For What It's Worth, It Was Worth All the While

So we've opened American Idiot and I have so many thoughts...

Foremost among them is my gratitude to the people I work with. This fearless, smart, inventive group of actors has supplied the magic that only they can provide. In a show like this – a close cousin to Hair, as a lot of people noticed this weekend – authenticity and spontaneity are paramount. And these actors of ours have brought so much of themselves into this story, so much honesty, despite the dense poetry and complexity of the storytelling.

Judy Newmark, critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, grabbed me after the opening night performance and said with great concern, "You didn't list the choreographer in the program!" I smiled and told her, no, we didn't hire our usual choreographer Robin for this show. As with Hair, I didn't want anything on that stage to look like dance steps or like choreography.

And now that the show has found its final form, I can see how right my decision was. I can also see how right I was when I initially told the actors that my "Millerography" (one of the New Liners coined that term a few years ago) would only work with strong, honest, powerful acting behind it. Now when I watch our opening number, it's everything I hoped – wild, aggressive, primal, desperate. Especially wild.

As one example, there's a move I referred to as the drunk marionette, when the entire ensemble, clumped tightly together seems to get thrown this way, then that way, then this way, seemingly yanked back and forth by the shoulders. It's a more expressionistic kind of staging than actors are used to. When I first described this to them, I could see the looks of "WTF?" on their faces, but they went with it, even though they didn't really get it. Slowly over time, as the acting throughout the show got deeper and richer, so too did that staging. Here's a video of that number I shot on my phone in rehearsal...

As I wrote about in another post, this ensemble has to play authentic, honest, real-world characters at the beginning and end of this story, and that takes serious, intelligent acting. But for most of the show, they play extensions of the leads, a city of strangers, drug-induced delusions, memories, alter-egos... While our leads get a linear, if episodic, storyline, almost every song requires a totally different mindset from our ensemble, a completely different conceptual approach, even a completely different style. And these immensely talented actors really nail every moment, every emotion, every nuance.

Although our three leads each have a more concrete, linear arc to follow, their task is no easier, because they're playing characters in a fable, archetypes, and they have to find those human details and nuances that make the characters real for the audience. Not only have Evan, Freddie, and Brendan found that reality, they've also found the real bond among the three that underpins their three journeys. Only when they come home to themselves and to their best friends, can they start to find their path. That's a lot to play behind the rich, wild, dense poetry of Billie Joe Armstrong's lyrics (my favorite: "Your faith walks on broken glass..."), but all three have settled into high-energy, intense, but honest performances.

The proof is in the payoff at the end of the show, in "We're Coming Home Again," when the three meet again for the first time since their separate ordeals, once again on the roof of the 7-11. It's like before, and it's also nothing like before, so much more emotional, no longer cocky and angry, just grateful to reconnect.

It's a powerfully emotional moment for the audience, because they're so invested in these characters by this point – because Evan, Brendan, and Freddie's performances are extraordinary.

It's been even harder for the women. After all, our three heroes are full-out misogynists, and I've heard some argue that so is Armstrong and his story. I'm not sure I would agree. As with Rent, these characters have to be whiny, petulant, lost kids who need to grow up. The story – like all Hero Myth stories – is about growing up and starting on your true life's journey. In American Idiot, as in High Fidelity, the women really aren't the point; but the way the men treat them is very much the point. So while Heather may not have a fully fleshed detailed arc, she does have an arc. She goes from victim to decision maker, and we see at the end that her rage has dissipated – she clearly is growing up – as she lets Will hold their child, the child he wouldn't even look at before now. It's a powerful moment, and Larissa and Brendan give it such emotional reality.

Sarah as Whatsername and Sicily as Extraordinary Girl have it even worse. They don't even get real names. But again, that's the point. Whatsername is lost back in the whirlpool of Johnny's addiction. Some have complained about her lack of an actual name; they say it's proof of the show's misogyny, but it's not. It's proof of Johnny's misogyny – and his first self-awareness and regret about that, in the show's final story song, "Whatsername."
She went away and then
I took a different path.
I remember the face,
But I can't recall the name...
Now I wonder how Whatsername has been...

Evan's delivery of this song is so emotionally potent, but it only works because Sarah's Whatsername is such a powerful, tragic presence in the story. Sarah found her reality, her emotional life, all the things that are only implied by the text; and that reality pays off in "21 Guns," when the three women, thinly drawn as they are, take on powerful, complicated, beautiful life in the hands of serious actors like ours.

But here's why I love watching actors create. Larissa, Sarah, and Sicily didn't impose anything on their characters; they found something worth playing in the outline sketches the script provides them with, and they found the ambiguity of their complicated relationships to these three lost men.

