|Gabrielle McClinton (Whatserame) and Van Hughes (Johnny) in “American Idiot.” (Doug Hamilton photo)
“West Side Story” had Anybodys. “American Idiot” has Whatsername. “West Side Story” fans know that tomboy Anybodys moves from a Jets groupie to a genuine gang member trying to safeguard Tony.
By contrast, Whatsername grows from a drug-taking girlfriend to a liberated woman taking steps to determine her own destiny.
Gabrielle McClinton, who is playing Whatsername on the national tour of “American Idiot,” recently spoke to the Banner about her budding career, her plum part, and the Broadway hit, which runs at the Boston Opera House Jan. 24-29.
If Whatsername eventually begins to carve out her own life’s journey, McClinton has already begun to do the same. A graduate of both the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and Carnegie Mellon School of Drama with a BFA in music theatre/acting, the 22-year-old Los Angeles native — now based in New York City — already boasts an impressive resumé.
Her musical credentials include such shows as “Annie,” “Hairspray” and “The Music Man” at MUNY in St. Louis and “West Side Story,” “Oliver” and “The Producers” at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.
Her favorite prior to the national tour was “The Producers,” in which she sang and danced in the numerous ensemble sequences.
“We were on stage a lot,” she said. “We had a lot to do. It was really thrilling.”
At Carnegie Mellon, she performed in “Floyd Collins” and “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” and even acted in the Suzanne Lori Parks play “In the Blood” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (the fairy queen Titania).
Very committed to developing her talents in musicals and plays, she has had master classes with the likes of composer Steven Schwartz (“Wicked”) and actors Phylicia Rashad (“A Raisin in the Sun”) and Patrick Wilson (“The Full Monty”). McClinton has also studied such dance styles as ballet, African, jazz, modern and tap.
“American Idiot,” as her debut in a national tour, marks a new challenge for the busy young performer. Speaking of the role of Whatsername and the musical, she observed, “It’s a really intense journey (for her character among others). It’s super intense. The emotions are at their fullest intensity at all times.”
Make no mistake about McClinton’s responses to the challenge. She is fully embracing the experience of the tour. “I’m learning new things about her (Whatsername) every night,” she says.
McClinton gives high marks to Whatsername. “She doesn’t care what people think,” she noted. “She’s so liberated and so passionate. She gives herself to others and she cares a lot.”
At the same time, she added, “There are so many different levels. She’s so hurt. She does love Johnny.”
When Whatsername’s boyfriend Johnny remains addicted to drugs and unable to break free from them, she realizes that she must set forth by herself. “I think a lot of girls will relate to this,” she said. “She’s trying to be so strong [in the Green Day songs “Know Your Enemy” and “21”]. It’s nice to have female power by the end of the show. Johnny is not really scared of Whatsername but he sees she has this great force.”
While McClinton admires her character, she is quick to admit that she was not always a fan of Green Day, the punk rock band behind the show. Green Day’s hard-driving score came together with the show’s Billie Joe Armstrong, the group’s lead singer-songwriter, and Michael Mayer, the show’s director.
“I was never really into that punk rock stuff,” she admitted. “But I really love their music now. I love that their music has such a story.”
“American Idiot’s” musical odyssey was very appealing in its original Broadway run. That story involves the decision by three buddies circa 2004 — Whatsername’s Johnny and two friends named Will and Tunny — to escape from a materialistic suburbia and restrictive parents.
Couch potato Will has a pregnant girlfriend named Heather, and Tunny heads to war. Eventually Heather leaves Will, but a wounded Tunny meets a loving nurse named Extraordinary Girl who changes his life.
Throughout “American Idiot,” the Green Day score champions free thinking and individuality in the face of a government and a media telling Americans what to believe, do and buy. Christine Jones’ highly detailed and backdrop-rich scenic design and Kevin Adams’ lighting were very deserving Tony Award winners. Director Michael Mayers, curiously left out of the Tony running, does an amazing job keeping the three focal story lines clear and distinct. The Green Day musical’s message of independent thinking was thumpingly alive and wonderfully immediate.
McClinton sees herself like Whatsername in terms of that independence.
“I’m on my own for the first time,” she said.
The rest of her character is very foreign but challenging as an actress. “I’ve never done heroin and I’ve never had to deal with a drug addict [Johnny]. That’s new territory. It’s been exciting to dig down deep and see how somebody would deal with that,” she concluded.
She noted that the tour began with a two-week stint in Toronto and is slated to last seven months. McClinton has friends in Boston, and the Equity actress hopes to see them while at the Opera House. Planning to return to New York after the tour, she offered that she might try looking for shows in Boston as well.
“I’ll definitely scope that out,” she said.