When we started creating the visual world for American Idiot, there were a few things I wanted to do and a few things I wanted to avoid. I didn’t want to use any light bulbs or fluorescent tubes like I did in the contemporary rock/pop musicals Spring Awakening, Passing Strange, and Next To Normal. Also, when I was designing Hair last year, I set aside aggressive audience blinders and strobe effects, knowing that I wanted to build the design of American Idiot around those kinds of muscular stroboscopic effects.
Also, in calibrating what the rules of our show would be, I made a case to my collaborators that we should avoid the environmental theatre design of many new Broadway musicals like Rock of Ages, Fela!, our work in Spring Awakening, and Spider-Man, which was originally to open the same season as American Idiot, and that we should have all the design and energy of a big rock show contained behind a simple curtain. I thought the visual experience of the show should be more like that of attending an elegant opera house rather than a big rock show, a strategy that would create a surprising experience and immediately subvert the expectations viewers brought with them.
So I tried to keep the rig in front of the curtain minimal and uniformly hung. I didn’t want a ton of stuff that the audience would see right away, other than an elegantly lit, simple red curtain and the big gold frame of the St. James Theatre. The show has the conventions of using the curtain to slowly rise and restore at the beginning and end of the show, much like an opera, and behind the proscenium, the world the curtain reveals is a very muscular rock show full of stroboscopic effects and various lighting instruments pointed back at the audience.
There is also a nice contrast between the minimalism of the simple curtain and the deliberate maximalism of the visual world revealed. Michael Mayer, Christine Jones, and I decided to counter the precisely focused and darkly minimal aesthetic of our work on Spring Awakening with something grand in scale, often with multiple layers of focus. So, there is a 45'-tall space with layers of video projection and playback as well as a galaxy of hidden strobes and LED units pointed at the audience. We hoped that the deliberate clutter of the picture-making would reflect the restless energy of Green Day’s music and would be a departure from our collaboration on Spring Awakening.
In making the show for Berkeley Rep—which we hoped would transfer to Broadway—I used the model of our transfer of Spring Awakening from Off Broadway to Broadway. We essentially took a plot of conventionals and added a layer of movers. I like using this method, instead of starting with a huge detailed plot, because I can sketch in ideas in the first venue and detail them with a more appropriate plot for the transfer.
At Berkeley Rep, the company for which I had also designed the pre-Broadway engagement of Passing Strange, I had a good-sized plot of conventionals along with 11 Philips Vari-Lite VL2416s, seven VL3500Qs, and three ETC Source Four ellipsoidals rigged as followspots. Victor Seastone came to Berkeley to program the show on an ETC Eos, a console with which I have been very happy. When making the plot for the St. James, I cut most of the Berkeley FOH units and layered in another 13 VL3500Q units onstage, three more VL3500Qs FOH, and upgraded the followspots to three Lycian 1293s. I also added two mirror balls, a few smoke effects, more PAR64 strobe units—that the set designer hid in vintage speaker boxes on stage—and some custom strips of small tungsten PARs inset in the floor for “21 Guns” and into the front of the apron for use as audience blinders.
I had lobbied my collaborators for a light frame around the proscenium, and for a while, we were looking for a frame of white LED bars. But we couldn’t find white LED signage in that format, and the RGB versions were too expensive, as was mounting it to the proscenium. The idea then turned into a frame of tungsten PAR lamps, which was still expensive to mount. At the same time, I was working with Brian Ronan to keep a large amount of space free in two boom boxes just offstage of the proscenium, so I could hang a row of strobes there.
Just about the time the plot was due, I went to Madison Square Garden to visit the programmer from the West End production of Hair, and he showed me the Philips Vari-Lite VLX. I was wowed by how bright and quick it was, and that it had white LED light. I immediately called my associate, Aaron Sporer, who was drafting the plot, and asked how many we could fit on the two empty proscenium booms. He figured out he was able to fit 10 on each pipe. So, by adding these, I was still able to get an LED light frame around the proscenium and a superb system of audience blinders. They also light the theatre walls, the performers on stage, and the 45'-tall walls of the set beautifully.
One of the exciting aspects of the LED moving units is that they can strobe between two colors faster than the eye can perceive. Mayer said the opening song, “American Idiot,” could just be a prologue to the show and that we didn’t need to focus on narrative and could roll out the spectacle. So, the 20 VLXs are pointed at the 45' walls of the set, and in between vocal phrases, they quickly strobe in eye-popping combinations such as red/green and blue/red. It is a dazzling, disorienting effect, and I also use it briefly a few more times in the show pointed directly at the audience. During the second section of the opening number, I focus all 20 LED movers on the cast at center stage and illuminate them in a weird brain-melting white LED light. And for the button, the movers roll out and quickly blind the audience.
It’s a beautiful progression and mirrors the movement of the staging of the number, which goes from placing the cast flat against the 45' walls to slowly moving them all the way downstage to the lip of the apron at the end of the opener. It is also a wildly disorienting and multi-focused part of the show and presents our production at its maximalist zenith.
For the full story, including projection, sound, and set design of American Idiot, check out the May issue of Live Design.