Mon July 29, 2013
John Gallagher Jr. On 'Newsroom' Dialogue And Staging Green Day
In HBO's The Newsroom, John Gallagher Jr. plays Jim Harper, the senior producer of the nightly cable news program anchored by Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). The show's second season, which began in July, takes place in 2012 during the presidential primaries. Ever since the start of the series, Gallagher's character has been in a will-they-or-won't-they relationship with one of the young producers of the news show. Right now, it's looking to him like they won't, and in an attempt to get away from the woman who's broken his heart, he's decided to go on the campaign trail and report from the Mitt Romney bus. But he soon discovers there's nothing to report, just repetitive stump speeches and daily spin delivered by Romney campaign aides on the bus. In a recent episode, Jim tried to get some real answers out of the aides, and ended up getting thrown off the bus.
In addition to acting, Gallagher can sing and dance. He won a Tony in 2007 for his performance in the Broadway musical Spring Awakening. (Lea Michele, who went on to star in Glee, was also part of that cast.) Gallagher also played Johnny, aka "Jesus of Suburbia," in the Green Day musical American Idiot as part of that show's original Broadway cast.
He joins Fresh Air's Terry Gross to discuss how he rehearses for The Newsroom, his appearance on the fourth season of The West Wing and the challenges of translating a Green Day album into a Broadway musical.
On rehearsing Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin's dialogue
"It's hard because usually most of the rehearsal happens when I'm alone at home in my apartment. I'll work on the scenes; I'll walk around; I'll try to say them out loud. Sometimes I'll record myself saying all of the lines, even the characters that aren't mine, and I'll listen to that while I'm doing dishes or cooking dinner, doing something else just so that I'm trying to get it in my head in a way that doesn't feel like work. I've always been able to listen to a song ... once or twice and know all of the lyrics, and so I find sometimes getting audible cues in my head will help me learn it in a way that, I'll go to rehearse it again and all of the sudden it will be in there. It will start being a little more effortless.
"Because the truth is we don't have a lot of time to rehearse with each other. ... Shooting a TV series, you might have a long day of doing ... [a] scene ... which is kind of lengthy and verbose alone, that, I think, was one of four or five scenes we shot that day. So you have to kind of compartmentalize and learn a lot for one particular day, and you only really get a couple of times to rehearse them with your co-stars. So day one of season one of The Newsroom, one of the things Aaron Sorkin said to us, he said, 'The more rehearsed and prepared you show up in the morning, the happier and more confident you're going to be about your performance.' "
On his technique of recording himself reading all the parts
"It's more like ... a bunch of zombies reading a bunch of Aaron Sorkin dialogue. I try not to put any spin on how I'm going to deliver it. Usually I'll just read it kind of monotone without a lot of inflections or affectations. I'll just try reading it kind of plainly so that all the characters basically have the same kind of tone and voice just so I can get it, just so I can get the words in there."
On his West Wing appearance when he was 18
"Aaron did not remember that I had been on The West Wing. ... When I was about 18 years old, I ... did a small guest spot on an episode of The West Wing in Season 4, and I never met him on set because we shot it on location in Pittsburgh and he was back in L.A. writing the rest of the season. So whenever people needed to get notes from him, everybody would gather around a cellphone and he would give out notes for the scene and whatnot. It wasn't until the end of Season 1 [of The Newsroom], he came on set one day, I heard him come on set and say, 'Where's John Gallagher?' and I thought, 'Oh no, what did I do? I'm going to get fired.' And he came up to me and said, 'I can't believe I'm just now realizing you were our kid, you were our guy — Episode 1, Season 4 of The West Wing!' He was very nice, and he said, 'I'm so sorry I didn't put two and two together. You look a lot different.' And I said, 'I know, I had a very unfortunate haircut at that time.' "
On how his American Idiot role came about
"I did a show called Spring Awakening and the director of that was a guy named Michael Mayer, who became a really good friend of mine over the process of working on Spring Awakening for several years. And while we were doing Spring Awakening, Billie Joe Armstrong, the lead singer of Green Day, came to see it. He got invited to come check out the show as kind of a potential 'Hey, would you like to work with us?' because Michael was a big fan of the record American Idiot and he saw that it had potential to become a musical or stage show because it's a concept rock album. And Michael and Billie Joe hit it off and they were going to do a workshop a few months later and they both agreed that I would be a good candidate to play the lead role in that. ... Once we did the first workshop they just kept asking me to come back."
