Author: Steve Bell
The stage adaptation of Green Day’s American Idiot album is coming to Brisbane, and the two real life rockers playing antihero St Jimmy — Chris Cheney and Phil Jamieson — talk to Steve Bell about transitioning from one type of stage to another. Cover and feature pics by Terry Soo.
For many years East Bay punks Green Day relished their typecasting as snotty-brat teens, espousing the virtues of anti-values like apathy, self-loathing and narcissism with a scathing humour that suited their high-octane pop-punk perfectly.
As time passed, however, and they became a massive deal on the world stage, both their music and their world view matured to the point where their 2004 seventh album American Idiot — a sprawling conceptual piece penned by frontman Billie Joe Armstrong — was lauded upon its release for its articulate appraisal of the various malaises afflicting post-9/11 suburbia. It peered presciently at how the typical troubles associated with youngsters coming of age were being exacerbated by both insipid government and the corporations controlling mass media — magnified by a general all-pervading sense of disillusionment and lethargy — with these forces combining to potentially push a whole generation off the rails.
It was an ambitious move by Green Day (and Armstrong) but one that paid handsome dividends, reviving the band’s career and leading to a stage musical adaptation of American Idiot that opened on Broadway in 2010, winning two Tony Awards. It took all of the songs from the American Idiot album— as well as a few from 2009 follow-up 21st Century Breakdown — and moulded them into a compelling narrative, one as pertinent now as it was back when the songs were penned.
Now Brisbane theatre company, shake & stir, are bringing an exclusive Australian production of the “punk rock opera” to QPAC, and for the pivotal role of St Jimmy (at times performed by Armstrong himself on Broadway) they’ve tapped two genuine Australian rock stars — Chris Cheney (The Living End) and Phil Jamieson (Grinspoon) — to play the character in separate stints, but both of whom are currently preparing together to inhabit this somewhat nefarious character.
“Whether St Jimmy is a saint or not depends on your definition of saint,” Jamieson reflects, “but I don’t think so — he’s a villain. He’s the musical villain.”
“That’s what drew me to the idea of actually being able to pull the role off, I think, I don’t have to go outthere and play Mr Nice Guy,” Cheney smiles. “I can just dig the heels in a bit, and get a bit gritty with the character. He’s the one who sort of leads the lead character Johnny down the path of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.
“[Johnny] starts out as this squeaky clean kinda teenager, and then you see his descent into debauchery. So there’s some pretty harrowing scenes: for all of Green Day’s crazy, kinda wacky punk image, there’s some really dark lyrics in there.
“It covers universal themes but also correlates back with what’s going on in America right now, with the madman at the controls, it’s like history almost repeating itself. But there is that timeless theme in the musical, with these kids trying to get out — trying to escape and find a better way — and tripping up wildly.”
Both Cheney and Jamieson were well acquainted with Green Day when American Idiot first came out — especially Cheney, given that The Living End supported them on the Australian Insomniac tour in 1996 — but both remember being taken aback by the album’s strength.
“I loved the record when it was released, I thought it was really, really impressive back in the day,” Jamieson gushes. “I went and saw the tour — I think from memory old mate here [points at Cheney] might have got up and ruined a song with them when I saw them, a Clash song. In the wrong key. But I was really impressed by it.”
“They were in the wrong key, I wasn’t,” Cheney laughs. “So I thought it was their best work,” Jamieson continues mischievously.“I mean I loved [GreenDay’s 1994 breakthrough third album] Dookie — so did the world — and then Green Day did what they did and I sort of wandered off. I guess you can become a bit complacent about acts after a while, you go, ‘I know your tricks, I know those bits, ‘ but then they brought [American Idiot] out and I was, like, ‘Wow, okay, I don’t know all your tricks. It’s a really, really impressive record.”
“Billie Joe’s always been a huge fan of The Who and rock operas and all that — he’s got a Jesus Christ Superstar tattoo on him — so it’s kind of cool that a writer like that could embrace it and put it into the form that he did,” Cheney reflects. “It’s a cracker of a record. It’s not easy to write songs that are linked — it’s like the second side of Abbey Road [by The Beatles] or something, the way that all of the songs were linked together.I love that sort of thing, it’s like the nutty professor or something, but it’s not easy to do.”
Both leads are really looking forward to their first major theatrical experience, even if they’re a tad overwhelmed by the quality of the Australian cast around them.
“I’m not an actor — obviously — and what I found when I came here is that the cast are all ‘triple threats’, for want of a better term — they can sing really well, they can dance really well and they can act really well,” Jamieson tells. “So it became a bit of thing where I was fairly terrified going to rehearsa l— I think I might have psyched myself out a bit. But it’s very daunting. And the piece is also quite challenging. It’s great, though, it’s really fun and it’s really quite a moving piece — it’s definitely not 42nd Street, it’s more like Les Mis. It’s sad, there’s some really, really moving parts.”
“I haven’t performed in theatre since Year 12 drama but I tell you what, though; I reckon I’m always acting when I’m on stage anyway!” Cheney laughs. “I’ll see some footage back and go, ‘Who the fuck is that guy?’ So while I do think that this acting caper is a stretch for the two of us, obviously, maybe it’s not that much of a stretch. I feel like when you get on stage I become this other thing anyway, and we’re playing the kinda rock’n’roll guy in this show so it’s not really a huge leap.”
And both of these acting newbs are at pains to point out that you don’t need to be a veteran theatre lover to dig American Idiot. “It’s not just for the theatre goers, it’s for the rock’n’roll fans,” Cheney stresses.
“It’s definitely worthy and will be a lot of fun,” Jamieson agrees. “It will be loud and they will be serving alcohol, but it will be in a theatre. And there’s some really funny theatre moments in the performance which are a bit kitsch — which I love — then there’s some full-on rocking out and some dark, incredibly moving moments as well. I can’t wait.”
Both of the rockers playing St Jimmy believe that there’s alot more discipline required for acting than when they’re on stage playing music with their bandmates.
“In my first run-through I put my wrong hand on something, so that destroyed the whole piece,”Jamieson recalls. “So I’m trying to get my head around staging, and being really disciplined about where I put my feet.”
“Yeah, in a rock band — especially my band anyway — I can kinda go off on a tangent, and the other guys will just follow,” Cheney continues. “Here, those other 20 kids in there are not going to follow if we decide to mix it up halfway through a tune! Nor would the band!”
Jamieson — who takes over as St Jimmy after Cheney’s run concludes — has been in the fortunate position of seeing a full run-through, and was floored by the calibre of the cast.
“It’s pretty impressive — they don’t hit any bum notes, not that I’ve heard,” he marvels.“They leave that to us. They never hit a bum note, which is annoying, and they know all their choreography and they’re always right… It gives me the shits. But they’re actually incredible, just seeing how well the cast act it out and how well they sing it, and how much emotion they put into it — that’s worth the ticket price alone, regardless of us douchebags.”