By Julia Borcherts, @JuliaBorcherts
October 7, 2013
In 2012, Northwestern University junior Alex Nee was appearing in a college mainstage production of "Rent" and thinking about life after graduation. But a chance visit from a casting director led to the lead role as Johnny in the second tour of "American Idiot"—the Tony Award-winning musical based on Green Day's rock opera album of the same title—and Nee put his senior year on hold to perform across the country and in the UK.
After a year of rocking out onstage with a fauxhawk and guyliner, the 21-year-old Palo Alto, Calif. native concluded his run this past June, returned to Northwestern to finish his degree over the summer and then joined the original touring production of "Once," the Tony Award-winning musical based on the Academy Award-winning film about a Dublin street musician (Guy) who bonds with a Czech immigrant (Girl) over their shared love of music. Nee plays Andrej, a musician and fast-food worker who lives with Girl. Chicago is the second stop on the year-long national tour, which started Oct. 1 in Providence, RI.
"I've always sort of dreamed of being in a big band," said Nee, who has a musical background in addition to his theater degree. "And now I get to do that and tour the country as a band, basically." We called him during the show's Providence run to find out more about his musical roots, his experiences in the shows and more.
Go: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. today through Oct. 27 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
Tickets: $27-$95. 800-775-2000; broadwayinchicago.com
On continuously touring for two years: "I'm definitely homeless. I've had the same two suitcases for about a year and a half now. But I don't have keys to anywhere, except a little plastic card that lets me into whatever hotel I'm staying in. [Laughs]"
About "Once": "Expect to be viscerally hit and turned on by the music and the singing as well as just the honesty of these characters. It's quite a simple show on the surface, but the relationships and the inner life of all these people is so complex, as well as the inner life of the music—and I think that is something that you don't often see in musical theater. And those invisible chords that connect people really start vibrating with the acoustic instruments and it creates this sort of transcendent experience."
His character: "I play Andrej, a Czech immigrant to Dublin. He works at a fast-food restaurant—he's the manager—but he's got an upcoming promotion that he can't wait for. He's this very passionate, optimistic, quirky, weird guy [laughs] who lives with Girl and just wants to support everyone around him. And unfortunately, he has to deal with his dreams being crushed, but gets then uplifted by being a part of creating this music with Guy and Girl."
What he and Andrej have in common: "I'm definitely a nerd at heart. I hung out at the math club in high school. As much as I like to pretend that I don't, I really do try hard and I'm optimistic about life and excited by everything that's going on around me. He wants to have fun; he wants everything to be good, which I think we can all connect to. So I'm just amplifying that part of myself."
Why he chose Northwestern for his theater degree: "I absolutely love California, but it's sort of a bubble and my initial instinct was to look outside of California, at New York schools and Chicago stuff—I wanted to be near a big theater city. I settled on Northwestern because it's not a conservatory, which was important to me because I wanted to delve into other areas of learning. I ended up getting a minor in economics and doing a bunch of other different academic things just to keep myself spread out. But while it is not a conservatory, they have an amazing acting program [with] great faculty who are all very, very actively connected to the theater scene in Chicago. The resources they had with the people there really drew me as well as their proximity to Chicago, to the city."
His musical background: "I've been playing music since I was five [when] my parents started me on piano. But since my parents were forcing me to do that, I [laughs] eventually rejected it and took up the guitar [when] I was 14. I've been writing music and playing on my own and in bands but nothing ever too serious. But it's always been an outlet that I've found really exciting and also calming and sort of therapeutic."
That's him with the earbuds: "I listen to music constantly. Unfortunately, I'm always plugged in when I'm walking around, 'cause there's just so many artists out there that I want to listen to and soak up."
What he listens to for "Once" inspiration: "Bon Iver is a big one for me. In that vein, James Vincent McMorrow is an Irish artist who's really wonderful. I listen to Mumford [& Sons], of course."
But when he's gearing up for a show: "I actually listen to a lot of rap. [Laughs.] That's my 'pump up' music. Yesterday before the show, I was listening to Biggie Smalls to get ready. [laughs] It seems sort of counterintuitive; I love the acoustic music and I love playing that, but to really get my energy going, I often listen to hip-hop and rap. Macklemore is a huge new one that I love, Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar. There's a bunch of great, new, young hip-hop artists out there that are really smart and doing some cool stuff."
To balance all that out: :And then I listen to a lot of classic rock. I'm a big Phish head—I just saw Phish in Chicago over the summer and that was a blast."
His other favorite Chicago diversions: "I loved the MCA and I'll probably go there. But really, I like going to the little bars in Andersonville and Boystown's a lot of fun."
His other Chicago show: "We're actually trying to plan a gig at Sidetrack, which will be a good time. Because we're all musicians, we've been playing other songs together on our downtime—covers or different people's songs that they've written before and brought in—[and] we sort of add to each other's stuff. And we might also do traditional Irish tunes, 'cause we know about 30 of those by now. It's just fun, upbeat music. We're going to really nail it down once we get out of Providence and we're not rehearsing all day. [Laughs.]"
His "American Idiot" audition: "This casting director was in Chicago and came up to Northwestern to see 'Rent,' which I had no idea was happening. The next night, I got an email [that] was basically like, "Hey, saw you in 'Rent.' Would love you to come in and read for Johnny for 'American Idiot.' Here are six songs to prepare and the audition's tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. downtown." [Laughs.] Obviously, I was ecstatic and this was one of the biggest opportunities I'd had, so I wasn't going to let sleep and a show get in my way. [Laughs.] So I did the show that night and then I woke up the next morning at like 3 or 4 a.m. and just learned all these songs as quickly as I could. It actually took about five months of callbacks and different things before they finally offered me the job."
What surprised him most about working on the "American Idiot" tour: "How kind and giving the whole creative team was. These were big-shot people, big names that I had heard of and I had seen their work a lot and I really looked up to. You often think before you enter that level of work that these people have so much to do and so much money behind all of this and so it's going to be very brusque. And this was also the second tour; it was the non-equity tour. I really wasn't expecting a whole lot of personal attention. But I think because they didn't have to prove anything to anyone, it was all about the art that we were making and they really, really cared about it a lot which was surprising but exciting and inspiring to work with them on such a human level."
He turned 21 during the "American Idiot" tour: "Ironically enough, I was in England—it was our opening weekend in Southampton—so it really didn't matter. [Laughs.] [The legal drinking age is] 16 for beer and wine and then 18 for hard liquor. I went out and I was all excited to show them my ID, and no one asked for it and no one cared. [Laughs.] My friends were like, 'Happy birthday,' but culturally, it meant nothing. But it was fun."
His 22nd birthday is Oct. 11: "I'll get a drink [after the show]. Although honestly, our whole job is spent in an Irish pub onstage, so I don't always feel the need to go to a pub afterwards. [Laughs.]"
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC