For the past year, Van Hughes has sat in the wings of the St. James Theatre as a standby for American Idiot’s three leading roles. Now, as a slew of new cast members join Green Day’s rock opera, Hughes (a veteran of 9 to 5 and Hairspray) has been called up to the big time to take over as the show’s angsty young rocker, Johnny. Shortly after his first fulltime performance, Broadway.com chatted with the actor about his new gig, working with legendary musicians like Dolly Parton and Melissa Etheridge and his own music ambitions.
So, what’s your take on the role of Johnny?
I’m trying to keep it as positive as possible. He really wants everything to go right at first. He wants all his friends to go to the city and start a band, and even when things start going wrong, in his head, they’re still going right.
You were a standby for all three male lead roles during the show’s first year. That must have been tough.
I loved it. The guys pretty much sing all the songs in the show so I learned every word to every song. Being a standby really taught me that you can never expect any type of set result as an actor, because you don’t always know who your [onstage] partner is going to be. It’s made me fit in with anyone I’ll ever be put onstage with.
Does the cast have any type of initiation for new cast members?
I wish we had something more specific, but just doing the show is initiation enough. When the curtain came down on [new co-star] Justin Guarini’s first night he just looked at me like, “Whoa.” After your first show you realize how much focus and physical stamina you need to get through it. There’s a big difference between watching and doing, and I can definitely vouch for that. I’ve watched this sucker at least 500 times!
The week Melissa Etheridge joined the cast as St. Jimmy, you went on as Johnny. What was that like?
She was really cool and so nice and generous. She just slayed us every night. She made “Death of St. Jimmy” sound like she actually wrote the song. I wish she was here for more than a week. We hope she’ll come back, but she kept saying she needs to go carpool her kids!
And now AFI’s Davey Havok has taken over the role.
He’s having a great time. He told me he was in his drama department in high school, so this has been a major dream of his. He’s definitely been excited and is a really hard worker.
Is it crazy having all these rock stars show up at work?
It’s freaking awesome, but it seems very normal now. I did 9 to 5 and was around Dolly Parton so much that it kind of made everything a little less cool as it goes on. We’ve been hanging out with Billie Joe Armstrong for so long now that we’re almost like, “Get out of here, we’re sick of you.” [Laughs.]
Are there any similarities between working with Billie Joe Armstrong and Dolly Parton?
Not many. Dolly likes to make fun of her boobs a lot. If you want, you can get a free tattoo from Billie Joe.
Your girlfriend Leslie McDonel is an ensemble member. Is it easy working together?
We actually don’t see each other much at work except for when we’re on stage, so it’s not weird at all. Plus we’re such best friends that we’re very seamless humans together. I don’t have to put on my best behavior or anything. I can just be myself at all times and so can she.
Many of the Idiot cast members have musical side projects. Do you have any solo ambitions of your own?
I had my own band in high school called The Noodles. We played a lot of country and oldies, produced two albums of our own music and opened for national acts like Lee Ann Womack when they came to [Northfolk, VA]. I made the decision to go to school for acting instead of music, but there’s always that thing in the back of my head that I need to make an album that I’ll be really proud of. I’m waiting to meet the right people to collaborate with.
Has there been a stand-out memory in your time with American Idiot?
Green Day has a side project not many people know about called Foxboro Hot Tubs. They played this little venue downtown and basically only the cast and whoever else got a special invite was in attendance. It was one of the coolest shows I’ve ever been to. Billie Joe was crowd surfing the entire time and Pabst Blue Ribbon was being let loose all over the crowd. Everyone was a sweaty mess. It was a very rock star moment.