Period pieces: ‘American Idiot,’ ‘Sweet Charity’

Rock opera examines post-9/11 America; Neil Simon musical captures '60s

  • 27IDIOT-jpg

    A scene from the ‘American Idiot’ on its award-winning set.


  • A scene from the ‘American Idiot’ on its award-winning set.
    A scene from the ‘American Idiot’ on its award-winning set.

    There's something for everyone on Toledo stages Sunday. In the contemporary theater corner is the rock opera American Idiot, based on a 2004 album by the pop-punk band Green Day, at the Stranahan Theater for two shows. And at the Valentine Theatre is the classic musical Sweet Charity, which debuted in the 1960s.

    Both musicals have Broadway credentials. American Idiot was nominated for three 2010 Tony Awards, including best musical, and won two, for Best Scenic Design and Best Lighting Design. In 2011 it won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.

    Sweet Charity, in its 1966 Broadway debut was nominated for 12 Tony Awards, winning for Bob Fosse's choreography.

    And both have talented people behind them. Sweet Charity has music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, and book by Neil Simon, and was directed and choreographed for Broadway by Fosse. American Idiot has the music of Green Day and lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong, the band's lead singer. The book is by Armstrong and Tony winner Michael Mayer (best direction in 2007, for Spring Awakening) and directed by Mayer.

    To some extent, both reflect their times, the rebellious ’60s for Sweet Charity, and post-9/​11 for American Idiot. 

    ‘American Idiot’

    American Idiot's sex-drugs-and-war storyline is about three friends in post-9/​11 America — they are young, confused, aimless, and frustrated with their uneventful lives in a suburb called Jingletown.

    "The main character, Johnny, and his two best friends, Will and Tunny, decide that they've had enough of living in this town, where they spend their days hanging around in a 7-Eleven parking lot and drinking beer," Carson Higgins, the actor who portrays St. Jimmy, said in a telephone interview. (Higgins might be familiar to fans of American Idol — he got into the top 50 of Season 10 of the TV show and appeared on TV "a little bit," which made his family and friends happy and earned him some fans.)

    Johnny decides he and his friends should head for the big city and better lives, but things fall apart quickly. Will finds out his girlfriend is pregnant, so he decides to stay home and help raise the baby. And Tunny chooses to join the military. That leaves Johnny alone in the city, where he finds a girlfriend they call Whatshername, and where he soon falls victim to addiction via the drug-dealing St. Jimmy.

    "The album American Idiot came out just a few years after 9/​11, and [I think] Green Day had become frustrated with the state of America and the way the media was portraying the war in the Middle East, [and] that Bush-era post-9/​11 fear and frustration in the American psyche," Higgins said.

    Now, 10 years after the album debuted, the show could be considered a period piece in some ways, but its themes of the effects of war and our media-saturated lives resonate today.

    The musical's set has a backdrop of 37 television sets, Higgins said, and at the top of the show, "everyone on stage is staring at these TVs, and then the song starts, American Idiot, and people onstage start turning off the TVs and turning away, and they start singing, 'I don't want to be an American Idiot."

    American Idiot continues to resonate because "we're still dealing with the effects of the war the show is talking about, and we're still fighting, and have a lot of the same fears, and the way it's all been portrayed in the media is still present," Higgins added.

    "American Idiot," presented by the Theater League, will be performed at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Tickets range from $63-$38 and are available from 419-381-8851,, or the box office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. 

    Nathan McVicker as Oscar and Jessica Evans as Charity in ‘Sweet Charity.’
    Nathan McVicker as Oscar and Jessica Evans as Charity in ‘Sweet Charity.’

    ‘Sweet Charity’

    The musical, with book by Neil Simon and choreography by Bob Fosse, and starring Fosse's wife, Gwen Verdon, premiered on Broadway in 1966, and hasn't stopped — an Internet search turned up shows this month in Ottumwa, Iowa, and Greensboro, N.C., as well as Sydney, Australia, and Bury St. Edmunds in the United Kingdom. And it's at the Valentine Theatre on Sunday as part of its Broadway series.

    The plot: Charity Hope Valentine, a dancer in a seedy Times Square dance hall, the Fan-Dango ballroom, is nothing if not an optimist. She has bad luck with men until she meets Oscar, who wants to marry her. She lies about her profession, telling him she works at a bank. But Oscar eventually discovers the truth and ends their relationship. This disaster doesn't stop Charity from hoping for happiness, someday.

    The show's hit songs include "(Hey) Big Spender,' "If My Friends Could See Me Now," and "I Love to Cry at Weddings."

    Sweet Charity continues to entertain "because of the dancing and the storyline," Robert John Biedermann, company manager for the tour stopping here, said in a phone interview. "It has a bittersweet ending, but [Charity] finds the sweetness in that."

    The musical is set in the 1960s, but Sweet Charity resonates today because the spirit of rebellion that was a big part of those years continues, and so has the importance of music in people's lives, Biedermann added.

    Biedermann will be behind the scenes but also onstage in a role in Sweet Charity. He has been an actor for 36 years, portrayed a character in 11 national tours, and was company manager as well for five of them. He played the Wizard in a tour of The Wizard of Oz for three nine-month tours, visiting 193 cities and giving 601 performances, from 2008 to 2011. "I've been on the road more than I've been off it," he said, adding that this is his third time at the Valentine.

    "Sweet Charity" will be presented by Boebe Productions at the Valentine Theatre, 400 North Superior St., at 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $66 to $46, from the box office at 419-242-2787 or

    Contact Sue Brickey at