After winning a 2007 Tony for his moving performance as doomed schoolboy Moritz in Spring Awakening, John Gallagher Jr. was tapped by the show's director, Michael Mayer, for an exciting new project: a stage adaptation of Green Day’s Grammy-winning American Idiot. Floored by the prospect of working with the band’s music, Gallagher immediately accepted. Soon, he was working side by side with Mayer and Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong to transform the album’s frequently referenced “Jesus of Suburbia” figure into the full-fledged character of Johnny, a frustrated suburban twentysomething slacker whose big city dreams are hindered by a nasty drug addiction. In addition to starring in two hot Broadway musicals, Gallagher has proven himself a gifted dramatic actor in the Tony-winning Rabbit Hole as well as off-Broadway productions such as Port Authority and Farragut North. We talked to the versatile Gallagher about Green Day, the legacy of Spring Awakening and whether it’s possible to live a rock star lifestyle while doing eight shows a week on Broadway.
Your character, Johnny, is an unmotivated slacker, yet you’ve already won a Tony in your 20s and are the lead in this huge show. Is it hard to identify with him?
You’d be surprised. For all the success I’ve had at an early age, there’s a very accomplished slacker deep inside of me. I had no trouble relating to that feeling of being inactive and lost. In a lot of ways, he’s an extremely exaggerated and heightened version of myself.
Was it difficult to develop the character with the show’s minimal book?
It was a challenge, but also a joy to have nothing to reference other than the music. We had an amazing opportunity that you don’t get a lot when you develop new work. It felt like we were really building everything from the ground up.
Johnny is the self-proclaimed "Jesus of Suburbia.' What exactly does that mean to you?
He’s kind of smart and has a taste for irony and views himself as being a martyr. He feels he suffers for the sins of his parents and is always looking for someone else to blame, and it usually ends up being his mother and abusive stepfather. This is all very subtextual stuff, but Michael and I decided, with Billie Joe’s assistance, that the truest connection this boy has probably ever known was years ago with his father who passed away.
Were you a big Green Day fan before the show?
I’d been a big fan since I was in the fourth grade and Dookie came out. I remember hearing those songs on the radio for the first time, then I followed their career and was so impressed with the way they push themselves in an era where pop music seems so disposable. Green Day seems to be one of the only bands from their generation that has stayed relevant and pushed themselves further. People want to take them to town for selling out; I don’t really know what that’s about, because if you meet them, they’re incredibly committed people of deep artistic conviction. I think everybody has these emotional watershed moments in their life, and [the release of] American Idiot was definitely one of those for me.