You read that right: Leslie McDonel is an “American Idiot” actress, certainly not to be confused with the far more prevalent American “Idiot Actress.”
McDonel, who enjoyed early theatre success in the musical Hairspray, is a long-running cast member in another hit show - American Idiot – based on the Green Day album of the same name. Leslie also was in the original Broadway cast of Idiot, sings on the original Broadway cast soundtrack album, and performed with Green Day at the Tony Awards.
In this entertaining conversation with Rock Cellar Magazine McDonel discusses Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, acting, singing and dancing on Broadway, Hairspray’s John Waters, and, even the current debate over contraception.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What’s your theatre background?
LM: For college I went to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and the New School university in New York; I got a BFA in musical theatre, and I now live in Brooklyn.
RCM: What was it like being in the original 2010 cast of American Idiot on Broadway, and which characters have you played?
LM: It was the most exciting experience I’ve had in theatre ever, for sure. I was in the ensemble; we didn’t have names, there were just three girls in the ensemble. We were onstage almost the entire time, dancing, singing, headbanging, thrashing around and acting crazy! Getting to do that amazing choreography. I understudied two of the lead females on Broadway; and now I play one of those roles – Heather.
RCM: For people who may not know the album, or how it was adapted for the stage, tell us about the plot.
The story is based on three male friends, and I am in a relationship with one of them – Will. The three guys plan to get out of town to go chase their dreams in New York City. But right about then I found out that I’m pregnant with our child, and I tell Will and he stays with me. He suffers from depression and is shutting off from me. We’re trying to have this child together and make it work; it’s a struggle.
I leave Will but I don’t leave town. I finally figure out it’s just not going to work, no matter how much I love him. He’s dealing with his own demons and I’m not part of it, and I have to take care of my child. So, I get a new boyfriend.
RCM: Where is this small town supposed to be?
LM: It’s called “Jingletown,” to represent any suburban outskirt in America.
RCM: When you were in the Broadway cast, you met Green Day’s frontman – singer/songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong. What was that like?
LM: He’s amazing! He’s a genius, a punk and a kid, and a passionate musician. I was always a fan of his music, but I didn’t realize until I did this show what a poet he is. His lyrics are just as strong as his music. To interpret them every night was such a gift for me. But then you meet him: he’s so passionate, and works on his music all day. He practices and perfects his craft more than anyone I really ever worked with. He also has that sense of youth and fun to him still – mischievousness, fire and all that.
RCM: And he played one of the characters with you…
LM: He played St. Jimmy. Johnny, the lead male who does go to New York… when he starts wanting more, he finds this alter ego within himself called St. Jimmy – who introduces him to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. All the stuff that feels good right away, but then ultimately destroys him.
RCM: So what was it like performing with Billie Joe Armstrong on the “Great White Way?”
LM: Just like a jolt – a jolt of natural energy and electricity. I felt like as soon as he joined – between his energy and also the audience’s reaction to him – the level of noise that created – together those two things just gave you natural energy. You didn’t even have to try and get to it; it was just there.
RCM: So he wasn’t around in the original cast with you?
LM: He was around a lot at the beginning, because he conceived the show. He didn’t join us though until about a year, 10 months, after we opened.
RCM: Do you professionally play any instruments?
LM: American Idiot was the first time I had to learn some guitar. So now I have those four or five chords down real well!
RCM: Did Billie Joe help you learn how to strum?
LM: No; I mean, I strummed right along with him. But I’d already learned by the time he’d joined the cast. I think he’s a little too busy to be teaching people like me who didn’t know anything about guitar. (laughs)
RCM: How does the play differ from the Green Day album?
LM: It just brings it to life, visually, first of all, but we’re very true to the album. All the songs are in there.
RCM: The musical has additional songs, though, right?
LM: Yes. There’s four songs, I believe, from Green Day’s last album, 21st Century Breakdown. And a couple more added: One B side and one original song never produced.
RCM: And how about the plot. Does the play flesh it out more than the album?