On translating Green Day songs into a Broadway show
"It was kind of a natural fit from the first workshop. There's something so epic about that record and so grandiose and thematic and universal. ... In that sense, it made sense. But one thing that was tough was finding a way to tell the story without having to bring in traditional scenes. We felt that it should move really fast, it should move kind of in a way that a rock concert moves, where sometimes songs will end and the next one will start immediately. ... A lot of the challenge came between how do you tell the story without having that traditional book scene and without having traditional musical theater lyrics. So a lot of it came down to choreography and movement and lighting and projections that we'd put on the back wall and different ways of figuring out how we could convey the story and push the story forward in a nontraditional sense."
On the physical challenge of the show
"American Idiot was the hardest thing I've ever done, I think, as an actor, mostly because of how intense [it was] and what a toll it took on us all physically. We had someone tear his meniscus in his knee, and he was out of the show for over a month. We had someone get kicked in the head by another dancer and it gave him a concussion. People were constantly losing their voices, spraining their ankles. I still have a shoulder that clicks when I do certain movements because I landed ... wrong ... and that affected my sternum and I woke up one morning and I couldn't turn my head. So we all went through it physically doing that show. "
On his pratfall entrance in his first scene on The Newsroom
"That was ... a thing early on, studying physical comedians. I remember in particular there's a pratfall that Bill Murray does in the movie Scrooged that is one of the most amazing fake falls that I'd ever seen. So moments like that, I would start practicing those in my room and seeing how real I could make it look. When I got the script and realized that, 'Oh, my first moment in this pilot is running into the room and completely falling over.' ... But that goes back to ... you'll see elements of screwball comedy peppered into [Aaron Sorkin's] work all the time."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the HBO series "The Newsroom," which is now in its second season, my guest John Gallagher Jr. plays Jim Harper, the senior producer of a nightly cable news show anchored by Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels. I've been enjoying Gallagher's performance and recently found out he can also sing and dance. He won a Tony in 2007 for his performance in the Broadway musical "Spring Awakening" in a cast that included Lea Michele, who went on to star in "Glee."
In the original Broadway of the Green Day musical "American Idiot," Gallagher played Jesus of Suburbia. This season of "The Newsroom" takes place in 2012 during the presidential primaries. Ever since the start of the series, Gallagher's character Jim has been in a will-they-or-won't-they relationship with one of the young producers of the show, and right now it's looking to him like they won't.
In an attempt to get away from the woman who's broken his heart, he decided to go on the campaign trail and report from the Romney bus. But he's discovered there's nothing to report, just repetitive stump speeches and daily spin delivered by Romney campaign aides on the bus.
On last night's episode, Jim tried to get some actual answers out of an aide as the aide delivered the daily spin.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "THE NEWSROOM")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) At our next event at Rawlins Park, the governor's message will be simple and clear. He'll be reiterating his role as a business leader and job creator, and he'll focus as well on the failures of Obamacare to meet the needs of the country. Jim?
JOHN GALLAGHER JR.: (as Jim Harper) I'd like to read you the email you sent us last night: At tomorrow's event, the governor's message will be simple and clear. He'll be reiterating his role as a business leader and job creator, and he'll focus as well on the failures of Obamacare to meet the needs of the country.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Is there a question?
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) OK, Governor Romney said we can't reduce our debt without changes to the entitlement programs. What changes is he proposing?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) He's laid out his plan.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) No, he hasn't.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Go to our website.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) I'm there right now.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) You can read about our plan.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) There is no plan.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Current scene is we have nothing to worry about. We made a promise to our parents and grandparents and that's a promise we need to - OK, I get it.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) Do you?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Yeah.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) I don't think you do because while those are sentences and everything, they're not a plan.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) If we don't figure out how to stop spending and cut this debt, we'll be leaving a terrible burden to our children.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) There's no one who disagrees with that. What's the governor's plan?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Obviously we have to look at entitlement reform.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) OK, good. What kinds of reforms?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) That's all laid out in the governor's plan.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) Are you a cyborg?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Are you a moron? Do you think you're scoring wise-ass points, and he's plainly (bleep) with you. You've heard the only answer you're going to hear. Learn how this works because you're driving the rest of us crazy.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) You can't blame me for trying.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) I am, I'm blaming you for trying.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Any other questions?
