We know what you must be thinking. "Hillary and Michelle," you ask, "your last post was nearly two weeks ago. How can you possibly have gone that long without seeing a show or two?"
....surprise. We absolutely did not go that long without Broadway in our lives. And now that midterms week is over, we have some time to catch up on the incredible theater we've seen since our last update.
On September 19, we headed back to the St. James (in awesome seats - front row of the mezz! - thanks to a great student discount deal) and had the pleasure of seeing Van Hughes as Will in American Idiot. I had previously seen Mr. Hughes as Johnny, and while he was wonderful as the Jesus of Suburbia, I have to say that I enjoyed his performance as Will so much more because his characterization was completely different from Michael Esper, who usually plays the role. See, here's my problem with Will. To me, he comes off as very whiny and passive - arguably much like the other characters in the show, but while Johnny jumps a Greyhound to the Big City and Tunny turns to the army, Will is the only one who never (or can't) make an effort to rise above his situation. (Exhibit A: throughout the entire 90-minute show, he rarely leaves the couch parked on stage right.) When I saw Mr. Hughes play the role, I felt sympathetic for this lamentable character for the first time. First off, he looks younger than Mr. Esper, which makes Will less pathetic in my eyes because it's easier to connect with the "rebellion of youth" idea. (In a similar example, I very much enjoyed the opportunity to see Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp in the recent national tour of Rent, but even I had to admit that seeing two men in their late 30's playing characters who are supposed to be in their early 20's was a tiny bit odd and disconnected from the heart of the story.)
Secondly, it became very clear to me why Will is stuck in the situation he's in. At the beginning of the show, he's in "love" with his girlfriend, Heather, but completely immersed in the "lust" part of their relationship. When he discovers that she is pregnant, and reality sets in, lust is no longer enough to keep them going, and he just can't understand that. When Mr. Esper plays Will, “Give Me Novocaine” and the “I fell asleep while watching Spike TV…” section of “Homecoming” is sung in a weak little voice that, while beautiful and heartbreaking, tells me that Will is resigned to his situation and has given up trying to get out of the hole he’s in. Mr. Hughes, however, sang with the tiniest bit of edge, determination, and strength, showing anger rather than passiveness. For the first time, I really felt terrible for Will, because he truly didn't know how to move forward with the relationship, or his life - although he desperately wanted to. And by the end of the show, Heather has moved on (see "Rock and Roll Girlfriend"), but Will is still stuck. Suddenly, the metaphor of being a lifelong couch potato didn't seem pathetic any longer - it just seemed sad.
One other minor thing that happened at the show: we sat in the same row as director Michael Mayer, and lead singer of Green Day Billie Joe Armstrong and his wife Adrienne. No big deal. (Right after the ushers instructed everyone in the front row of the mezz not to set anything on the ledge in front of them, Armstrong proceeded to rest his feet on it. Win.)
A talkback, advertised under the title “Idiot University,” was held after the show, but unfortunately it proved to be a bit of a disappointment. While the opportunity would have been perfect to ask questions about the show to Mayer, Armstrong, video and projections designer Darryl Maloney, and actors John Gallagher Jr., Stark Sands, and Tony Vincent, the moderator only allowed time for four “questions,” all of which consisted of hardcore Green Day fans fawning over Mr. Armstrong. Of course, I can’t blame them for freaking out a bit at the chance to speak to their idol…but we couldn’t help thinking that, were we to finally meet someone we had admired our whole lives, we would want to come across as intelligent and level-headed. We also felt badly for the members of the creative team and the cast who took the time to attend the talkback, and were promptly ignored.
Two weeks later, incredible lotto luck helped us to return to American Idiot and witness one of the first absolutely seamless transitions between musical theater and pop culture. As the pre-show announcement put it, "Oh - and by the way, the role of St. Jimmy, usually played by Tony Vincent, will be played today by Billie Joe Armstrong." The opportunity to see Green Day's lead songwriter and the man credited with the book of the show, let alone one of the biggest rock stars on the planet, perform in the show that he basically wrote, can be described as nothing short of electric. The sheer excitement and energy between the audience and the cast was reciprocal (maybe too reciprocal, seeing that John Gallagher Jr. jumped into the shopping cart as usual during “Jesus of Suburbia,” was spun around with a little too much force, and ended up crashing onto the floor). I have NEVER experienced anything quite like the show that day. During Johnny’s monologue right before St. Jimmy’s entrance, yelling and shouting could be heard from backstage; once the audience collectively realized that it was Mr. Armstrong, the entire theater was BUZZING with excitement – and then St. Jimmy burst onto the scene.
Upon the announcement that Mr. Armstrong would be joining the show for one week only, I honestly expected him to turn the show into a mere spectacle. Wonderful reviews from his first few performances had me intrigued, however, and I am thrilled to say that Mr. Armstrong is not only a true performer, but an actor as well. He seemed to be exactly the same height and stature as Mr. Gallagher, which made St. Jimmy seem more like Johnny’s dark side rather than an actual alter ego – a presence that is not always present, but always threatening to return. Considering who he is, I was particularly impressed with Mr. Armstrong’s ability to fade into the background when he wasn’t the center of the scene. He made St. Jimmy a very vulgar, mocking creature, yet still hilarious to the audience and attractive to Johnny. During several poignant sections of the show where St. Jimmy is sitting in the background, it was hard to tell whether Mr. Armstrong was crying, or shaking with rage. I particularly loved the moment before “21 Guns” when St. Jimmy snatches away Johnny’s guitar – in essence, taking away his voice – because he seemed so determined to reign Johnny back in, and yet so disgusted with himself. Vocally, he was excellent (um….DUH), although he didn’t reach for Mr. Vincent’s usual high screaming note in “Know Your Enemy.” Overall, Mr. Armstrong delivered an extremely raw performance in the best sense of the term, and I hope that he continues to pursue the story-telling side of music, both on and off Broadway.
A very respectful audience, for the most part, only added to the electricity of the show. It was incredible to see the talented cast of American Idiot giving the performance of their lives, energized beyond belief from taking the stage with someone that so many of them must have grown up idolizing, and receiving so much love and appreciation, with and without Mr. Armstrong on stage.