A decade or so ago, if you’d had the chance to peek into the childhood room of 11-year-old Marcus Cardenas, you would have seen something very important to him on the wall:
A poster for the Green Day album “American Idiot.”
Not that the young Marcus really understood all the lyrics in Green Day’s passionate and political songs. He was still pretty young. But he listened ravenously to such oft-played tunes as “Holiday” and “September.”
Besides, kids can still pick up on the emotionality of so-called “adult” lyrics, even ones such as Cardenas, whose parents tried to shield him from the images of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were streaming into living rooms across the country via the nightly news. When Green Day, in “Holiday,” sings, “Sieg Heil to the president gasman, Bombs away is your punishment,” it’s pretty clear that it’s no love song for George W. Bush, who was in office at the time.
Thinking back on his Green Day infatuation as a child, Cardenas — who has a leading role in the new Fresno City College production of “Green Day’s American Idiot” — realizes the songs do have a nostalgic side for him. But now he really gets them.
“I understand the purpose of the album,” he says. “It makes a lot of sense now.”
As Fresno City prepares to open its ambitious “punk rock opera” version of “American Idiot,” here’s a crash course on the production, courtesy of Cardenas and director Charles Erven:
How did we get from a best-selling album to a Broadway musical?
It’s mostly thanks to the efforts of Michael Mayer, who co-wrote the book and directed the 2010 Broadway production.
“There’s a difference between a concept album and piece of theater where there has to be a story,” Erven says.
“American Idiot” was originally written as a concept album, with a loose narrative created by the songs. (Green Day is said to have listened to The Who’s “Tommy” and David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” for inspiration.) The album captures the disaffection of lower-middle-class young adults stuck in dead-end towns, contemplating a future controlled by a few big corporations as they face down a generational stretch of war.
Mayer came along with an idea: turn it into a musical. He tweaked a few lyrics, added a couple of songs, created a bit of new dialogue, worked some of the album’s liner notes into the narrative, and somehow, in the words of Erven, made everything come out more coherent.
What’s “American Idiot” about?
We follow three main characters who live in Jingletown, all friends who went to high school together, as they stumble along toward what society might consider adulthood. Cardenas plays Will, a slacker and a stoner, who gets hit with reality first: “I get my girlfriend pregnant,” Cardenas says. A dominant feature of his character is that Will spends his entire time on stage lounging on his couch. (He’s even rolled on and off by stagehands.)
The other friends, Tunny (Dylan Hardcastle) and Johnny (Josh Taber) manage to get out of town, but it’s a tough exit. Tunny opts for the military, while Johnny turns to drugs. When he starts taking heroin, he imagines an alter ego drug-dealer called St. Jimmy (Aaron Pierce). Fun fact: Although members of Green Day weren’t in the regular cast of the Broadway production, vocalist/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong performed the role of “St. Jimmy” occasionally throughout the run.
This doesn’t exactly sound like “The Sound of Music.” Is this really a punk rock musical?
You bet. The live band is part of the action, with some members as much as 10 feet up in the air on a platform.
Almost entirely sung through, the music drives the show forward with an energy that is combustible.
“It’s like jet fuel that just sort of explodes,” Erven says.
Is this a big deal for Fresno City College?
Absolutely. For one thing, it’s a local premiere, which is a coup. And for another, it stretches the college’s theater department in many ways.
“Almost everything about this production is a challenge,” Erven says in a press release for the show. “It’s a fun and invigorating challenge. The show requires a massive set and racks of costumes. It requires projection design and video; a tight rock band; choreography so intense, you burn calories simply watching it. And, of course, American Idiot requires a seriously talented cast. Fortunately, all of these elements have come together for what’s going to be a wonderful show.”
For an extended discussion on the set and costume design of Fresno City College’s “American Idiot,” be sure to watch my first episode of The Munro Review, thanks to CMAC:
“American Idiot,” opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6, Fresno City College Theatre. Runs through Oct. 14. $14 general, $12 students/staff/seniors.
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