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) Can I get 30 minutes with the candidate today?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) No, anything else?
(as character) Lunch will be...?
(as character) Turkey sandwiches.
GROSS: John Gallagher Jr., welcome to FRESH AIR. As we heard in that scene, a lot of Aaron Sorkin dialogue is filled with comebacks and retorts, and it's like volleying back and forth. So when you get a scene like the one we just heard, how do you rehearse it?
GALLAGHER: It's hard because usually most of the rehearsal happens when I'm alone. You know, at home in my apartment I'll work on the scenes. I'll walk around. I'll try to say them out loud. Sometimes I'll record myself saying all of the lines, even the characters that aren't mine, and I'll listen to that while I'm doing dishes or cooking dinner or doing something else just so that I'm trying to get it into my head in a way that doesn't feel like work.
I've always been able to listen to a song, you know, once or twice and then know all the lyrics. And so I find sometimes getting, you know, audible cues in my head will help me learn it in a way that I'll go to, you know, rehearse it again, and all of sudden it'll be in there, and it'll start being a little bit more effortless because the truth is we don't really have a lot of time to rehearse with each other.
You know, that scene, which you heard, which is kind of lengthy and verbose alone, that I think was one of four or five scenes that we shot that day. So you have to kind of compartmentalize and learn a lot for one particular day. And you only really get a couple of times to rehearse them with your co-stars.
And so day one, I think, of Season One of "The Newsroom," one of the thing Aaron Sorkin said to us, he said, you know, the more rehearsed and prepared you are when you show up in the morning, the happier and more confident you're going to be about your performance.
And it wasn't a warning. It was just something that said, hey, you know, I think I've done, you know, these shows, and shows like "The West Wing" and "Sports Night" and "Studio 60," they had longer seasons than we did because he'd never done a show for cable before. So they used to have to do 22, 23 episodes. We do 10, and it feels like climbing a mountain.
And so when he said that on day one, I thought OK, that's something I'm going to have to pay attention to.
GROSS: So I like the idea of you doing all the parts, recording them and playing them back as if it was a song because it's easy to memorize the lyrics of a song. Did you come up with that approach yourself?
GALLAGHER: I think I had heard once or twice about actors doing that. I find the easiest thing to do is doing it with someone else. But I always feel guilty trying to track down a friend to come over and help me learn my lines all the time. So I figured I was going to have to find out a way to do most of the, you know, most of the legwork myself.
And that's where I had heard about actors making recordings of the lines and listening to them. And it was something that I tried. I think one of the first time I even tried it was for my audition because I remember I had a couple of really lengthy scenes from my first audition when I first went in for the show. And I tried it and found that it worked in a way where it was helpful because it was something that I could rely on when I didn't have a scene partner because the repetition is really what's important when you're learning, like, big, you know, stretches of dialogue.
GROSS: So since you're doing other people's parts when you're learning this way, are you ever surprised at their line readings because yours were different?
GALLAGHER: Oh, you know, it's more like if you ever heard any of them that it's more like a bunch of zombies reading Aaron Sorkin dialogue.
GALLAGHER: I don't really - I try not to put any spin on how I'm going to deliver it. Usually I'll just kind of read it just kind of monotone without a lot of inflections or affectations. I just try and get the words in there. And then once the words are in there, it's not really until I get on set that I start doing it with the other actors once or twice, a couple of camera rehearsals and blocking rehearsals.
And that's when I think the intention and, you know, what you really want the character to be saying and what he's trying to get from someone else. That's when that starts to emerge because then you start to work off the other actors, and what they're bringing to the table suddenly informs the way that you want to, you know, play volleyball with them kind of in the scene, not a literal game of volleyball but, you know, verbal Aaron Sorkin volleyball.
GROSS: We heard a scene from the current season, Season Two. Let's go back to Season One, to the beginning of Season One. So in this scene you've just joined the new show as a senior producer, along with the new executive producer. The character of Maggie Jordan, played by Alison Pill, has just been promoted to the position of associate producer.
And as the season develops, there's this, like, major flirtation that develops between the two of you and genuine deep feelings that can't really be acted on because she's in a relationship with somebody else, who also works at the news network. But anyway, so in this scene you've been asked to supervise her. So here's my guest John Gallagher Jr. and Alison Pill in a scene from the first season of "The Newsroom."
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "THE NEWSROOM")
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) Maggie?
