Jewish Whiz Meets “American Idiot”by Pat Launer May 1, 2013
By Pat Launer
The knockout, hyperkinetic, multimedia rock musical “Green Day’s American Idiot” is about disaffected millennials who can’t wait to break out of suburbia and break away from their parental constraints. But that isn’t at all the story of the touring show’s music director.
Though Evan Jay Newman is of millennial age, his path has been anything but disillusioned or dissatisfied.
At 26, he claims to have “19 years in the industry. I was one of those dreaded child actors!”
Newman grew up in the central New Jersey town of Marlboro, which had “a rather large Jewish population.” Both his parents were from Brooklyn, but they’re still living in Marlboro, where Newman’s brother also returned, after he married. (The affable younger Newman is not currently in a relationship. “Any single female readers of the Jewish Journal?,” he quips).
His mother is Lebanese, Eastern Orthodox by religion. His father is Jewish.
“I was converted at birth,” Newman reports. “And just after my bris, my mother started her own conversion, which was a long process, since we belonged to a Conservative synagogue.”
His family history is all about determination and perseverance.
“My father’s grandfather came to America with his cousin, after they were drafted into the Russian army during the Russo-Japanese War. They came from the Pale of Settlement. When they were somewhere near the Sea of Japan, they decided to desert. They basically walked and hopped trains across Asia and Europe until they reached the English Channel and got on a ship to England, which is where he met my great-grandmother.
“When they arrived in America, our last name was actually Nachus (meaning ‘joy’), but they couldn’t spell it at Ellis Island and said, ‘Well, I guess we’ll just call you the New Man.’”
Newman’s father (“one of those ‘Follow your dreams’ people”), a pharmacist like his father before him, made a midlife decision to go back to school; at age 65, he just completed a master’s degree in psychology and is now working with troubled youth, “people dissatisfied with their lives.”
The Jewish journey
Newman went to the mikvah when he was 4, to complete his conversion. At age 18, he made a Birthright trip to Israel, which was a significant experience for him.
“It’s important for young Jews — and all Jews — to go to Israel,” he says. On his next break from the national tour of “American Idiot,” he hopes to become a chaperone for a Birthright trip.
On several occasions, he considered becoming a rabbi.
“There were times in my life when I would walk to synagogue for services while the rest of my family went about their regular Saturday routine. The same goes for fasting on Yom Kippur. As an adult, my friends and I used to host an interfaith Seder, which I thought was a great way to tell the story of Passover to new people.
“My own rabbi was a strong force in my development into who I am today. Rabbi George Schlesinger was the reason I kept going to synagogue [Congregation Ohev Shalom in Marlboro]. He was a kind, intelligent man and a fantastic teacher. Someone you could go to as a confidant. His sermons were wonderful; he was an incredibly charismatic storyteller. He could take stories in the Torah and Talmud and make them relevant to our lives. He also emphasized the ethical strain, which helped me find my own ethical system within a religious context. Of course, he officiated at my bar mitzvah.”
With his excellent musicality and musical memory, Newman can still call up his Torah portion (“Lech L’cha”).
“I think that ultimately, Rabbi Schlesinger was an influence in why I’m in theater. Theater is storytelling. I’m a storyteller, and that’s a very Jewish thing. It’s a big part of who we are. We come from an oral tradition, from the Torah to retelling the Passover story.
“It was natural that at some point I’d look into rabbinical school. One time was at the end of middle school. Another was while I was in college at New York University [the esteemed Tisch School of the Arts]. I thought, it was music for me, or the rabbinate.”
The musical journey
Newman’s musical training started early. He began tickling the ivories at age 4, “but my parents made me wait until age 8 to start piano lessons.” At the same time, he was taking acting classes. At age 5, he saw “Les Miserables” and said, “I wanna be THAT kid!” By age 9, he was in his first professional production (“The Who’s Tommy”) at New Jersey’s esteemed Paper Mill Playhouse.
“My mother was terrified of this industry,” Newman admits. “It’s not very stable — that could be the grossest understatement of my life! My parents were supportive, but they were wary of the challenges of a life in the theater. They’re still very supportive — and still wary!”
Newman has continued to act, at the same time he employs his musical expertise.
“Music and acting have always gone hand in hand for me. That’s why I enjoy musical directing; I interact with actors and help them make a musical moment work.”
During that planned layoff this summer (he’s contracted through mid-June; this tour continues through 2014), he may do some acting in summer stock. Or go to Italy. Or chaperone that Israel Birthright trip. The options are open, in this and other elements of his life.
