Alex Nee was a junior and a leading man in college, playing Roger in a Northwestern University production of "Rent." Senior year now is on hold while the 21-year-old is the star of the national tour of "American Idiot," the musical based on Green Day's megahit album.
Casting director Jim Carnahan was in the Chicago area in search of players for "Anything Goes" on Broadway and dropped in to see "Rent." "He came because he had nothing to do, and that's what was playing," Mr. Nee said. The next thing Mr. Nee knew, he had an invitation to audition for another show Mr. Carnahan was casting, the U.K. and U.S. tours of "American Idiot."
"I had seen 'American Idiot' on Broadway as a freshman and loved it. It really opened up the album for me in so many ways. So I was really freaking out to have this opportunity," said the singer-musician, whose guitar playing as "Rent's" Roger must have been a plus.
He was up at 5 the next day because he had five songs to prepare, and a month later, he was in New York, auditioning for the creative team. The callbacks continued for five to six months, he said.
"When they finally told me, 'We want you to be our Johnny,' it finally sort of hit me. And now, here I am."
"Here" was fresh off a tour of the United Kingdom and the beginning of a five-month journey through the States that lands in Heinz Hall Tuesday through next Sunday. He was home in San Francisco last month, thinking about how to pack for winter and spring and not exceed the luggage weight limit, when he reminisced about stepping off campus and into a world tour.
As Johnny, his is the central role among three friends who take divergent paths amid post-9/11, Iraq War-era uncertainty. The power-pop opera "American Idiot," written by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, was a reaction to what he saw as politician- and media-fed misinformation. That album and a few songs from "21st Century Breakdown" provide the hard-driving soundtrack as the young men wade into parenthood, drugs, the military and more. The show is staged within a multimedia punk wasteland.
Mr. Nee became a Green Day fan after listening to "Dookie," the breakout album for the Oakland band that had ruled the California punk scene.
"It's definitely a rite of passage in California. You're either completely in the surfer direction, or hippie, or punk. I went through all of those, and I'd like to think I'm this sort of weird grandchild of all of those."
Green Day's Armstrong was an in-person presence during the musical's yearlong Broadway run (April 2011-12), even stepping into the role of drug-dealing St. Jimmy for a time. The frontman has stepped back these days, releasing three albums in quick succession and battling demons while on tour -- his stint in rehab forced Green Day to postpone a January Pittsburgh concert, which has been rescheduled for March 30 at Consol Energy Center.
There's wonder in Mr. Nee's voice as he describes the process that brought him to Pittsburgh, particularly the first time he performed for director Michael Mayer in New York.
"Actually the first time I went into the room, I didn't know besides Michael Mayer who was going to be in there. So I walked in, did my audition, and I was like, 'OK, cool,' I felt good about it. And then I heard some people talking, like, 'Did you hear that [music supervisor] Tom Kitt's in the room?' He won a Pulitzer; he wrote 'Next to Normal.' And I was like, 'Wait, who was he?' He was wearing a baseball cap backward and he was this chill guy in the corner. I was glad I found out about that after I left."
The plot of "American Idiot" is fluid and energetic, and there's no skimping on the inevitable punk trio of sex, drugs and profanity. Mr. Mayer, who directed the pilot of TV's "Smash," also shepherded the Tony-winning musical "Spring Awakening."
"I definitely feel there is a common sensibility [in the two shows]," said Mr. Nee, who played Melchior in the first college production of "Spring Awakening." "I've done a lot of different kinds of theater -- Shakespeare, Chekhov, the Greeks, whatever. But recently I found myself doing a lot of what people call rock musicals. I think that's where I am as a person, this sort of gray zone that exists at this age, early 20s, trying to get out into the world, and a lot of these shows end up dealing with that -- people who are sort of lost but not exactly sure why. They don't really know what to do with all of this energy and how to find a new voice."
While Mr. Nee connects to that new voice -- the nontraditional methods of storytelling and movement employed by the director and choreographer -- others might find entry points in "American Idiot's" universal themes and radio hits such as "Holiday" and "Boulevard of Broken Dreams."
The actor has noticed a common reaction from audiences, particularly those who are familiar with Green Day.
"More so than just listening to the music, it really validated their sense of uncertainty," he said. "It's not going to answer all these questions or solve war in the Middle East, but it's going to make you feel you are not alone in the sense of not belonging or not being sure, and that's really powerful."
Traveling in the U.K. for the first time, the cast was in "hyper tourist mode," and Mr. Nee would hop a bus to get the lay of the land the first day in each new city. Back in the U.S., Pittsburgh is among the cities Mr. Nee will be visiting for the first time. He hopes to see the "claim-to-fame" sites and take in some of the local flavor in his few days here.
"Usually I like finding those small hole-in-the-wall places and become like a regular for the week. I most enjoy meeting the people because they all have different stories. The more people I talk to, the smaller the world gets, which is really cool."
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.