ALISON PILL: (as Maggie Jordan) Yeah?
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) Mack wants me to supervise your pre-interview with Gruber's(ph) office.
PILL: (as Maggie) I was told.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) All right, you're going to be talking to a spokesperson.
PILL: (as Maggie) I'll call him now.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) I thought maybe we could do a practice run first.
PILL: (as Maggie) OK. I'd like to say, with all respects, that I don't feel I need to be supervised.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) OK.
PILL: (as Maggie) You'll let me do it by myself.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) No, I just meant OK, I heard you say that.
PILL: (as Maggie) I've been here a year. You've been here three days.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) Mack's working with a group of relatively inexperienced people she doesn't know.
PILL: (as Maggie) I know that.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) All right.
PILL: (as Maggie) So you'll let me do it myself?
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) No.
PILL: (as Maggie) Then I'm doing this under protest.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) I'm sorry?
PILL: (as Maggie) Just, I'll be - I'm doing this under protest.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) What does that look like?
PILL: (as Maggie) It'll be the same, I'm just lodging an official protest.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) With who?
PILL: (as Maggie) My immediate superior, I guess.
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) That's me.
PILL: (as Maggie) Well, are you writing it down?
GALLAGHER: (as Jim) No.
GROSS: That's my guest John Gallagher, Jr., and Alison Pill in a scene from "The Newsroom." So you already knew Alison Pill before you started with her in the series, right?
GALLAGHER: I did, yeah. I've known Alison for about 10 or 11 years. We did an independent film together when I was 17, and she was 16.
GROSS: And which film was that?
GALLAGHER: It was called "Pieces of April."
GROSS: Oh yes, I actually saw that, right.
GALLAGHER: With Katie Holmes and Patricia Clarkson.
GROSS: You had already worked with Aaron Sorkin because you were in an episode of "The West Wing." And did that help you get cast on "The Newsroom?"
GALLAGHER: Funnily enough, Aaron did not remember that I had been on "The West Wing." I never knew if he remembered. When I was about 18 years old, I was on an episode. I did a small guest spot on an episode of "The West Wing" in Season Four, and I never met him on set because we shot it on location in Pittsburgh, and he was back in L.A. writing the rest of the season.
So whenever people needed to get notes from him, everybody would gather around a cell phone. But it wasn't until the end of Season One, he came on set one day, and I heard him come on set. He said, where's John Gallagher? And I thought oh, no, what did I do? I'm going to get fired. And he came up to me, and he said I can't believe I'm just now realizing you were our kid, you were our guy, you know, in Episode One, Season Four of "The West Wing."
And he was very nice, and he said I'm so sorry I didn't put two and two together. You know, you look a lot different. And I said I know, I had a very unfortunate haircut at that time.
GROSS: Oh gosh, you did. I was just watching the scene. You had this, like, long, shaggy hair and, like, bangs covering your eyes, and your shoulders looked really tense, intentionally probably.
GALLAGHER: Oh totally, yeah. It was like a really awkward Leif Garrett or, I don't know, David Cassidy kind of look.
GROSS: Oh, it's fun scene. Like, let's play it. So the setup for this scene is that President Bartlett is campaigning for his second term, and he and some of the members of the White House staff have been on the campaign trail, and they've been in this small town where you live. And most of, you know, President Bartlett's already left, and three members from the White House staff have stayed behind: Toby Ziegler, played by Richard Schiff; Josh Lyman, played by Bradley Whitford; and his assistant Donna Moss, played by Janel Moloney.
And their late. They have to catch a plane to catch up with the rest of the campaign crew and White House staff. You are a high school volunteer on the campaign. So you are driving them in your Jeep. And they are just confounded when suddenly you stop the car because you see your girlfriend and some of her friends walking by on the road. And that's where we'll pick up the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "THE WEST WING")
GALLAGHER: (as Tyler) I have to pull over for a minute.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Let me tell you something. What did he say?
GALLAGHER: (as Tyler) This'll just take a minute. Kiki.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) What the hell are you...?
GALLAGHER: (as Tyler) You don't return phone calls anymore.
DANIELLE HARRIS: (as Kiki) Oh, I return some.
GALLAGHER: (as Tyler) Thanks a lot.
HARRIS: (as Kiki) You know, we have to get back to school.
GALLAGHER: (as Tyler) What about the stuff I sent to your house?
