February 27th: What the F**k? Three Rock Stars Left “American Idiot”

I haven’t really had the chance to sit down and process Sunday night yet this week.  I’ve been busy, but I’ve also been having trouble finding the words to describe what it was like to be there.  I know there aren’t many people who are going to understand this and I’m probably going to garner a lot of confused looks, but I know at least a few people will just get it (because they’ve already told me so).   

I remember feeling a mixture of relief, sadness, and joy on both Sunday night and then also all day Monday. American Idiot didn’t close on Sunday night, but it sure felt like it should have.  No, not because Billie Joe Armstrong had left the cast.  That was the last thing on my mind.  Armstrong is a fantastic performer and brought the show to a new level and he was fantastic to watch, but I’d been watching these two actors, John Gallagher Jr. and Michael Esper, develop their characters, Johnny and Will, since Berkeley.  And now they’re gone and the show will not be the same.  (I will always remember asking Michael Esper at the party after the first preview how he was going to maintain his energy level 8 times a week and he replied, pointing to the cheese whiz, “This is how! Cheese Whiz!”)  I don’t think either of them will (or should) come back. They’re both extraordinarily talented individuals –actors – who’ve never once had a problem feeding themselves – they have always book gigs, and rightly so.  I arrived on 44th Street as the matinee crowd was disbursing and was able to get a pretty decent shot of Michael Esper, who was one of the only cast members to come out afterward and he signed and took pictures for a good twenty minutes.  

The lottery that night was packed, easily, with 300 people.  I was thankful that I already had my ticket. There was an air of excitement and anticipation around the theatre last Sunday, one that I haven’t felt at the St. James since the first preview or opening night.  I’d venture to say that 80% of the audience was at the theatre that night for those two gentlemen, and the other 20% were there for Billie Joe Armstrong, unaware of what they were getting themselves in to.  I was happy to be in Row A of the orchestra on the right side.  I had a few friends spread around the orchestra and mezzanine, so even though I was sitting by myself, I still felt as though I was in good company.  I was nervous for the amount of screaming there was going to be and betting on rock concert-level screaming. 

I was right. 

From the moment the lights went down the sound cues played, people screamed.  In the early days (meaning Berkeley and previews), the very first moments of the show tended to make me tear up.  This had stopped after the 3rd or 4th time I saw the show, but on Sunday night, they were back.  I didn’t cry, but I had tears in my eyes.  This was it.  After American Idiot ended and Gallagher popped himself up on his bed, he had to wait a good minute before starting for the screaming to stop.  Once he introduced Will (Michael Esper), there was another lengthy applause because this was Esper’s final introduction.  His grin was beaming.  I felt a little guilty when Stark Sands (who plays Tunny and who wasn’t leaving that night) didn’t command as much applause, but I’m sure he didn’t feel bad.  The first bit of improv was during “Jesus of Suburbia” when Tunny “drives” to Will’s (couch) and said “I fucking love you guys!” instead of his usual first line during their first physical interaction. 

From there on out there was a ton of pandering to the both of them, screaming from the audience, but my favorite bit of improv was during Favorite Son.  I like the song Favorite Son from the original album but I really don’t enjoy it immensely onstage so I always revert my attention to Will’s couch, which happened to be directly in front of me.  Instead of rolling up a towel and shoving it down his jeans, as usual, Esper pulled out an actual dildo to the surprise of his two friends and teased them with it.  It was unexpected and hysterical.  The three of them were unable to contain their laughter for the rest of the song.  Armstrong, of course, also received copious amounts of applause during his entrance once the song “St. Jimmy” ended (after which, still in a frozen mostly-black out, he held a little sing-back of one of his usual, “AY-O!”).  The audience was happy to sing back. 

The show didn’t come down again and become exceedingly emotional until “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”  Gallagher took his time moving from lying on the floor to getting to his knees, all while clearing the spit and dirt from his face and out of his mouth before starting (one of) his final letters.  I’m quite certain that as the cast walked out onto the stage that night, they knew what they were looking at in the house – at least in their minds – not the WTC falling on 9/11, or any other horrendous act – they were starring at the end of the era for the show.  Esper strummed so violently on his acoustic that he lost his pick at one point and had to scramble to get another one out of the holder on the back of the guitar.  I thought he was going to snap a string with the way that he was strumming.  He also had tears streaming down his face from the first chord until the end which almost made me tear up again. 

The rest of the show went off without a glitch, a lost high note, or anything else unpleasant.  The audience was on their feet as soon as the curtain was done, before the lights went up, and the flowers flew from every direction of the orchestra.  Armstrong did not make the encore about him leaving the show at all, and if you hadn’t known better, you would’ve thought that he’d be back onstage on Tuesday night.  I don’t know Armstrong, obviously, but it’s little things like that which make me think he’s a great person.

As the audience filed out of the theatre and flooded 44th Street, I felt a sense of relief that it was over.  I was happy to have been there but emotionally wrecked, so the fact that it was over was probably a positive thing.  I stayed within the vicinity of the theatre waiting to meet up with a few friends and just watched, and took a few pictures, of the insanity.  My friends eventually found me amongst the craziness and around the corner we went for drinks.  What we’d just seen was almost-incomprehensible and now alcohol was a necessary evil. 

So, a thousand words later, I think I’m done trying to capture this night through the written word.  Here’s a link to about half of the pictures I took, and click here for the video of the finale.  

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