Boulevard of Broadway Dreams: Northwestern senior takes the stage in ‘American Idiot’

Alex Nee as Johnny in “American Idiot.”

Maria Theodore, Reporter

About a month before what would have been the first day of his senior year at Northwestern, Alex Nee stood on a dark stage in Charleston, S.C., black nail polish and guyliner applied. Homework was the last thing on his mind. It was the third preview performance of the first international tour of “Green Day’s American Idiot,” a direct-from-Broadway musical in which Nee plays the role of Johnny, its main character.

The cast had just finished an energy-building, mosh-pit-style pre-show ritual and were taking their places for the first song. “I sort of had one of those out-of-body experiences,” Nee recalled of that moment just before the curtain rose. “I looked up at one guy who was above me, and thought, ‘Two hours ago, he and I were eating barbecue in South Carolina and now we’re about to put on this amazing show that people have traveled miles to see.’”

Nee, a Communication senior currently on leave from NU, will spend the next nine months as the star of the second national, first international tour of “American Idiot,” an adaptation of Green Day’s concept album by the same name. The opportunity arose last fall when the show’s casting director attended NU’s Mainstage production of “Rent,” in which Nee appeared as Roger.

Roger and Nee’s later role as Melchior in “Spring Awakening,” both leads in rock-influenced musicals, were helpful in preparing him for the part of Johnny. “(‘American Idiot’) definitely deals with a lot of darker, edgier topics — the whole sex, drugs and rock and roll thing — which is definitely a side of theater that I’m really attracted to, and I’ve found myself recently being able to do more,” Nee said of the show. This last year feels like it’s all been ramping up to where I am now with ‘American Idiot.'”

While Nee said this tour marks the most major production of his career, it is not his first time performing professionally. After a small role in a third-grade play, Nee’s parents allowed him to audition for regional theater in the San Francisco area. His pivotal acting experience came at 10 years old in a performance of Christopher Durang’s “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You,” which dealt with subjects he had never encountered prior.

“My mom always said she wouldn’t have let me see the play unless I was in it. I got to be exposed to all of this stuff that was really exciting and taboo and made theater really seem like this cool, edgy thing that I got to be a part of.”

Since then, performance in all forms has become Nee’s passion.

Dan Cantor, Nee’s acting professor of two years, said Nee’s numerous talents set him apart from most performers.

“Right from the get-go, he definitely stood out,” Cantor said. “He can sing, he can play the guitar, he can move really well, he has circus skills. There are triple threats — sing, dance and act — Alex is a septuple threat or something like that.”

Cantor says while all these things are important, what really defines Nee is his commitment to the craft.

“He would take the smallest assignment and do it extremely well, and clearly put the time in,” Cantor said. “He’s an incredibly responsible student, a responsible guy, a responsible artist. He’s strong and solid as a person in all ways.”

It was those assignments at NU that Nee said prepared him for the professional world. As the youngest person in the cast, he said a solid work ethic and constant drive to improve have been vital to his success.

“I know a lot of people reference this, but that classically Northwestern mentality of working really hard and not accepting what’s good enough, but going beyond that … definitely helps me get up to the level that other people are at,” he said.

Although Nee doesn’t have a set plan once the “American Idiot” tour wraps up, he said he may try to work on some other projects or even continue with the tour if the opportunity arises. His dream projects include “Cabaret” and the new musical “Once.”

Still, Nee said finishing his NU degree is a priority.

“It’s something I’ve started and definitely want to finish. I just don’t know exactly when that’s going to be.”

Cantor’s predictions for Nee’s future are just as open-ended.

“I often tell students that when you’re pursuing work as an actor, it’s definitely playing the lottery, but certain things give you more tickets,” he said. “If you’re talented that’s a certain number of tickets, if you have connections that’s some more tickets. … Alex has a lot of tickets. So his odds are a little better, maybe, than the average person in pursuit, but you never know what’s going to happen. He’s super versatile. I think that’s his greatest strength.”