My gratitude also extends to the powerhouse New Line Band, seven outstanding musicians who are killing this score. Though we do a lot of rock musicals, this is the loudest show we've ever done (maybe tied with Hedwig), but the blend among the musicians and against the vocals is superb, thanks in large part to our sound designer and engineer Ben Rosemann, whose hands never leave the sound board for a second throughout the entire 90-minute show.

And then there are our fearless designers. As with many other things, we don't do design like a lot of other companies. We meet once at the beginning of the process, all of us, to talk about our plans, my take on the show, etc., and then I don't keep a real close eye on them. I talk with our scenic designer Rob more often because his work is always inextricably tangled up in my work staging the show. But I don't talk to our lighting designer Ken much at all before he designs and hangs the lights, other than practical things like where a special might be placed. I've learned that lighting designers prefer I talk to them in abstract terms, mood, impression, feeling, and let them translate that into design. And yet, Ken found that same balance that Dowdy and I did, between rock concert and musical theatre. His lighting invoked rock concerts, most of them music-bassed cues, but he also did the necessary job of storytelling that theatre requires. I also don't keep a very close eye on our costumer Sarah. She has an unerring eye for design, in any period, in any style. I knew she had this.

The one thing we had to talk about in terms of costumes was St. Jimmy. When I first saw Sarah's ideas for him, I knew that was the right direction, but it didn't seem totally right. We talked (I mentioned both Beetlejuice and A Clockwork Orange), she thought about it some more, and came back with exactly the right look. Very different from the original, but so right, even down to giving Jimmy and Johnny one costume detail in common, to connect them. And though Chris Kernan as Jimmy was doing a great job, it was Sarah's wild costume that got him to home plate. When she saw this production photo of St. Jimmy (yes, that's a fur collar and a trucker hat), she commented, "This is everything." She's awesome.

And really, a big part of why this show has turned out so great is my frequent collaborator, New Line's associate artistic director Mike Dowdy, who directs a lot of the New Line shows with me. He bring so much to our shows, both concrete ideas about staging, but also questions and challenges for our actors about their characters. He has such strong instincts, and he and I have an almost identical aesthetic, so even when we're both directing a show, it always ends up with a single point of view, a single vision. Dowdy hasn't been doing this nearly as long as I have, but I have such respect for his brain and his work, and I know my work is always better when he's working with me.

In August Dowdy will solo direct his first New Line show, Tell Me on a Sunday.

I also have a lot of gratitude for our St. Louis audiences. We had a big house for our preview Thursday, then we sold out both Friday and Saturday nights. As huge as our pre-sale was for Heathers in October, this pre-sale was more than twice as big. I think we'll sell out the rest of the run.

This has been yet another New Line show that turned out ten times cooler than I ever expected. I knew it was great. I had seen Michael Mayer's brilliant original production on Broadway, with Billie Joe Armstrong in the role of St. Jimmy! But put this story – and a 7-piece punk rock band – in a small blackbox theatre with only seven rows of audience, and it becomes overwhelmingly personal and beautiful and immediate, and ultimately uplifting. Though my intention was never to depart radically from Mayer's conception of the show, the intimacy of our space and the choices our actor have made, have taken this show to a different place, and that's very exciting.

You wouldn't think a punk musical about sex, drugs, and death would be "ultimately uplifting," but after all the hardship of our story, our last song, "The Time of Your Life," reminds us that we must embrace all of life, not just the good parts and the easy parts, but all the parts, because they make us who we are, and they teach us what we know. We are indebted to the bad times more than to the good ones. Armstrong's lyric is a philosophical statement about accepting life as it is, about laying down your arms and giving up the fight.

Because what other choice do we have?
Another turning point,
A fork stuck in the road.
Time grabs you by the wrist,
Directs you where to go.
So make the best of this test
And don't ask why.
It's not a question,
But a lesson learned in time.

It's something unpredictable but in the end is right;
I hope you had the time of your life.

I don't know if I've ever heard a better explanation of the Hero Myth story – or a human life – "It's something unpredictable but in the end is right." The song goes on:
So take the photographs
And still frames in your mind,
Hang it on a shelf
In good health and good time.
Tattoos of memories
And dead skin on trial,
For what it's worth,
It was worth all the while.

It's something unpredictable but in the end is right;
I hope you had the time of your life.

As Sarah might say, this is everything. "For what it's worth, it was worth all the while." A typically cheeky, acrobatic, alliterative, and deeply truthful lyric from Armstrong.

We run three more weeks, and it will be such a joy to watch our show settle, and get richer and deeper over that time. I often remind myself how lucky I am to work with these people, who both trust me to guide us, and also bring so much to our collaboration.

Here's a taste...

It is not lost on me that I'm doing exactly what I've always wanted to do, literally since before I can remember, and doing it with the absolute cream of theatre artists.

Our wild and wonderful adventure continues. Get your tickets early!

Long Live the Musical!