The Simpsons,” “American Idiot” intentionally avoids offering any specific geography, instead opting to let the meanings behind songs serve as metaphors for all of American society.
“We’re trying to tell a universal story,” Nee said. “ ‘The city’ in the story represents any place with diverse people and the ability to start anew and be your own person.”
Like The Who, Green Day has made a career out of songs that connect with young people feeling the frustration of trying to fit into a society where they find deep fallacies.
Although some Green Day fans may view taking the message to the world of theater and Broadway as selling out, Nee points out that the band’s decision does fit the punk rock ethos of breaking the rules by not doing what people expect.
“People can definitely be a little bit skeptical about why a punk band would make a musical. I get asked, ‘Is this going to be like Green Day or is it going to be some kind of fluffy Broadway thing?’ ” he said. “This production experiments with Green Day’s music and brings it into a new light, in a totally authentic and exciting way. It’s not ... commercializing the music at all. We’re really taking the songs and bringing them into this new art form.”