LM: Yes – that’s exactly what it did. Our director, Michael Mayer, came to Billie Joe with the wish that he could bring this album to life, because he was so in love with the album. He also knew Billie had written it as a rock opera, and with that idea in mind.
So the two of them together fleshed out all those details. You know: Whatsername is Johnny’s girlfriend. St. Jimmy is his alter ego – he is the “Jesus of Suburbia.” And he goes to East 12th Street, and he’s at the facility there trying to get a day job at the end. It’s really smart how they did it.
RCM: Besides New York and L.A., where else have you toured with the show?
LM: Since around Christmas, we opened the tour in Toronto… and went to Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Denver. And after L.A., on to Tempe, Arizona — we’ll be on the road until July.
RCM: Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson were at the premiere of the Ahmanson Theatre production. Is there any buzz that they might be interested in producing a big screen version of American Idiot?
LM: I know there was a New York Times article during our Broadway run that Tom Hanks was interested in producing the film. But we haven’t heard anything official yet. It sure seems like he’s a big fan of the show and really passionate about it.
RCM: How are the Manhattan and L.A. productions different?
LM: Basically, it’s the same. The creative team made something amazing on Broadway, and they just took the opportunity to fine tweak a few things they should have done before or ways they could improve it. The set used to be much, much taller where you were looking way up. There’s way more things to look around, instead of concentrating the visuals down on the stage. It was harder to follow the story because your eye was drawn in so many directions. Choreographically, Steven Hoggett only changed a few things.
RCM: Your character, Heather, gets pregnant out of wedlock. Any thoughts on the current debate over contraception, health insurance coverage for birth control, etc.?
LM: I just can’t understand any stance that doesn’t support women and try to help them. The worst thing that can happen is for a child to come into this world without the full support that I am lucky to have experienced. There’s so many children that weren’t wanted – there’s just no way around it. Why would we want to perpetuate that? As for birth control – I just can’t imagine it not being available, to me or to any woman that I know. I mean, the world would just be a different place.
RCM: Certainly more overpopulated.
LM: Yeah! It just seems very unfair, too, that it’s the woman who has to carry that burden most of the time, because we’re the ones who give birth to the child. That’s another thing birth control could help out with when the men just say, “Oh well, sorry.” It’s all heartbreaking to me; we need to help one another.
RCM: American Idiot touches on war issues, like the character of Tunny being maimed in an unnecessary war.
LM: That’s why I love the show so much – it really touches upon so many things our generation deals with. And previous generations. I love when older people come up to me after the show and say, “Wow, every generation has a war.” It’s just so sad that it’s so often, and it’s something we have all come to think of ” being normal.” That it’s our duty, just a part of our life: to go kill people.
RCM: Endless enemies?
LM: Yeah, yeah. Just to think that your child could go murder somebody and that’s a good life for them.
RCM: Or be killed or crippled, like Tunny. Is it supposed to be Iraq or Afghanistan?
LM: I think it’s Iraq, but then we never say it. It’s interpretative, like most of the show.
RCM: American Idiot was originally set during the Bush era, and was that generation’s equivalent to Hair in the ’60s. But we’re in the Obama era now. Is American Idiot already dated?
LM: I don’t think any of these problems – we just, quote unquote, “ended the war” just recently. All of the issues we deal with in the show definitely are not done with Bush.
RCM: Tell us about your previous roles?
LM: I was in the national tour of Legally Blonde. I played Kate and Chutney – you play two roles in that track. My first Broadway show was Hairspray. That was my big break – my first love of just the hard work that goes into being this size of a show.
RCM: Did you happen to meet John Waters, writer/director of the 1988 film the musical was based on?
LM: Yes, I did. I’m a huge fan of his! He’s such a cool, interesting guy. You’re expecting him to be as quirky as his movies, and he’s really just the friendliest person. He’d stand in the wings and applaud for us, without us knowing he was there. A really nice man.
American Idiot plays through April 22 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. Los Angeles. For more info: Center Theatre Group