The Tony Award-winning punk rock opera gets an intimate revival that focuses on the personal and the political
Sound the alarms and circle the wagons for a storm is brewing at Chance Theater and it has “American Idiot” written all over it. How else to explain the polarizing rift expressed by two members of the Chance about what makes this show – a smash 2012 Broadway musical based on Green Day’s multi-platinum 2005 album, which was in large part a politically charged broadside against Bush America– worthy of doing?
“As a company, we are always focused on the human connection,” in the work it produces, rather than any overt political content, says Chance Managing Director Casey Long. “And this is a show that is very much about three friends finding their place in their world after a very destabilizing event in this country. I think that’s something audiences can relate to. It’s about how do we move forward, where are we going, how do we get there, and our connection with our friends.”
That’s the take from the plush, comfy digs of senior management. But on the ground, in the bloody, mud-drenched trenches where the battle for survival is waged on a line as thin as a razor’s edge, there’s another perspective.
“This is a super political show,” says director James Michael McHale about the musical, which also uses material from Green Day’s 2009 album “21st Century Breakdown.” “It’s political now and it was political when the albums (came out). They were both responding to what was going on in the world at the time, both during the Bush era and the war on terror, and Obama’s with the financial crisis, and the growing cultural divide, and the cable news media that was furthering the divide.”
And rather than downplay the politics, or treat the concerns of a 10-year-old musical and a nearly 20-year-old album as yesterday’s news, McHale is embracing it.
“There are so many things in this show that you can look at and draw a direct line to today,” he says, “from how fear was used (to support) the war on terror and how it’s still being used to manipulate, and how the media’s influence has only gotten (more pervasive) and the first viral conspiracy theories surfacing around 2005. How much has really changed in 20 years?”
So, there you have it: honest, factual reporting from the frontlines of a bitter, vicious struggle over control over what “American Idiot” means. The only question is whether one of OC’s great theater successes will implode amid the carnage of full-blown civil war.
Umm…did someone mention the media furthering, or even creating division?
The truth is both Long and McHale have equally valid points; each recognizing that what makes “American Idiot” fit so well in the Chance’s well-developed wheelhouse of musical productions is that it works on the personal and political levels, one reason why an album that was so anthemic for those who came to age in the shadow of 9-11 and the financial meltdown of 2008 can also have strong parallels to today.
“It didn’t strike a chord as much as hit a vein of a generation that was trying to speak up and make its voice heard and to question authority,” says Long. “And I think that legacy of speaking out and asking questions is still alive. So, I don’t know if the musical speaks more to the reality of today as much as it’s a fire that never stopped.”
For his part, McHale is committed to emphasizing the politics of the piece and would like nothing more than to prod audience members into reflecting on how much of today's political and social foment can be traced back to the era Green Day helped musically document. He’s so committed that he even drops the ominous B-word in conversation.
“My original concept has stayed the same from when I first pitched it,” says McHale, who also doubles as the Chance’s literary manager.
“And that was influenced, at least partly, by Brechtian political theater,” alluding to the German playwright and director who believed in a self-referential epic sort of theater designed to be used as a revolutionary tool to catalyze social transformation.
McHale’s vision includes setting the musical in the world of a political concert. And after the Chance greenlit his pitch for “American Idiot” and he began intensive research, he realized that Green Day’s original tour for the album did the same.
“A Rolling Stone article literally described it as Brechtian political theater,” McHale says. “They went big with visuals and things like (lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong) marching and carrying his guitar like a rifle and saying things like ‘I’m George W. Bush but my friends call me asshole.’”
But McHale is a theater practitioner, not a propagandist. And he realizes that focusing on the personal stories in a show where the story is one of its weaker aspects is key.
An avid fan of Green Day since high school, McHale saw the Broadway tour in 2012 and while he thought it was a powerful show, he did sense that, like any rock opera where the majority of words are sung, the lack of traditional dialogue worked against the story. There is a positive in lyrics, he says, because lyrics are more poetic in nature and less precise, and that allows the listener room to interpret their meaning and experience their emotional impact on personal terms. But one of his goals with this production was to make the story clearer; and, for someone who trumpets the political, that’s all about the personal.
“A lot of the work we’re doing is focusing on storytelling,” he says. And since it’s verboten to add words to a published piece, McHale, along with choreographer Miguel Cardenas and his 10-person cast, have explored visual storytelling through movement and action, both in staging and choreography.
“We’re trying to find the narrative moments in each moment and figuring out physical ways to express them, he says. “Like, say, here’s a song about addiction and getting clean, so what are the physical ways we can tell that story, of someone giving up drugs and all the steps in the withdrawal process? And, so much of that boils down to the relationship between the characters.”
Of course, the main draw of any “American Idiot” is the music and Gabrielle Maldonado is the musical director of the 5-person live band, which is augmented occasionally by members of the 10-person cast. For, regardless of whether audience members are swept up by the emotional journey of the characters or are savvy to the political parallels, it was the music of the 2005 album that first caught people’s attention.
This is why – even though McHale is treating this show seriously – you can’t help but detect the enthusiasm of someone who gets to create a production based on an album that rocked his world. But it’s more than fandom: this is actually the culmination of a dream he’s had since he was a “little kid” who loved rock music and theater and who “had a dream of being the first one to pair them, of making a rock concert part of the story.”
And then he heard of The Who’s “Tommy.”
But instead of abandoning his dream, McHale shifted to imagining how he would adapt one of his favorite albums for the stage. And in 2005, when “American Idiot” came out and the then 21-year-old OC suburbanite who was in a punk band felt he was the target demographic, the light bulb went on and grew in intensity after seeing Green Day live in 2009. It was even flickering up to 2012 when McHale was a college graduate who – instead of pursuing his passion for theater – felt like a character in one of the “American Idiot” songs on: “East 12th Street.”
“It’s about feeling a bit trapped in a full-time job in corporate America and that’s what I was doing. I felt miserable and was doing it to just make ends meet.”
But then he saw the Broadway tour of “American Idiot” and the idea reignited as he remembers sitting in the theater and “making a promise to myself to take a crack at it and direct it.”
The next year, he got turned onto the Chance through a friend, auditioned for a role, and soon became a company member and eventually literary manager. And he would leave the veal-fattening cubicles of corporate America and dedicate himself full-time to the arts, which has led now to staging the show he vowed to do 10 years ago.
So, does McHale think this personal road to a political play was his destiny?
Well, it’s not like he was born with a scar on his forehead shaped like a fist clutching a red grenade, or that the name “James” is an anagram for “idiot” (Those are Harry Potter and “Matrix” pulls for those who came in late…).
But consider this. He recently found the ticket stub of that 2012 Broadway tour production. The date? June 1, 2012. And when did rehearsals start for McHale’s “American Idiot?” June 1, 2022. If you’re a little rusty on your computations, that’s 10 years to the day.
Joel Beers is a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He has also written and adapted 10 full-length plays produced in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
“Green Day’s American Idiot”
Location: Chance Theater @ Bette Aitken theater arts Center 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, CA 92807
Run dates/curtain times: July 15 - August 14, 2022; Thu 7:30 p.m., Fri 8 p.m., Sat 3 p.m. & 8 p.m., and Sun 3 p.m.
Suitability: This show contains mature content and strong language.
Information: (888) 455-4212, ChanceTheater.com