“I want to go as long as I can without making a choice between acting and musical directing. And also writing.
He’s writing poetry now, and he composed an educational musical, “The Oregon Trail: The Game: The Musical” (co-written with Lauren Ford), which introduces children to history. He’s currently working on another musical, with David John Madore.
Newman created a song cycle, “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” a title borrowed from Mindfulness guru John Kabat-Zinn and “an old philosophy I do believe in. It’s all about ‘You can go to any city or country, but you can’t make any real changes until you look at yourself.’
“That relates very much to ‘American Idiot’ — knowing who and where you are.”
Which brings us back to the show at hand.
“Green Day’s American Idiot”
The album of the same name, a rock opera, was released by the punk rock band Green Day in 2004 and was hailed by Time magazine as a “masterpiece.” It sold more than 12 million copies and was named Rock Album of the Year.
The through-sung stage musical (meaning little or no dialogue) was written by Green Day’s vocalist/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong and director Michael Mayer (who’d helmed another magnificent rock musical, “Spring Awakening”). The score included all the songs from the “American Idiot” album and additional Green Day creations.
The story, expanded from the concept album, centers on a trio of discontented young men. Johnny and Tunny flee their stifling suburban life in “Jingletown, USA” and land in the Big City, while Will stays home to work out his relationship with his pregnant girlfriend, becoming a young father and never leaving home. Tunny is quickly disappointed with life in the city, realizing that his generation has become so numb and apathetic that nothing, not even the bright lights of the city, can excite them. He enlists in the Army and is shipped off to war in Iraq. In the city, spiky-haired Johnny finds nihilism, heroin, the love of his life and a part of himself, all embodied in the shady, seductive, Mephistophelian drug dealer St. Jimmy. After a time, Johnny loses his love and nearly his life.
Ultimately, the three realize the only place for them to pursue a better future is back at home. Each returns, further along on the path of becoming a man in control of his own destiny.
“Billie is an incredible writer,” Newman says of Armstrong’s work. “A level of poet we don’t see too often.”
During performances of this first national tour, which began in July 2012, Newman conducts the actors and the six-piece band, playing keyboards and accordion, which he had to learn for the show.
When the musical had its premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2009, MercuryNews.com called the production “a thrashing collage of songs fused together with hypnotic movement and eye-popping visuals … as compelling as it is abstract … channels the grungy spirit of punk while also plucking at the heartstrings.”
By the time it got to New York in 2010 (where it ran for 422 performances), Charles Isherwood of The New York Times was cheering, calling it “a pulsating portrait of wasted youth that invokes all the standard genre conventions … only to transcend them through the power of its music and the artistry of its execution.. The show is as invigorating and ultimately as moving as anything I’ve seen on Broadway this season. Or maybe for a few seasons past.”
The show was nominated for three Tony Awards, including Best Musical (it won for Best Scenic Design and Best Lighting Design of a Musical). In 2011, “American Idiot” snagged a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.
San Diego will see the acclaimed London cast. The Evening Standard praised the “brilliant singers … many of the songs have never sounded better … [the] show [is] full of energy and imagination … You’d be an idiot not to attend.”
“This cast is fantastic,” Newman concurs. “Their youth, energy and passion really catapult the show into the stratosphere. They’re fantastic singers and personalities. Many of them are just out of school themselves, just leaving home after college, seeing what the world is like.
“The great thing about this show,” he continues, “is that it’s theater for all types and ages: music fans, musical theater fans, Green Day fans. We’re doing something very different here. It’s not your typical book musical. You watch three young men take this journey. It can speak to anyone. One of my favorite things about this show [and he’s been involved with at least 10 musicals during his career], is how different people get different things out of it. It definitely sparks conversation and lets you personalize it. Anybody who is a millennial or has a millennial child or friend, or can relate to disenfranchisement and dissatisfaction with life, can find something here.
“In some ways, it represents a very Jewish way of thinking: questioning your life, your own and your parents’ expectations. Jews question everything, including the Torah and God’s will.
“Everyone can understand the temptation to rebel against your background or The Establishment. Every person has to try to find their place in the world. In the end, it’s a story about responsibility and accountability.
“And there’s another very Jewish idea in the show: there’s no definite end. It’s an ongoing journey of self-discovery. These boys are trying to live the best way they know how. And isn’t that what we all keep trying to do?”
“Green Days’s American Idiot” runs May 28-June 2 at the San Diego Civic Theatre. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. For tickets, call (619) 570-1100 or go to www.broadwaysd.com.