‘American Idiot’ to take the stage at Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — For some of us, reconnecting with our inner, angsty teenager isn’t very difficult; for others, that was a time better left forgotten. The Middlebury College Department of Theatre and Dance is embracing it with a musical adaptation of the band Green Day’s 2004 concept album, “American Idiot.” The show, directed by Assistant Professor of Theatre Michole Biancosino (a ’98 Middlebury alumnus) with musical direction by Clint Bierman (’97 alumnus) and live music by The Grift, will be performed May 2-4 at Wright Theater on campus.
“American Idiot” (lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong, lead guitarist of Green Day) is a musical about dreaming big and getting up off the couch and out into the world. This play takes audiences on the trip of Green Day’s storied album, whose videos introduced audiences to a violent pop/rock/punk suburban landscape. Three working class kids attempt to leave the suburbs and escape becoming screen-addicted zombies. Their journey begins with dreaming on a couch and leads to a drug-infused punk scene in a big city, an endless war in the Middle East, and an unplanned pregnancy. As these friends search for redemption in an ugly world, they discover what it means to really wake up.
“Sex, drugs, rock and roll, war, teenage angst, and lashing out are all part of Green Day music, and part of this musical for sure,” said Biancosino, adding that the show is intended for mature audiences.
This isn’t just a show — of course not, this is Middlebury College production after all — it’s also a class. Biancosino and her students have been working on this production all semester — analyzing the lyrics and opening a safe space to rehearse rebellion.
“The students actually get to act out rebellion,” Biancosino said. “They’re playing characters that hate the world they’ve been born into and want something different. The student-actors get to take on personas that act out through violence, sex, drugs, and enlisting in the Iraq war… Even though the music isn’t of their time, the drive to strike out against the status quo resonates with them.”
Now if you were fortunate enough to have been a teen in the 1990s and 2000s, and count yourself a true Green Day fan, don’t get upset that these young, whippersnappers are cramping your grunge-at-heart style. Sure those of us who were coming-of-age 20 or 30 years ago will claim this production of “American Idiot” as “ours.” But the student-actors claim ownership too, as a version of the ’90s and 2000s grunge resurfaces in today’s style.
“I love the music of Green Day,” said Biancosino, reminiscing about how the music formed her teenage years. “When I was listening to the music again, I couldn’t believe how much the songs still hold up and still feel like they have something to say about ‘not being a sheep’… Today there is a retro move in fashion and in music; the ’90s-2000s looks, styles and sounds are popular again right now, and students are connecting to this music.”
It’s true. We asked them.
“Some people in my age group think Green Day is mainstream; cliché punk,” said Will Koch, a sophomore, English and theater major from Milwaukee, Wis. “For me it’s the music of my early childhood… My parents gave me a really broad music background. They were cool with me listening to censored Green Day. When ‘American Idiot’ came out in 2004 (I was 5 going on 6 years old) and I listened to it on repeat. I just loved how it rocked. Lyrically it’s so great… Everything punk is so great.”
“I feel like I’m rediscovering Green Day,” added Emily Ma, a sophomore, political science major from New York City. Ma comes from a classical piano background, which has helped her as the assistant musical director of the show. “This definitely wasn’t my world in middle school, but it is now.”
“Emily has basically been the music director,” said Bierman, who accepted Biancosino’s proposal to work together with The Grift on this show before actually understanding the full scope of the score. “I can’t read music, so when they handed me this,” he said pointing to a thick spiral bound score of the play, “I freaked out.
“On the first day, I was really sweating it,” the Bridport guitarist continued. “But the cast totally blew me away.”
Bierman then had to get his fellow Grift bandmates, Peter Day and Jeff Vallone (also Middlebury College grads), on board.
“Pete and Jeff were probably cursing my name, because I had said yes to Michole before talking to them,” he said, adding that learning this play’s music has been an “incredible amount of work.”
But it’s worth it.
“I honestly believe that when we look back, this will be one of the best things we’ve done in our careers,” Bierman said.
There’s something about this production and this class that elevates the intensity. It’s more than just the sounds of Green Day that’s resonating with these — yeah, let’s say it — straightedge student-actors.
“My character and my world are different,” recognized Ma, who plays “Whatsername,” a love interest of heroine addict “Johnny.” “But the angst is still stemming from the same place. I’m here at Middlebury College, but I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on… Figure out how to become a person… something I empathize with in the play, and something that I’m still working on. It’s all a process of trial and error.”
“I think Michole is really brilliant,” she continued. “I’ve never not felt comfortable in class or rehearsal… When we go to rehearsal it’s first and foremost a place to play, and allow ourselves to dive into the heavy material. I’ve been so surprised by how much it has affected me. It’s surprising, rewarding and difficult all at the same time.”
“It’s so cool to be doing this kind of theater,” said Koch, agreeing with Ma. “As students, we still have so much going on, on top of this production. It’s unique to have the space, where you can just let go head bang, and f-ing sing ‘Holiday’ over and over.”
This is Koch’s eighth production associated with the college music or theater department. He’s also part of the student-led sketch group Middlebury Discount Comedy, which has put up three shows this year.
“‘American Idiot’ is different from what I’ve ever seen or done on campus,” said Koch, who plays “Will,” one of the three main characters who gets left behind in suburbia by his friends, knocks up his girlfriend and sinks into a pot- and alcohol-infused depression. “From that perspective I don’t resonate with him at all,” Koch said. “But it could be reasoned that he wants to be a rock star, and I can relate to that.”
Koch also plays guitar and looks up to The Grift.
“The whole band — they’re so incredibly talented,” he said. “To be able to replicate Green Day’s sound in the manner in which they do, it’s uncanny. They’re really fun guys, too… When we saw their faces and heard their praise after we sang the first song, we knew it was going to be good.”
Middlebury’s production of “American Idiot” features a company of over 30 Middlebury College students. It will be performed on Thursday, May 2; Friday, May 3; and Saturday, May 4; at 7:30 p.m., in Wright Memorial Theatre on the Middlebury College campus. The performance runs approximately 95 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets are $15 for the general public; $12 for Middlebury College faculty, staff, alumni, emeriti, and other ID card holders; and $6 for Middlebury College students. For tickets or information, call (802) 443-MIDD (6433) or visit go.middlebury.edu/arts.
Editor’s Note: Hang on. Not sure who Green Day is? Formed in 1987, Green Day arose from the Northern California underground punk scene and emerged as one of the most popular of the post-Nirvana alternative bands to break into the pop mainstream. Their major-album debut, “Dookie,” sold over 15 million copies and won the 1994 Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance. Ten years later, in 2004, they produced “American Idiot,” an aggressive rock opera that became a surprise success, receiving multiple Grammys and the best critical reviews of the band’s career. In 2009, that album was adapted for the stage into a musical, which premiered on Broadway and expanded the original songs to fuller adapted scores with multiple voices. In 2015, Green Day was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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