HARRIS: (as Kiki) Yeah, could you stop sending stuff to my house? It's kind of creepy.
GALLAGHER: (as Tyler) Yeah, you know what? Sue me, I guess, 'cause I love you. Place me under arrest, Kiki. Let's everybody do that. Let's everybody get a writ of injustice, lock me up and throw the book.
BRADLEY WHITFORD: (as Josh Lyman) Tyler?
GALLAGHER: (as Tyler) Just a second, Mr. Lyman.
HARRIS: (as Kiki) You can't be creepy, stalking guy, OK. You're not that guy, Tyler. You're better than that.
GALLAGHER: (as Tyler) Not that much better.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Would you get in there?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) You have to move on, Tyler. You have to live in the now. You're totally stressing her.
JANEL MOLONEY: (as Donna Moss) Excuse me, I'm so sorry to interrupt in what obviously is a private moment between the two of you and your two friends. We came in this morning...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) We know who you are. We're not rednecks.
GROSS: That's a scene from "The West Wing," featuring my guest John Gallagher Jr., who is now one of the stars of the HBO series "The Newsroom." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Gallagher Jr., and he's one of the stars of "The Newsroom." He plays Jim Harper, who is, as we speak, on the road with the Romney campaign. He's just gotten thrown off the bus, actually. And he got a Tony for his performance in "Spring Awakening" on Broadway and was also the star of "American Idiot," the Broadway adaptation of the Green Day album.
You've spent time on television, Now, you know, you're in a regular series. You've also done several Broadway shows, including two hit musicals, "American Idiot" and "Spring Awakening." Can you describe some of the differences for you being in a TV series in which there's hardly any rehearsal, and you're learning new lines for each episode? You're learning what happens to your character as it happens, you really don't know in advance. Compare that to one of the plays or musicals that you do where you're doing the same thing every night.
GALLAGHER: Yeah, you know, plays and musicals, aside from the major difference being that you do them for a live audience, when you do a film or a television role, you know, you're doing it long before the audience is really going to see it, and your audience really is the camera when you're working on those.
But also, you know, in plays and musicals you'll get a wealthy period of rehearsal, and you'll get a wealthy period of being able to try things and have them not work, which is your preview period, where you'll do a couple weeks of performances where you can still change and alter and rewrite and try new thing before you open the show.
And then you have it, you know, you get in a rhythm, and you get it all memorized up front, and then you run it, and then you just perform it as is. There's room for little, you know, shifts, and your performance might change, but, you know, your dialogue is going to stay the same.
And it's interesting because, you know, Aaron Sorkin will start writing for the actors. He'll pick up on little strengths or little things that he likes about our characteristics, you know, individually and will start kind of catering to that or even maybe trying to push against that, to get us out of our comfort zone.
But one of the hardest parts really is just the memorization, memorizing a lot of dialogue, a lot of new dialogue every day and then letting it go for the next day to learn the new scene. But one thing that's great about TV is you at least get a weekend. You know, when you're doing theater, you get 24 hours to recover. You get one day off most of the time doing plays, and it can be very hard to recover in 24 hours.
Doing TV, just that extra day, getting those two days off, like, feels like just a massive luxury.
GROSS: When the cast recording for "American Idiot" came out, I interviewed Billie Joe Armstrong. And I want to play you like an excerpt of that interview about translating Green Day music onto Broadway. So here's Billie Joe Armstrong in 2010 with me.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
GROSS: One difference between the Broadway versions of your songs, I think the Broadway singers enunciate more clearly than you do.
BILLIE JOE ARMSTRONG: That was a big - yeah. That was a big deal when - you know, being a rock singer, I can get away with a lot, you know, because most of the time people don't know what the hell you're saying anyway. That's why we have lyric sheets, you know.
GROSS: And there's a long tradition of that in rock.
ARMSTRONG: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, and then - but the tradition, you know, we were in the studio with Michael Mayer, and...
GROSS: He's the director.
ARMSTRONG: Who's the director, and Tom Kitt's the arranger. And when they were listening to the singers, they were saying things like, you know, can you please - I can't hear the T in this particular word. And we were looking at him. You know, we're like I can hear it fine, you know. But that's just the difference between theater people and rock people, I guess.
GROSS: I bet no one has ever said to you: I can't hear the T.
ARMSTRONG: Yeah, no, I don't think so.
