In the original Broadway run of American Idiot, Van Hughes served as understudy for all three of the young men whose story the show is about: restless wanderer Johnny, sudden family man Will, and injured soldier Tunny. In this blog, Jeff has invited me to reflect on my experience seeing Hughes in all three of these roles during my multiple trips to the show.
I first saw Hughes take on the role of Will, who is unable to accompany his friend Johnny on his adventure when he finds out his girlfriend is pregnant. While this seems to me like the most straightforward of the three roles, it’s also true that the actor playing Will is on stage almost the whole time and has to create some kind of character arc out of a small amount of material. Van Hughes’ take on the role was just as compelling as – and, to be honest, very similar to – that of Michael Esper, the regular performer. The main difference that I noticed was their vocal delivery in “Novacaine” and “Nobody Likes You,” for which Hughes gave a more traditional reading alongside Esper’s deliberately strained thinness. They were both great in the part, and they even looked a little bit alike.
I was finally able to see Hughes’ take on the central character of Johnny for the first - but not nearly the last - time when he played the role opposite Melissa Etheridge as St. Jimmy. And even though Etheridge is a genuine star in real life, it was Hughes who gave the standout performance, delivering a stunning interpretation of this very enigmatic role. It would be impossible to give a ranking of his performance with respect to that of regular star John Gallagher, Jr.; it doesn’t even feel quite right to compare them. While both performances were finely tuned to the role, their choices were categorically different, with very different benefits and rewards proceeding from these choices.