Detroit conjures up images of an industrial society with a workforce shaping steel and punching the clock. Being the underdog is something you get used to after a while.
One thing that may not come to mind when you think of Detroit is musical theater. But over the past couple of years, more and more shows have been traveling from Broadway to visit Detroit.
And finally, a musical that captures the revolutionary and rocking character of the city arrives. American Idiot is the creation of Green Day frontman Billy Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer, director of the Tony-winning rock musical Spring Awakening. I wonder if the Stooges could have ever imagined that, in 2012, punk rock would be center stage at the Detroit Opera House in a Tony-nominated production.
The title track from Green Day's album of the same name, American Idiot, paints a picture of the mindless subordination of America, as observed by Armstrong during George W. Bush's presidency. The theme of fearmongering in a post-9/11 world is commonplace, inspiring lyrics such as, "sing along to the age of paranoia."
Many punk music fundamentalists would scoff at pop-punk for its willingness to embrace the establishment. While Green Day will never have the street cred of NOFX, their efforts to create resistance through popular culture shouldn't be devalued.
I had the opportunity to interview Van Hughes and Joshua Kobak while they were in Toronto, where the play arrived for its first stop after leaving Broadway. Hughes has been with the American Idiot production since Broadway, originally as a standby for John Gallagher Jr., who played Johnny. In the off-Broadway version, Hughes has taken the lead as Johnny (also known as "Jesus of Suburbia").
Kobak has also been with American Idiot, in the role of St. Jimmy, since Broadway. In fact, he's even worked with Billy Joe Armstrong (who also played St. Jimmy on select occasions). His work with Armstrong in the original production involved "rehearsing Billy Joe and teaching him St. Jimmy," he says.
Furthermore, Hughes and Kobak were able to draw inspiration from Armstrong's intensity. When channeling the rage displayed by Johnny, Hughes says he draws on ideas of social injustices. "Human hunger is one image that I have in my head a lot of times," he says.
Kobak says that the character of St. Jimmy is "of the dark" – a drug dealer who finds Johnny to be an easy target. "Johnny is the natural-born leader of his three friends," says Hughes, "inciting the other characters to head to the big city in search of something else."
To play the role of Johnny, Hughes said he studied Joe Strummer of the Clash. "He had an energy I wanted to try to emulate in certain parts of my rage," he says.
Both Hughes and Kobak touch on the idea of "rage" numerous times, obviously an overall theme within the performance. And to that end, it's channeled well.
American Idiot is a good introduction to musical theater for those who might be hesitant to make a night of the theater, or perhaps as a pioneering performance for a younger audience. And you don't have to agree with the political leanings of Green Day to laud the underdogs and their quest for something greater than a 7-11 parking lot and broken homes. | RDW
Green Day's American Idiot • 1/14-1/22 (Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday evening 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees 2 p.m.) • Detroit Opera House • 1526 Broadway Street, Detroit • 313.961.3500 • michiganopera.org • $25-$75