Imagine David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” as an elaborate stage musical. Or Rush’s futuristic song suite “2112” coming to life on Broadway. Or even the indie-rock classic “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel being adapted by a tiny, free-thinking theater troupe.
Over the last two decades, a small but successful idea has popped up in the theater world: turning rock albums — especially concept albums — into Broadway musicals.
So far, there have been only a few. In 1993, “The Who’s Tommy,” the iconic rock opera, earned 11 Tony nominations and five wins. In 2010, Green Day’s modern rock opera, “American Idiot,” snagged a Tony nod for best musical. This year, Pink Floyd founding member Roger Waters tours with his super-sized multimedia production of “The Wall Live” throughout Europe.
“There’s something very theatrical about rock music,” explains actor Casey O’Farrell, who plays Will in this production of “American Idiot.” “Just watching Queen — they’re very theatric. It makes sense to make a show about their music. You just have to find the right albums or songs to make a story work.”
Of course, rock music has a long a history on Broadway — from “Jesus Christ Superstar” to “The Rocky Horror Show” to jukebox stagings like Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out” and the Eighties-flavored “Rock of Ages.” But concept albums bring Broadway more than just a trove of songs — they also come with built-in stories.
Green Day — long known for its snarling, radio punk rock — took a chance when in 2004 it released “American Idiot,” a sprawling record about politics and disillusionment, with characters named Jesus of Suburbia and St. Jimmy. It ended up going multi-platinum, spinning off hits like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”
The musical version, directed by Michael Mayer and featuring the lyrics of Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong, expands on the album’s story, focusing on three friends: Johnny, Tunny and Will. The first two are fleeing their suburban lives, and the third is staying behind with his pregnant girlfriend. The show is mostly sung-through, with little dialogue, and the main actors play guitar onstage while they sing.
For O’Farrell, the show makes sense. The Nashville native went to college at a New York music conservatory and has starred in a number of musicals: “Rent,” “Footloose,” “Chicago,” “Camelot” and “Grease.” But he also has a rock background, playing lead guitar in a Los Angeles band called Side/winders.
Culture Vultures’ Brent Johnson spoke with O’Farrell about the show, why the soundtrack to a 1994 superhero parody starring Damon Wayans was the first album he bought, and why the lead singer in his band is jealous of his latest role.
Culture Vultures: So you’re from Nashville. Why didn’t you become a country singer?
Casey O’Farrell: (laughs) It’s not really my cup of tea. I like it as far as listening, but I wouldn’t say I’m a country singer.
CV: How did you get into musical theater?
CO: It’s one of those things that kind of fit for me when I was going through those awkward middle school and high school years. In the South, there is a large sports input. I did that, as well. But I was always kind of a weird kid. By chance, I was thrown into a theater class my freshman year. It kind of stuck.
CV: What sport did you play?
CO: I played ice hockey. It was surprisingly big in Nashville.
CV: What was the first album you remember owning?
CO: The first record I bought was the “Blankman” soundtrack.
CV: That’s an odd choice.
CO: I know, right? I grew up with pretty conservative parents. In order for me to get secular music, I had to get soundtracks. They didn’t mind me watching the movie when I was 8 years old. So I could get the soundtrack. I had to be sneaky about getting other music, like Seal, into the house. I had to finagle to listen to “Kiss From a Rose.”
I couldn’t tell you the first real album I bought. Maybe MxPx — some punk album I was into. My brother had (Green Day’s breakout album) “Dookie.” He’s two years older.
When I got my own car, driving to school I’d listen to classic rock radio — ’70s and ’80s rock. I listened to hours of continuous music on radio. But I didn’t know who was who then. When I got cast in this show, I realized I knew the entire album, though I didn’t know it was Green Day. I happened to just learn Green Day without knowing it was Green Day.
CV: Why do you think rock music is becoming a major part of Broadway musicals?
CO: I think there are a couple of things. Rock music has a tendency to be very honest in what it’s saying. I feel a lot of rock bands and artists speak from their hearts more than they write catchy riffs. There’s a lot of heartache, which everyone can relate to. A lot of passion, I think that’s the emotional side.
Also, it’s a lot more fun to watch. It’s pretty basic to say I would much rather go see “Rock of Ages” and watch people scream and dance. There is a shock and awe factor to rock music. It is a spectacle when you see a band play. It brings part of that spectacle into the musical theater world. It’s an exciting thing that hasn’t been touched on as much.
CV: Is it easier to perform in a show like this that is largely sung-through, with little dialogue? Does an actor feel relieved to not have to learn as many lines?
CO: There is some dialogue. But pretty much the only dialogue comes from Johnny. There is a little bit between Will and Tunny.
I think every show poses its own challenges. The ones that are more book-heavy have more influence on lines and scene work. But this show is so intense as far as being a performer — dancing and moving. Storyline is still very important, though. It’s not just a rock show, seeing people sing an album. A lot of story happens.
CV: The show has something in common with a lot of recent Broadway musicals: It’s based on pre-existing material. Think “Mary Poppins,” “A Christmas Story,” “Shrek,” “Annie” — almost every marquee on Broadway features something audiences have already seen. Why do you think there has been a reliance to produce shows based on movies and revivals?
CO: I think it’s kind of where we are in society — the way our culture revolves around media. It’s difficult to capture someone in live theater. We’ve become accustomed to going to movies and seeing TV. There is a sense that live theater has kind of fizzled out a little bit — that it’s not what it used to be. So the producers are going to want to put up something that someone is going to recognize. You can connect “American Idiot” with Green Day. They have millions of fans. Completely original ideas are more difficult to sell.
CV: What is your own band called?
CV: Is he jealous?
CO: It’s like the best-friend-jealous. He couldn’t be happier, but he’s jealous I’m doing something cool. I’ve connected with one of his favorite bands of all time. It’s pretty cool. Who wouldn’t be jealous?
CV: Which album do you think should be turned next into a musical?
CO: I’d love to see someone put together a Muse musical. They’re one of my favorite bands. The spectacle of them on stage would be mind-blowing.
I’ve heard people say Mumford & Sons should make a musical. And I know a lot of people in our cast wish there was a Maroon 5 musical.
You know what I’d like to see? Something on the heavier side of rock? Not screaming, but the Foo Fighters are pretty heavy. Or Silverchair. I’d love to see some musical theater piece that really pushes the boundary.
CV: Do you think people underestimate touring or regional productions of Broadway shows? Maybe they don’t realize that just because it’s not in New York doesn’t mean it’s not nuanced and professional?
CO: I don’t think people realize how much goes into an actual production. Our crew is unbelievable. They have to tear down a set and put it back up in six hours. It’s pretty impressive, the commitment from everyone.
I think unless it’s said on the bill that it’s a Broadway tour, they think it’s a non-talented cast. Something about regional theater gets a bad rap. But we were fortunate enough to have the entire Broadway creative team. We had the Broadway choreographer. We worked with everybody. We were blessed to have creative talent to make our show a really good production.
Performances of “American Idiot” are Jan. 29, 30 and 31 at 8 p.m. at the State Theatre, 15 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick. Tickets are $32-$67, (732) 246-7469. The show contains adult content and strong language (age 15-plus recommended). On Jan. 29, a guest performance by The Ugly Club takes place in the theater lobby at 7 p.m.