One of the first albums Carson Higgins bought was "American Idiot." Now Higgins is starring in the stage adaption of Green Day's 2004 masterpiece, which rolls into Bakersfield for one performance May 20.
"I was in high school. I was delivering pizzas and I got this album and, oddly enough, as I was listening to it, I was like, you know what? This would actually be a badass musical. And then, sure enough, it became one and then a couple of years later I wound up being in it, so it's been kind of a cool full-circle turnaround."
Green Day's game-changing "American Idiot" was a success in every sense: critically lauded, 15 million copies sold, a Grammy for rock album of the year. But some fans couldn't help complaining that the post-punk trio had lost their edge by releasing a clean, mainstream recording that features such easy-on-the-ears pop gems as "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "Wake Me Up When September Ends." The band responded to accusations that they'd sold out by storming Broadway, a decision as unexpected as it was unorthodox -- pretty punk, actually.
A concept album in the tradition of The Who's "Tommy" and Pink Floyd's "The Wall" -- both of which were adapted to film -- "American Idiot" remains pretty faithful to the source material. One of the main themes is the tug-of-war between love and rage -- symbolized by both the album cover and poster illustration of a hand holding a bloody grenade in the shape of a heart -- and another is the common feeling of alienation and disenfranchisement felt by so many, a struggle the 26-year-old Higgins certainly understands.
"Our main three characters --they're very frustrated with their suburban lifestyle. So they go and they try to experience life a little, and these young guys move from our fictional place called Jingletown, which could be different places in America, and move to the city. And this generation of youth, in a way, is underprepared for such a lifestyle change. Like the last 20 years of kids growing up -- I'm in that group -- have had to deal with the future coming into our lives very rapidly."
The musical's three lead characters are named Johnny, Will and Tunny, and each experiences conflicts and challenges with love, drugs, fatherhood, war and loss. But the most fascinating character is that of St. Jimmy, the part played by Higgins.
"St. Jimmy is the enigmatic alter-ego to Johnny, the main character, and he kind of shows up in a time in Johnny's life when he doesn't have his friends anymore; he doesn't have a girlfriend. He's kind of just grasping for straws here, and he meets this guy who's very alive and energetic and cool and dangerous, and just kinda exactly what Johnny was hoping to bump into in that juncture.
"He's not necessarily the best influence on Johnny, but he's the life of the party. He's Dionysius; he's everything."
The role carries a lot of weight -- for a while, it was played by Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong himself -- so the part required a lot of prep work and observation.
"Knowing that Billie Joe played this part for a while can kind of opens up your mind to what's almost expected of you when you play this role: You have big shoes to fill. So if those guys -- the ones who are fans of the album, fans of the band, fans of the show -- know that that's who played this role, I've kinda gotta step up my game, you know what I mean? And give them as much of the band personified as I can."
Higgins toured with "American Idiot" last year as an ensemble player and understudy for the actor who played St. Jimmy, invaluable experience that allowed the actor to study the "Tasmanian devil"-like character before tackling the role himself.
"What's kind of cool about this part is, whoever plays it, that person's personality is kind of intensified and magnified, like 1,000 times. So what naturally happens is when somebody plays this part it kind of becomes the most heightened version of himself, within the parameters of what this guy is ... He explodes into every room that he enters because he's not really from this planet in a way. He's much bigger than any of the other characters on the stage. More powerful."
Though the musical takes place in one setting, the staging never feels stagnant, thanks to the kinetic energy and captivating characters. The production pulls songs from the band's entire catalog, including "21 Guns" from "21st Century Breakdown," outtakes from "American Idiot" and closes with the 1997 hit "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)." The material will resonate with fans of the band, but what about musical theater enthusiasts who have never heard of Green Day?
"It's 90 minutes of pure energy, and it's loud and it's rocking and it's fun as hell, and you're gonna leave the show, hopefully, with maybe a more open mind especially to what's possible with a Broadway musical and maybe a sense of to what's to come in the future."
"American Idiot" isn't the first rock musical presented in the Broadway in Bakersfield series, but Higgins does see a distinction between this production and others, like "Rock of Ages" and "Hair."
"The cool thing about this show is that it's really unlike any other show that has been on Broadway, or is on Broadway, in the sense that I can't think of another punk rock opera."