Can American Idiot become the next Passing Strange?


Does lightning strike twice in the theater world?

Berkeley Repertory Theater (Berkeley Rep) is  about to find out. The California nonprofit theater group, which played a significant role in the development of the cult musical hit Passing Strange (forever preserved as a Spike Lee Joint coming to big screens and PBS soon) is now in rehearsal for a musical version of American Idiot, based on the multiplatinum Green Day album. Tickets for performances, which start Sept. 4, are already on sale on Berkeley Rep’s web site.

It seems like a smart, but cynical, move.

Passing Strange, written by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, who toiled separately and together on the Los Angeles rock scene for years (Wednesday Week, The Negro Problem, Stew),wrote a musical based loosely on Stew’s autobiography. They produced a fresh and compelling story that scored many loyal adherents (I’m one of them) and won massive praise from critics. But that loyal core, the show’s built-in audience, wasn’t enough to fill the seats of Broadway’s Belasco Theater eight times every week for too long.

At heart, Passing Strange is a very personal and unconventional show. And, frankly, I don’t think anyone ever figured out how to market it to the tourist-heavy Broadway audience. (For Stew and Heidi’s sake, that may have been a good thing, as they have been incredibly productive in the year since Passing Strange closed. Monica Drake of The New York Times covered this territory here.)

green-day-american-idiot American Idiot, on the other hand, has a huge built-in audience. The album has sold more than 14 million copies since its release nearly four years ago. As much as I love Stew and Heidi’s music, I know that number dwarfs the total number of albums that pair have sold in their careers.

Sales figures don’t necessarily correlate to quality. And both sets of performers have their fans. But it’s clear that American Idiot — like the long-running Mama Mia, a jukebox Abba musical — has a huge advantage over something like Passing Strange simply on brand recognition alone.

But producers of the Green Day musical are taking no chances. They’ve stacked the deck with heavy-hitters, including plenty of Broadway talent:

The show was adapted from the rock opera concept album by Green Day vocalist-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer, the Tony-winning director of Spring Awakening, who’s also directing American Idiot.

Rebecca sharpened

Rebecca Naomi Jones in Passing Strange on Broadway

The musical has no book, per se, but its story is told in song. Tom Kitt, from Broadway’s Next to Normal, handled arranging duties, while Steven Hoggett, of Black Watch, has worked out the dancing.

And the cast of 19 is led by John Gallagher Jr. as Johnnie. Gallagher was Moritz in Spring Awakening. Producers even someone from Passing Strange, Rebecca Naomi Jones, to play Whatshername.

It seems doubtful that American Idiot can achieve the white-hot, deeply personal impact that Passing Strange had. But it sounds a heckuva lot easier to market. And that could well be the key to a long and successful run.

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