American Idiot at Broadway’s St. James Theatre is set in a post-9/11 landscape in which a disoriented, media-bombarded generation struggles to find itself in a flurry of images and a hard-rocking score that includes every song on Green Day’s American Idiot album, plus a few songs from the more recent 21st Century Breakdown. A hybrid style juxtaposing elements of a rock opera, rock concert, and Broadway musical, American Idiot propels a new level of energy onto the Great White Way.
For the scenic design, Christine Jones (nominated for a Tony) started work as of the very first workshops. “We talked aggressively about the design in order to discover what the physical vocabulary would be,” she recalls. “The ideas came together fiercely and organically from instinct, as we researched the right materials and images.”
Jones designed a single unit set, which remains on stage throughout, inspired by spaces such as a warehouse or a punk rock club like CBGB. “I always felt it was a living/working space, or a collective, with a particular visual vocabulary,” she says, pointing out that the walls are covered with posters, decals, and stickers as one would find in a punk rock club environment. “The posters are printed in more subdued colors so that the projections on the set can be seen. They were consciously designed that way. Closer to the floor, the colors are brighter and more dense. I also thought of a warehouse that could have been a car garage at one time. In New York City, there are repair shops in nooks and crannies,” adds Jones, whose scenic elements support the musical’s plot line of kids moving from the suburbs into the city.
Once the environment was determined, the second part of the evolution was the movement within the set, whose tall walls serve as projection surfaces. “Although the set itself is static, it has to help tell the story of moving from location to location, and it serves as a bus depot, an office, a hospital, an apartment,” says Jones. To add a sense of movement, many of the set pieces are on wheels and appear in different locations, and windows are revealed in the walls when the action moves to the city.
In addition, a scaffolding unit with actors in it tips forward and becomes a bus. “We wanted to create an environment that interacts in a musical way with the choreography,” says Jones. “I started as a dancer. This show is what I have been working toward my entire career, with its interplay and exciting interaction between the movement and the physical world.”
The band is also on stage, with some musicians perched on landings, and a rolling staircase moves the cellist across the stage. “We knew from the beginning that the band would be part of our world,” Jones adds, noting that the costumes also help to establish the various locations. “Every song is a quick-change for the entire ensemble, almost every three minutes.”
A key element of the set is a series of 43 televisions built into the walls and in the speaker stacks (including one that flies in halfway through the show in a shopping cart), allowing both projection and lighting to add even more layers of texture, color, rhythm, and content to Jones’ media-savvy scenic design.
For the full story, including projection, sound, and lighting design of American Idiot, check out the May issue of Live Design.