GROSS: So that was Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day in 2010. So John Gallagher Jr., when you were starring in the Green Day musical "American Idiot," was there somebody telling you to enunciate your T's more clearly?
GALLAGHER: Oh, definitely. Michael Mayer is - he's become such a dear friend, you know, family almost, doing those two shows, doing "Spring Awakening" and "American Idiot." But, you know, he's a bit of a - he can be a, you know, taskmaster and very, very specific about what he wants. He has very kind of specific ideas about how something should be onstage, how it should look, how it should sound.
And, yeah, he would come to my dressing room all the time with, you know, things that were acting notes, things that were about, you know, conveying emotion and things that were about we just can't understand what you're saying. And I know you're out of breath, I know that you just did a nine-and-a-half-minute song with these crazy dance moves, but you have to - whatever it takes, whatever you need to do so that we can understand the first word of that verse. It's the first, you know, it's the first sentence of that verse, and we need it to be able to know what this song is conveying.
So yeah, he definitely had no problem, you know, telling me little things to clarify the dialogue and the singing.
GROSS: Was there anything that struck you as odd translating Green Day songs into a Broadway show?
GALLAGHER: Yeah, I mean, it was kind of a natural fit from the first workshop. There's something so epic about that record and so grandiose and thematic and universal. And so in that sense it made sense. But one thing that was tough was finding a way to tell the story without having to bring in, you know, traditional scenes.
We felt that it should move really fast. It should move kind of in a way that a rock concert moves, where sometimes songs will end, and the next one will start immediately, and that's not a very musical thing. Usually the song will end, and then there's a scene. And usually there'll be a scene that'll be kind of about what the next song is going to be, and then that song will start, and you'll get the song version, kind of, of the scene that you just saw.
And so some of it can get a little redundant, a little repetitive, and we wanted to keep it moving. So we cut out, you know, the book scenes, and I would just kind of do these narrative poems sometimes that were kind of the way that the, quote-unquote, "dialogue" for it.
And then a lot of the challenge came between how do you tell the story without having that traditional book scene and without having traditional music theater lyrics. So a lot of it came down to choreography and movement and lighting and projections that we would put on the back wall and different ways of figuring out how we could convey the story and push the story forward in a nontraditional sense.
GROSS: Why don't we hear you singing from the cast recording of "American Idiot?" So I thought we'd hear "Jesus of Suburbia." Do you want to say anything about translating this onto Broadway?
GALLAGHER: Oh yeah, I mean this was my - this was probably one of the moments where I thought oh, this is something so cool because it's my favorite song off of that Green Day record. It always was. It's kind of - it's the one that is most suited to theatricality. It's about nine and a half minutes, and it tells kind of this big, great story. So it was one of the hardest numbers to work on but one of the most rewarding, too.
GROSS: OK, so this is John Gallagher Jr. from the original cast recording of the Broadway musical "American Idiot."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JESUS OF SUBURBIA")
GALLAGHER: (Singing) I'm the son of rage and love, the Jesus of Suburbia, the bible of none of the above on a steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin. No one ever died for my sins in hell, as far as I can tell, at least the ones I got away with. But there's nothing wrong with me. This is how I'm supposed to be in a land of make believe that don't believe in me.
GROSS: John Gallagher Jr. will be back in the second half of the show. He co-stars in HBO's "The Newsroom." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with John Gallagher, Jr. On the HBO series "The Newsroom" he plays cable news producer Jim Harper. He won a Tony Award in 2007 for his performance in the Broadway musical "Spring Awakening." And he starred in the original Broadway cast of the Green Day musical "American Idiot."
The two musicals that you've been in, "Spring Awakening" and "American Idiot," are both rock musicals - one of them literally using the songs from a famous rock album and the other original songs written for the show. What did Broadway shows mean to you when you were growing up? And did you hear mostly like the rock musicals or did you hear the more traditional Broadway musicals?
GALLAGHER: Yeah. I had a fondness for both. I remember I saw "West Side Story" at a very young age. My mom showed it to me and my sister. And I remember at the beginning I was like, what is this, what is this, this gang in the streets snapping their fingers and, you know, having a fight dance? And, you know, lo and behold, about 20 minutes later I was like sobbing.
