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Center Stage

‘Don’t wanna be an American idiot,’ but you’ll wanna see the show


The Des Moines Performing Arts brings “American Idiot,” the music of punk-rock icon Green Day, to Des Moines Civic Center on Friday, Jan. 24, at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, Jan. 25 at 5 and 9 p.m.

The Des Moines Performing Arts brings “American Idiot,” the music of punk-rock icon Green Day, to Des Moines Civic Center on Friday, Jan. 24, at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, Jan. 25 at 5 and 9 p.m.

Josephine Spada, young but already a veteran of New York musical theater, speaks of her role in “American Idiot” with the cool of a professional.

“It’s like being shot out of a cannon!” she says.

Indeed Spada bubbles with excitement throughout our interview. Naturally the actress wants to promote her show, but her artillery metaphor echoes what the New York Times had to say. When “Idiot” opened in 2010, the staid Charles Isherwood declared it “detonates a fierce charge in this ho-hum Broadway season.” He loved the “galvanizing intensity,” and my talk with Spada brimmed with the same unapologetic gushing, words like “cathartic” and “ferocious.”

The ferocity is that of punk rock, in the chart-topping style of Green Day. Billie Joe Armstrong and company conceived the story, in which “Johnny” and two pals struggle not to get broken down into widgets of the military-industrial machine. The songs of that struggle gave us a concept album, released in 2004, which opens with the same outcry as the show: “Don’t wanna be an American idiot!” But the transfer from the iPod to stage required another sort of talent. Enter Michael Mayer.


Mayer was part of the creative force behind “Spring Awakening,” a rock musical that featured a teenage gloom worse than Johnny’s. Yet while abortion and suicide drove the drama, it whipped up such spirited frenzy, the ’06 show captured many awards (it proved a knockout in Des Moines, as well). Mayer however wished for greater frenzy. In “Broadway Idiot,” a book co-authored with Armstrong, he reveals he always wanted to work with Green Day.

Mayer kept the roughhewn sound. Armstrong himself occasionally played St. Jimmy on Broadway, and the band is onstage rather than in the pit. Mayer kept the feel of a runaway train, throwing sparks and making folks jump. Spada calls the show’s demands “total cardio,” but this director also understood that the boy’s club of the album needed to open its doors to women and to moments of quiet.

So Spada’s featured turn comes in a tender interlude, after a girlfriend has discovered herself pregnant. That number, “Too Much Too Soon,” is sung by two girls and two guys (the characters Will and Heather plus two others including Josephine Spada). Throughout, argues Spada, the girls get their say.

“Nobody could ever call this just a show for boys,” she insists. “We’ve got such strong women.” Also the girls get the upper hand during a central number, “Letterbomb.”

This turnabout, like everything else, takes place entirely in song. Mayer’s boldest move was to create a drama almost devoid of spoken words. Other than a couple of Johnny’s letters, in voiceover, “Idiot” presents wall-to-wall punk opera. For American theater, this is a radical break, fundamentally different from the toasty nostalgia served up in jukebox musicals like “Jersey Boys.” For Spada, it’s the show’s greatest gift.

“Everything is grounded in gut feeling,” she claims. “Everything’s cohesive, that way. It comes together to massage your soul.” CV

John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See

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