Centennial Goes Punk(ish)

Green Day's tunes about drug addiction buzz the stage in American Idiot

Rock musicals have been a thing on Broadway since the hippies in Hair raised the roof and dropped their clothes in 1968. With its anti-war theme, nudity, desecration of the flag and songs celebrating sodomy and LSD, Hair was shunned by the theater establishment but became a huge hit anyway and changed what was acceptable on Broadway.

Fifty years after the Age of Aquarius, we've seen so many rock musicals that the label hardly means anything.

But American Idiot, based on Green Day's 2004 album of the same name, is not just a rock musical. It's a punk-rock musical, one of the first, although Green Day's brand of punk is hardly hardcore. The melodious trio from Berkeley, Calif., are not exactly the Butthole Surfers, Jodie Foster's Army or even the Ramones.

The album struck a chord with a generation that came of age after Sept. 11, spawning five singles that became anthems. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, won the Grammy for best rock album and sold an estimated 14 million copies.

Even so, the musical is not a jukebox event that merely recreates the hits. It's faithful to the punk trio's energy and ideas and attitude, but it's a clear expansion of the Green Day sound. The band collaborated with Tom Kitt, a composer whose orchestrations give American Idiot more variety and even a few quiet moments.

Kitt won a Pulitzer Prize for the score that he and Brian Yorkey wrote for Next to Normal, seen last season at Arizona Theatre Company. Like that groundbreaking musical about bipolar disorder, American Idiot has almost no dialogue and runs about 90 minutes with no intermission.

It features all of the album's songs, including B-sides, plus a few songs from Green Day's 2009 follow-up, 21st Century Breakdown, which also won the Grammy for best rock album.

American Idiot premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in the fall of 2009 and opened on Broadway seven months later. The current national tour began a couple of weeks ago in Oregon and stops in Tucson for three performances this weekend at Centennial Hall.

The story, which is by all accounts thin, centers on Will, Tunny and Johnny, each of whom aches to escape his hometown for bigger, brighter things. Will stays put, depressed and sinking into drug abuse after learning that his girlfriend is pregnant. Tunny joins the military, gets deployed and returns broken. Johnny goes to the big city, where he's torn by the very different demands of the drug scene and a woman he loves.

Daniel C. Jackson, a 23-year-old native of Birmingham, Ala., says he is having a blast playing St. Jimmy, the show's other main character.

"He shows up, gets everybody high and is the life of the party," says Jackson by phone from a tour stop in Regina, Saskatchewan. "The audience comes to realize that St. Jimmy is the destructive alter ego of Johnny, who leads him down a rabbit hole of severe drug addiction."

Although St. Jimmy exists only in the mind of Johnny, aka Jesus of Suburbia, Jackson says it wasn't difficult to find the reality of the character.

"I can relate to him specifically because I've known people who have suffered severe drug abuse. I think of them and my own history of making some bad decisions and he becomes real to me."

If the scenes of young people shooting up have the ring of truth, it's also because Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, who played St. Jimmy at various times on Broadway and elsewhere, has waged epic and very public battles on the drug front.

Jackson started acting at age 14 and got his big break at 19 when he got the lead role in a Birmingham production of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.

The show was a smash and led to several other stints as Buddy Holly in other cities.

"It gave me so many opportunities and I had to get good at playing the guitar, which is required of everybody in American Idiot," he says.

"I was a huge fan of this show, even before I auditioned for it. I saw it on Broadway and I've been obsessed with it ever since."

Initially, Jackson was in the ensemble and merely understudied St. Jimmy. Now he's won the role and he's playing it in cities across North America until at least the end of May.

One date on the schedule gives him goose bumps. It's back in his hometown.

"On the night before Easter, we are playing Birmingham and you wouldn't believe how excited I am about that."

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