Staging Green Day's American Idiot

Jan 1, 2010 12:00 PM, By Sarah Benzuly



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Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.) and St. Jimmy begin their

Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.) and St. Jimmy begin their "drug-induced" friendship.

“Don't wanna be an American idiot/Don't want a nation under the new media/And can you hear the sound of hysteria?/The subliminal mind-f*** America.”

So begins the song “American Idiot” from Green Day's 2004 album of the same name — a brilliant conceptual punk odyssey that grabbed post-9/11 American teens (and adults) with such inescapable songs as that title cut, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Holiday” on the radio. Now, that album's fervor and tumult have been compellingly translated to the stage. This past fall, a de facto rock opera called American Idiot enjoyed a highly successful run on Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Roda stage — just a stone's throw away from 924 Gilman St., the club where the band got its start some 20 years ago.

The musical of American Idiot tells the story of a character named Johnny who is desperate to escape the boredom of his suburban life, so he flees to the city, where he expands his mind with drugs (creating the drug-dealing alter-ego St. Jimmy) and pursues the woman of his dreams, “Whatsername.” The story also follows two of Johnny's buddies: Tunny, who enlists in the army, is injured in war and falls in love with a military nurse; and Will, who had planned on joining Johnny in the city only to learn that his girlfriend is pregnant, so instead his escape is to take up residence on his couch with his trusty beer, driving the mother of his child away.

Mix engineer David Dignazio at the Yamaha PM1D inside Berkeley Rep

Mix engineer David Dignazio at the Yamaha PM1D inside Berkeley Rep

As staged at Berkeley Rep, the enormous, four-story stage was wallpapered with hundreds of posters advertising punk rock shows that took place in the Bay Area through the years, and dozens of flat-screen TVs blared out news footage and other images in an overwhelming media overload. Meanwhile, a stellar company of young actors sang, danced, throbbed and head-banged to songs from American Idiot (as well as a handful of tunes from Green Day's more recent 21st Century Breakdown, and some rare cuts); and an eight-piece band, mostly right onstage just behind the action, kept the energy high and the action moving straight through the show's 95-minute running time.

‘Awakening’ the Idiot

For the Rep's production, director Michael Mayer brought in some of the same team that staged Broadway's Spring Awakening (Tony winner for Best Musical), including sound designer Brian Ronan. “I'm fortunate in that I'm on Michael's call list,” Ronan says. “We've worked together many times. He's great at letting me know about the challenges that lay ahead. Our relationship is such that he knew I'd work it through; most of his direction came in real time in the theater.”

Ronan was charged with transferring studio tracks to the stage, which can be a difficult proposition, and in this case Ronan did not meet with Green Day prior to production, so there was little direction from the band on that end. However, as production began, Ronan was impressed with the band's involvement. “I'd have thought with all their success and wide reach that they might consider a theater piece small change, but that was not the case,” he recalls. “Tre Cool and Mike Dirnt were actively involved with the show's drummer and bassist, respectively. They both donated instruments that would have been out of the budget of a regional theater production, and worked with the guys to share insights into their licks. And [Green Day leader] Billie Joe Armstrong was extremely present; he and Michael transformed the album content into a stage production. He also worked with our guitarist on style and interpretation and he, too, donated gear: One day, about a dozen of some of the sweetest guitars I've ever seen showed up at the theater for our use from his personal collection.”

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