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25th Nov 2012 5:08pm | By Alasdair Morton
Punk rock and stage musicals can be a fantastic combination
When Green Day adapted their album American Idiot for the stage three years ago, there were raised eyebrows from both the musical theatre community and their punk rock fanbase.
Needlessly so, it would transpire; just as the 2004 concept album itself was a global smash that cemented the band as a stadium-filling rock act, the musical went on to be a Broadway hit.
Now, since the 2009 premiere in Berkeley, California, it’s transferred to New York, embarked on a US tour this summer and played through the UK – now it’s ready to rock London.
Written against the backdrop of the US’s post 9/11 engagements, American Idiot is a politically-charged show that tells the tale of three young men, and the different choices they make – Will (Casey O’Farrell) is glued to the couch in Nowheresville, US, with a kid a pregnant girlfriend.
The other two, lead Johnny (Alex Nee) and Tunny (Thomas Hettrick), head for the big city, where their stories diverge.
Tunny opts for the military and Middle Eastern deployment while Johnny follows a path of addiction and lost love, before making peace with the world and himself.
“Some people have viewed it as a period piece and in some ways it really is,” Nee tells us after the show’s UK debut in Southampton at the start of the tour.
“It is set during the Bush years and has a lot of specific imagery from then [Cheney and Rumsfeld make appearances across the many TV screens that litter the stage and set].
War is always going to be around, so it is something we have to deal with – and it is always going to be young people going off to war, meaning the appeal of it versus its reality is definitely a contemporary issue.”
The show, Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong has previously explained, is about the conflict between love and rage – a tale about self-destructive rebellion and the striving to change into a better self in a better world through ethical choices, all backed by American Idiot’s Grammy-winning rock songs, and a few other choice cuts from the band’s career.
It touches on war, youth, pop culture, media, with its thematic thread on addiction lent a contemporary relevance by Billie Joe’s current rehab residence after an on-stage outburst-cum-breakdown in Vegas at the iHeartRadio festival.
Just as Green Day found themselves a new fanbase with the album eight years ago, the show, too, has attracted new followers but it’s anything but made for a young audience.
“I love that,” Nee enthuses of the more adult content and themes of the production. “I’ve always been attracted to things that are a little rawer and don’t gloss over parts of characters.
"All of these characters [in the show] can be rude and vulgar, and we are all like that in the real world. I find that darker side of life interesting as a person.
“My first professional show was Sister Mary Ignatious Explains It All For You, which is a very dark adult show that deals with religion.
"I was a little Catholic schoolboy and at the end of the play I end up on this nun’s lap reciting catechism questions as she is feeding me cookies.
“She has this gun trained on one of her students and then at the end of the show she shoots him. That was my introduction to theatre – my mum said she would never have let me see the show had I not been in it.“
Johnny even has a fairly full-on sex scene during the show, but this didn’t phase the 21-year-old Nee either. “It’s fun to explore that raw sexual side of yourself,” he says.
“It’ll probably be a little uncomfortable when my grandmother comes to the show, though.”
Nee, who grew up in San Francisco, Billie Joe’s west coast home, was at college in Chicago when he got the call which prompted a string of auditions and callbacks.
With ‘edgy for the genre’ shows such as Rent and Spring Awakening (from Idiot director Michael Mayer, whose work initially caught Billie Joe’s interest) already under his belt, he joined the cast as Johnny – his love of adult, mature material joined by his stage show experience and punk rock credentials.
“I started looking into Green Day when I was 10,” he recalls. “I bought Dookie but had to hide it from my parents as it had a Parental Advisory sticker on it, and I listened to a lot of their early stuff.
American Idiot didn’t come out until I was 13, but I didn’t listen to it all that much, I just heard it on the radio as I was unsure about their change in sound as they were maturing.
I was still a teenager then and just thought: ‘What’s this?’ But then I saw the [stage] show and it opened it up for me in a whole new way.”
The live nature of the show makes it a charged visceral theatrical experience.