The rock musical has been around since Hair in the 1960s, and some of them have rocked pretty hard, such as Spring Awakening and Rock of Ages. But none rock as hard as American Idiot.
“This is the most unapologetic rock show that Broadway has seen to date," says Evan Jay Newman, music director and keyboard player with the tour that opens Friday for a three-day gig at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.
The musical, which premiered on Broadway three years ago, is based on the punk rock band Green Day's album American Idiot, which has sold more than 15 million copies since its 2004 release.
"I do think this is the hardest-rocking Broadway show because it really embraces that punk rock vibe," says Newman, 26. "And it is pretty raunchy. All of that's a big part of the punk rock atmosphere: 'This is who I am, and I'm not going to apologize for it, and you're going to deal with it, or you're not, but I really don't care. I'm going to do my thing.' That's sort of what this show embodies."
Inspired by the Who's rock opera Tommy, Green Day conceived American Idiot as a possible theater piece or movie, and the musical was put together with the full participation of the band and especially lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong, who co-wrote the book of the show with director Michael Mayer (who also directed Spring Awakening). Like the album, the stage adaptation is about three young guys from suburbia on an angst-ridden, media-saturated odyssey through post-9/11 America.
There isn't much dialogue in American Idiot. Instead, the story is told almost entirely through the album's songs, such as Jesus of Suburbia, Holiday, Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Wake Me Up When September Ends, as well as a few songs from another Green Day album, 21st Century Breakdown. It's a long way from the traditional musical form of book scenes and songs.
"If you walk in expecting a Rodgers and Hammerstein show, you're going to be kind of blown out of your seat," Newman says.
For just that reason the Straz Center is presenting American Idiot as a nonsubscription special over a long weekend rather than the standard full week. Though the show ran more than a year on Broadway and won a pair of Tony Awards for lighting and scenic design, it is not every musical theater lover's cup of tea. In fact, most of its core audience wouldn't dream of going to traditional musicals like Anything Goes or The King and I.
"We have a lot of people who come to the show who are just Green Day fans," Newman says. "If someone has no interest in rock music whatsoever, there's not much we can do to turn them on. But it is a very theatrical show regardless what genre the music is. There's still a story with a lot of heart and some philosophical depth."
Of course, Green Day fans come with expectations that they will experience something like the band's own potent concerts. Newman leads a band that includes keyboard, two guitars, bass, cello and drums.
"We worked hard — my guitarists in particular — to make sure that everything was really tight," he says, "to maintain the integrity of the punk rock legacy and represent their music in the best way. We wanted to make sure everything sounds like Green Day as opposed to theater's version of Green Day."
One difference in the musical's score that fans of the band will note are the arrangements and orchestrations by Tom Kitt, who was the composer of Next to Normal, a musical that won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
"For some songs the differences are as minimal as cutting a measure here, adding a phrase there," Newman says. "For other songs he added these gorgeous string and vocal arrangements. The song Whatsername, which we play at the end of the show, in many ways is a very different song than it is on the Green Day album, where it's a lot of power chords. For us, it starts out with this lush piano-string arrangement and grows into that driving punk rock feel. The arrangements flesh out ideas in the album to make them more theatrical. And then of course you've got 17 voices in the show as opposed to three in the band."
The American Idiot cast is young, and Jenna Rubaii, 23, was picked for the non-Equity tour right out of the University of Miami to play the Extraordinary Girl, a fantasy figure featured in an aerial ballet. Rubaii is a Clearwater native who, in her playbill bio, thanks two of her mentors from the bay area, Joy Roche, drama teacher at Clearwater High School, and Cynthia Gries, director of the Entertainment Revue, an all-girl song and dance troupe in Tampa. She has been on the stage at the Straz Center before as part of the children's chorus for a tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and in a Clearwater High production of the musical My Favorite Year during the annual Florida State Thespians festival.
Rubaii grew up listening to Green Day and remembers when she and a friend performed the band's Good Riddance for her eighth-grade graduation. "It feels like everything has come full circle," she says. "I never thought when I was in middle school that I'd ever be in a Green Day musical."
Armstrong sometimes performed in the Broadway production, playing St. Jimmy, but he and the band have not seen this tour, which goes to Asia in the summer. In Indianapolis, the singer's wife, Adrienne, took members of the cast duckpin bowling. "She showered us with gifts, like some really cool guitar-pick necklaces," Rubbai says.
Coming from the Florida suburbs herself, Rubbai can relate to American Idiot's story. "It's all about anger and frustration and wanting to get away," she says. "That's what the show is about. Three boys that are stuck in suburbia and want to get out."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.