GALLAGHER: And the way that the story was told in the emotion that the music evoked blew my mind even as a kid. And then I saw the film version of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and noticed that, you know, Russ Tamblyn, who plays Riff in "West Side Story" played Gideon, one of the brothers, and I recognized him and thought whoa, that's, wait, so that's the same guy. And then that was a kind of a turning point for me when I started to realize that the actors were other people off screen and that they got hired to play different roles from time to time. And so, yeah, I was definitely - in high school I was a pretty big musical theater nerd.
GROSS: Did you perform in music theater?
GALLAGHER: You know, I started doing community theater in Delaware where I grew up and I did a couple of, you know, musical versions of old stories and classic literature, like I performed at the Delaware Children's Theatre, which is a really an amazing old theater for families and kids. It's been there for ages and I did, you know, musical versions of "Tom Sawyer" and "A Christmas Carol" and "The Waltons," you know, "Family Christmas" and "Alice in Wonderland." But I never really, I never - at a certain point I stopped aspiring to being on stage in a musical. When I moved to New York to become an actor that was the last thing on my mind was that I was going to do musicals on Broadway. I thought I was going to go do smaller kind of off-Broadway plays because I didn't have any, you know, vocal training or anything and there's so many talented people that do that for a living in New York City that I immediately thought oh, this isn't where I belong. But when "Spring Awakening" came about that was - they were going for something different and so I just happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right kind of unfurnished anti-training, if you will.
GROSS: Even though they wanted somebody who didn't sound trained, did you end up studying voice after you got that role or after you got "American Idiot?"
GALLAGHER: Yeah. We had great people there to help us on both shows. I mean there's a vocal coach in New York City named Liz Kaplan and I couldn't have done eight shows a week on "American Idiot" without what I learned from her. She gave us a lot of physical training and warm-ups and things to do to warm up your voice because it goes against all human instinct to sing and shout that much over several days of the week - like eight shows - and your body starts to shut down at a certain point and say I, there's, wait, hang on a second. And so you have to rely on training and these little tricks and exercises. So, yeah. I mean she's amazing. She works with everyone and she definitely saved all of our voices when she came on to "American Idiot" and taught us some tricks.
GROSS: Can you demonstrate one of the tricks she taught you about how to preserve your voice when you have to sing that much?
GALLAGHER: I mean a lot of it is breathing. Like a lot of it was breathing exercises. Before you'd even start doing any kind of vocalization, you know, there's a trick. You put your hands on the back of your neck and, you know, you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth and while you're kind of, almost like a chicken, you like move your elbows back and forth, and then you gradually start like bending over and like bringing your head down to your knees while you're standing up. And those things alone are something that I had not learned before. And so much of it is about breathing.
GROSS: But what does that accomplish?
GALLAGHER: A lot of it is like it opens you up, it's like breathing control.
GALLAGHER: And it just gets like - because what I didn't realize was that, you know, it's a head to toe thing, singing and especially loud belting rock music, and especially when you're dancing, it takes everything. Like it affects not just your obviously, you have things like in your abdomen and your diaphragm and you have your vocal cords and everything. But then you have, it's totally tied into, you know, your respiratory system but it also has a lot to do with your adrenal glands and so realizing that everything is connected and that a lot of it just starts with your breath was totally an eye-opener.
GROSS: Oh, the downside of that is when something goes wrong everything can go wrong.
GALLAGHER: Yes. Right.
GROSS: Did you ever have that happen during the run of one of your shows?
GALLAGHER: Oh, sure. I mean "American Idiot" was like it was the hardest thing I've ever done I think as an actor, mostly because of how intense and what a toll it took on us all physically. We had, I mean we had someone tear his meniscus in his knee and he was out of the show for over a month. We had someone get kicked in the head by another dancer and it gave him a concussion. I still have a shoulder that clicks when I do certain - certain movements because I landed from - there's a scene where I throw myself up in the air and land a bed. I did that wrong and something happened to my shoulder and then that affected like my sternum and I woke up one morning and I couldn't turn my head. And so we all went through it physically doing that show.
GROSS: So I thought we should listen to you singing...
GROSS: ...from the cast recording of "Spring Awakening," which you are in. And you won a Tony for your performance in that.
GROSS: You open an ensemble song called "The Bitch of Living." Do you want to introduce it for us?
