‘American Idiot’ brings heart of rock ‘n’ roll to stage

It isn’t the most conventional musical, but “American Idiot,” the punk rock opera told through the music of Green Day, is like a shot of adrenaline to the heart.

The show, which plays the Fox Theatre Thursday through Sunday as the national tour winds down for its finale in Denver next month, nabbed a pair of Tonys in 2010 and a Grammy the following year for best musical show album.

Though the band didn’t appear in the production (except for occasional appearances from Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong to boost ticket sales during its 2010-11 Broadway run), its music, including “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and the gut-punch title track (which comes from Green Day’s 2004 album), is the centerpiece.

There are tentative plans for “American Idiot” to be made into a movie, but for at least a few more weeks, the focus is on the freewheeling live show.

Johanna McKeon, the associate director of “American Idiot,” took time from her current duties as associate director of Broadway’s just-opened “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” to discuss the soul of “Idiot.”

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Q: It’s probably pretty common that some people might leave during the show because they aren’t expecting something so rock ‘n’ roll. What do you think is the best way to describe it?

A: It is a coming-of-age story about a young man trying to find meaning in his life with a highly maximized physical production with the requirements that a pounding, ferocious rock ‘n’ roll score demands. There must be five times more lighting cues in this show than any other touring shows right now. But I know there’s something for everybody in this show, I’ve seen it happen. (When it was on Broadway), the ladies who lunch would come on Wednesday afternoon with their shopping bags and loved the show. The teenagers with blue hair dragging their parents in from New Jersey loved it. There’s a great many universal truths about growing up and sobering up. There’s a lot of wisdom and morality that’s espoused. If people come in expecting it to be loud and in your face and release themselves into that experience, there’s a huge amount to be gained from the story.

Q: What I liked about the show was that even though it uses Green Day’s songs to tell the story, I don’t think it’s a jukebox musical. I’ve heard others disagree. What’s your take?

A: When the Who decided to begin experimenting with long form songs, they wondered what would happen, and what they found out is that a longer song has more of a beginning, middle and end. When they wrote “Tommy,” they realized they were writing a story and it’s a rock opera. Billie Joe was deeply influenced by “Tommy,” and he wrote “American Idiot” as a passionately and politically felt reaction to the country’s decline and over-simplification following 9/11. What he created in “American Idiot” wasn’t a collection of hits; he was writing an entire narrative. “American Idiot” had a very clear point of view from the beginning. It defies all definitions of jukebox musicals.

Q: You’re doing a lot of one-off shows in smaller markets. How is it accepted there compared to the bigger cities?

A: I’ve been at some of the smaller market shows, and honestly some of them are some of the more exciting performances because we hadn’t been there yet. We even played Peoria, and they were so hungry for it. You never know where the audience is going to go insane for the show. We were well-received in Austin and Dallas, but there were some smaller cities in Texas where people walked out. It’s a left-leaning show and there are a lot of things that happen inside the show that have potentially negative resonance for how a religious audience might see it. The show is about being out in the middle of a strip mall in the middle of suburban America. The punk rock tradition is highly intellectual traditionally, and it’s nice to go out to a town with chain restaurants and tons of concrete and question the validity of what that’s doing to the youth of America. This show is very intelligent and doesn’t pull punches.

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