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Michael Esper's New Will on Life

The rising young star discusses his role in the hit Broadway musical American Idiot.

Michael Esper
(© Tristan Fuge)
Over the past few years, Michael Esper has made a name for himself in such plays as subUrbia, The Four Of Us, Manic Flight Reaction, Crazy Mary, and Me Myself and I. But he has now taken a new direction in the Tony Award-nominated Broadway musical American Idiot, featuring the music of rock supergroup Green Day, in which he plays Will, a suburban teenager who gets his girlfriend pregnant and spends his days stoned, drunk, and watching television. TheaterMania recently spoke with Esper about this groundbreaking project.

THEATERMANIA: So, is this your first musical?
MICHAEL ESPER: I sang in subUrbia and in a show I did with The Civilians, but I've never done a real musical like this before. It's completely new to me and a totally different way of working. You have to approach the score in the way you would any other text in terms of creating an arc and identifying the actions, but the form is a lot stricter in certain ways. You have to find a way to have it seem as if things are happening organically, but within strict tempo, choreography and pitch. It's much tighter than in a straight play. Even the rehearsal room was something I had to get used to. There were a lot of cameras all around -- every time we did a run through there was some kind of audience. The challenge was keeping the room feeling like a place where you could still play and try things out, rather than like a place where you had to perform.

TM Were you a Green Day fan before working on the show?
ME: I knew the CD American Idiot and always loved the band, but it's different now. I definitely have a new level of appreciation not just for this record but for them as artists. Living inside these songs for this amount of time has been amazing; I've learned how much the songs can hold, and how they be stretched and built in the way we've been doing it. One thing I realized early on was that the music could support anything I brought as an actor. If I am feeling off or in my head, all I have to do is listen and the music will carry me through and bring me to where I need to be.

TM: Is it a challenge to play a character who is confined to the couch for a lot of the show?
ME: He's restricted in that he's stuck on the couch, but it's a great problem as an actor to work on. His action is internal, and there are things that happen to him while he's stuck. He lashes out, he self-medicates, makes a joke out of it, or tries to connect with somebody else: those are all different ways to deal with the condition of paralysis.

Michael Esper and Mary Faber
(© Paul Kolnik)
TM: Perhaps the biggest moment you have is the dance you have with Mary Faber, who plays your girlfriend. Is it as dangerous as it looks?
ME: We really go at it! It's fun and emotional; Mary and I are constantly checking in with each other about it, trying to keep it as safe as we can while still keeping it messy. Steven (Hoggett, the choreographer) likes it best when it looks like it could fall apart at any moment. He doesn't like it when it looks too perfect or formal; he wants it to be visceral and messy.

TM: Did you know how high-profile the show would be when you signed on?
ME: I knew the show would get attention because of the band, but I had no real idea how much. So it's been like one amazing surprise after another. Even apart from the experience of doing the show, which has been its own ride, there's been going to see the band live and getting to know them, and the beautiful surprise of how supportive they have been. Recording with them in the studio, being on the Grammys, recording the cast album at Electric Lady -- it's overwhelming at times. I spend my day off processing everything that's happened.

TM: What kind of response do you get from the audience?
ME: Having done a lot of theater, one thing that is exciting for me is coming out of the stage door and seeing a lot of teenagers. That's a real thrill. There are so many kids hanging out who say it is their first Broadway show, and their parents are just as enthusiastic. It's nice to know that the show can work for all different kinds of people. I feel like it starts a generational conversation because the show captures things about youth culture. I think shows should lead to conversations. That's a huge part of what we're trying to do.