GALLAGHER: Yeah. This is a moment in "Spring Awakening," the musical, I think that kind of sets the tone for what kind of show it's going to be. It's about these repressed teenagers in 19th century Germany. And this scene starts with a group of kind of frustrated schoolboys in Latin class and you realize that my character is a bit of the class screw up and he can't get any of the translations right. And he gets chewed out by his teacher. And then this song immediately starts and you start realizing that it's going to - it's actually going to be modern rock music is going to be the kind of the canon of what's going to help push the story forward. And so this is my character having an outlet to all of his teenage frustrations.
GROSS: And this is John Gallagher Jr. from "Spring Awakening."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPRING AWAKENING")
GALLAGHER: (as Moritz) (Singing) God, I dreamed there was an angel who could hear me through the wall, as I cried out like in Latin, this is so not life at all. Help me out, out of this nightmare. Then I heard her silver call. She said, just give it time, kid. I come to one and all. She said give me that hand, please. An itch you can't control. Let me teach you how to handle all the sadness in your soul. Oh, we'll work that silver magic, then we'll aim it at the wall. She said love may make you blind, kid but I wouldn't mind at all.
(as Moritz) (Singing) It's the bitch of living. Bitch, just the bitch. Nothing but your hand. Just the bitch, yeah. Just the bitch of living as someone you can't stand.
(as Moritz) (Singing) See, each night it's like fantastic. Toss and turning...
GROSS: That's John Gallagher Jr. and the cast of "Spring Awakening," the original cast from the cast recording.
Of the vocal exercises that you were taught when you were - when you started doing Broadway musicals, what's one of them that you still find very effective?
GALLAGHER: Yeah. There's a couple. I mean there is one that's really good where you take your pinky - this is something Liz Kaplan taught me - and you put it in between your teeth and you just, you know, like a Y, E, E, E sound and just, you know, kind of trill it up and just go E, E, E. E, E, E. And then just go up the scale and get higher and higher. And then once you're kind of that your limit where you can't go any higher, you just bring it back down again. And that...
GROSS: And why is your finger between your teeth?
GALLAGHER: I think, you know, I definitely could be wrong about it because it was a while ago that Liz taught it to me, but I think it gets like your actual vocal cords and like the back of your throat, it gets all of that moving in a way and you're not relying too much on your jaw or your mouth to help you make the sound, you're really strengthening the muscles that are going to be doing a lot of the work for you. But then there's other ones. I mean there's like there's a lot of, you know, tongue exercises, it's like rolling your tongue around in your mouth and stretching your tongue out. And that was something I didn't realize that it - like the kind of more limber and loose your tongue is the easier it's going to be to like hit high notes. Because they're all - there would be nights where you'd to get out there at 7:30 and start, you know, getting ready for the show and, you know, my voice would just be done and cracking. And I'd try singing through some of the songs and it wasn't happening and then I would do that warm-up and, you know, drink some tea and then you go out there then lo and behold, somehow it would come out. I mean a lot of that I think is performance adrenaline and once you see the audience that will kind of kick you up to another level but it's good to have something that's more kind of scientific to fall back on.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Gallagher Jr. and he's one of the stars of "The Newsroom." He plays Jim Harper.
When you make your entrance in "The Newsroom..."
GROSS: You do a pratfall.
GROSS: You kind of like stumble and fall down. And I can't remember if you walk into a wall or not.
GROSS: But, you know, you're this, you know, journalist who has like been in the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and like you can't even walk into the room without...
GALLAGHER: I can't even - yeah, tripping over some luggage and just face planting.
GROSS: Exactly. Yeah. So how did you learn how to do that?
GALLAGHER: That was a lot of - that was a thing early on I studying, you know, kind of physical comedians. And I remember in particular there is a pratfall that Bill Murray does in the movie "Scrooged" that is just one of the most amazing fake falls that I'd ever seen. And so moments like that I would start just like practicing those in my room and seeing how real I could make it look. And, you know, when I got the script and realized that oh, my first moment in this pilot is running into the room and completely falling over. But that goes back to, you know, Aaron Sorkin loves kind of - you'll see elements of screwball comedies like, you know, peppered into his work all the time.
GROSS: Well, John Gallagher, thank you so much for talking with us.
GALLAGHER: It was my absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: John Gallagher Jr. plays Jim Harper in the HBO series "The Newsroom." He stars in the new movie "Short Term 12," which opens in August.
Coming up, David Bianculli reviews "Jack Benny: The Lost Episodes," and three other new DVD box sets of TV shows from the past.
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.