Gabrielle McClinton had to dismiss a good deal of formal training in preparing for her role in the touring production of Green Day's American Idiot. McClinton, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, plays the character of Whatsername in the Broadway musical, which is set to open tonight at the Temple Buell Theatre. Seeped in the ways and vocal conventions of traditional theater, McClinton had to let loose in approaching the rock opera. "I had never sung rock," McClinton recalled. "You get to let go of all your technique. You get to free your natural voice."
A coming-of-age tale based loosely on the 2004 album of the same name, American Idiot follows three male protagonists disenchanted and disillusioned with the trappings of modern American culture. In subplots tackling teenage pregnancy, the modern military and the traps of suburbia, the show explores angst and rebellion in a thoroughly modern context.
McClinton says the production (which runs at the Buell from Tuesday, March 6, through Sunday, March 11) recalls the epic themes and rock anthems of other successful rock-to-stage crossovers. The Who's Tommy and the elaborate stage show that's accompanied Roger Waters's live stagings of Pink Floyd's seminal album The Wall have common ties with American Idiot in their scope and musical grandeur, she says.
"I think American Idiot is up there," McClinton declares. "It moves a lot of people in a lot of different ways. I don't think there are many of those kinds of rock-opera pieces out there.... People think they're going to go to a Green Day concert, but there's this incredible story that's told. All the angst and the screaming and rebellion -- through all of that, there really is a beautiful story."
As the anonymous character Whatsername, McClinton serves as a temptation for Johnny, one of the show's main male leads. She shows him the joys and temptations of the big city: They shoot heroin, hit the club scene and get caught up in a passionate affair that has deep and pernicious consequences. She's the inspiration for the previously unreleased song "When It's Time," a siren that makes a flawed character dream of a future unblemished by a corrupt and imperfect world.
It's all the basic grist of the archetypal rock-and-roll story, a drama that stands as a stark exception to the normal Broadway fare.
"It was cool at Carnegie," she notes. "We got to do a lot of different kind of plays. We went from doing Shakespeare to Chekhov. I wanted to bring so much of my technique to this role. But here you have to strip it away -- you just have to bring yourself."
The soundtrack draws from other Green Day work; the material from American Idiot finds a supplement in rare B-sides and material from 21st Century Breakdown. Along with the musical material, McClinton's dense touring schedule (the show will hit Tempe, Dallas, Costa Mesa, Seattle and San Francisco before it wraps up in July) has made the production feel more like a rock tour than a staid Broadway performance. "I really feel like we're rock stars," McClinton says from the production's stop at State College, Pennsylvania. "We're only here for two days."
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