Alec Berlin
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Alec Berlin

New York City, New York, United States | SELF

New York City, New York, United States | SELF
Band Rock Singer/Songwriter


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"Alec Berlin, a guitar hero from Shaker Heights, rocks out on Broadway in Green Day's 'American Idiot'"

Alec Berlin recently got some guitar lessons from Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day.

"He would say, 'OK, let's try "Holiday,"' and I'd start playing," Berlin recalls.

"Then he would go, 'That's awesome -- I usually do it like this.' He didn't say, 'No, kid, do it like this.' It was more like: 'That's really cool. Why don't you look at how I do it?' He's very humble."

Berlin, a Shaker Heights native, is one of two guitarists in the eight-piece band for the Broadway production of "American Idiot," a musical based on Green Day's 2004 "punk-rock opera" album of the same name. The show opened last month, after a trial run last year in Berkeley, Calif.

The New York Times gave it a glowing review, and the cast recording is No. 4 on the iTunes Top 10 album chart.

Before the curtain went up, Berlin sat down with Armstrong to fine-tune the guitar parts.

"I really couldn't ask for a better gig," Berlin says, reached by phone at home in New York City. He moved there in 1996.

"I've been doing Broadway work for five years or so, and it's all rewarding in its own way," says Berlin, whose credits also include stints in "The Color Purple," "Mamma Mia!" and "Rent," among other shows.

He was handpicked for "American Idiot" by Tom Kitt, the show's music supervisor. Berlin and Kitt previously worked together on another musical, "Next to Normal."

"I can't imagine anything more fun than playing this music every day," Berlin says. "I'm pinching myself a lot."

His enthusiasm comes across loud and clear, says Carmel Dean, the show's music director and keyboardist.

"Every time I look across the stage, Alec is putting his heart and soul into playing," Dean says.

"He embodies this music. He thrashes about and jumps up and down. He's so fabulous to watch as a performer, as well as to listen to as a musician. . . . He puts a smile on everyone's face."

Berlin, 39, and Green Day go way back.

"I was a fan of 'Dookie' [the group's 1994 major-label debut] when it came out," he said. "The 'American Idiot' album was a jolt of energy. . . . They grabbed you by the throat and said, 'Hey -- pay attention to us!' "

Still, a concept album concerning youthful angst during the George W. Bush era wasn't obvious fodder for a Broadway musical. Or was it?

"It works because of how the music was created, with a story line in mind and with particular characters who develop over time," Berlin says.

"That being said, a rock album and a Broadway show are two different endeavors. You wouldn't just want to duplicate a rock album note for note onstage and call it a musical. The music needed to be tweaked to fit the medium, but Green Day got us 95 percent of the way there. They couldn't have been more generous and supportive."

Berlin, the youngest son of Sue Berlin and the late Maurice "Moe" Berlin of Shaker Heights, first picked up a guitar when he was 7.

From then on, he rarely put it down.

"Alec is never happier than when he's playing his guitar, and it's always been that way," Sue Berlin says.

She not only got to attend the opening night of "American Idiot," but got her picture taken with Armstrong at the after-party.

"The whole time he was growing up, Alec would play guitar four to five hours every day in our basement," Sue Berlin says.

"We never had to say, 'Don't you think you ought to practice?' If anything, we said, 'Maybe you ought to stop now and get some rest.' "

Berlin was obsessed with the Beatles, too. When he was 11, his mother took him to England for a pilgrimage to Liverpool, where they visited Penny Lane and had tea at the home of the Fab Four's first manager, Allan Williams.

In his teens, Berlin had a band called the Flying Tomatoes. They mostly played high-school dances.

"We really were into the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Who -- the finest in classic rock," Berlin says.

From kindergarten through 12th grade, he attended Hawken School. ("I was what they call a lifer," Berlin says.) After graduating in 1988, he earned degrees from St. John's College and the New England Conservatory of Music. He also did a six-month artist-in-residence program in Israel through the World Union of Jewish Students Institute's Arad Arts Project.

"I knew all along that I wanted to do music, but I had an eye toward being a well-read musician with a deep cultural grounding from which to draw," he says.

Berlin has released a couple of albums of original music, including 2007's "Beauty, Grazing at the Trough." He's currently at work on a follow-up.

He also has backed Lou Christie (who had a No. 1 hit in 1966 with "Lightnin' Strikes") and other oldies acts.

These days, Berlin's life revolves around "American Idiot." There are performances six nights a week (with the customary Mondays off), plus matinees on Saturday and Sunday.

He usually arrives at the St. James Theatre an hour or so before showtime, commuting from his Brooklyn apartment to Manhattan via subway.

"I should've said limo," Berlin says. "That would've sounded more rock-star, right?" - The Plain Dealer, Cleveland OH


2007: "Beauty, Grazing at the Trough"
2010: "Green Day's American Idiot"
2012: "Innocent Explanations"



One day in the foot hills of the Sangre De Christo Mountains, while living in an adobe house on a dirt road, contemplating the New Mexican star-filled sky and nursing a broken heart, Alec Berlin noticed a crack in the Universe. Slowly but surely, over the next days and weeks, the crack expanded, eventually draining out all of the light until all was darkness.

Many years later, jogging across the Brooklyn Bridge, the Universe awash in the kind of luminescence his younger Santa Fean self couldn't have dreamed of, he found himself accompanied by songbirds.

Wouldn't you write it down?

That's what Alec did. Drawing on influences as varied as Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, The Fugitive, the deserts of the American Southwest and the Middle East, and the great rock and roll songwriting traditions from both sides of the Atlantic, Alec Berlin makes music filled with the joy and wonder of existence.

A native Clevelander who now calls Brooklyn home, Alec honed his skills first at the New England Conservatory, where he earned a Master's of Music. Subsequent tenures as a gun-for-hire in the downtown Jazz world as well as untold numbers of rock bands and singer-songwriter gigs (he has shared the stage with Elton John, James Taylor, Green Day, Rob Thomas, Rufus Wainwright, and Ben Folds) provided a different kind of education - grittier, based in the street.

Streets come and streets go, but for the better part of the last decade one street in particular sees Alec in high demand – Broadway. Most recently as guitarist for the Green Day's American Idiot, Alec took the show from the record-smashing run at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California to the Tony-winning year at the St. James Theater in New York. Along the way, he contributed guitar parts to the Grammy Award-winning Original Cast Recording (his second brush with the Grammys - his first was for 2010's A Colbert Christmas) and was seen on the Late Show with David Letterman, The Jimmy Fallon Show, Good Morning America, and the Tony Awards live from Radio City Music Hall.

Alec's songwriting evokes Elvis Costello, XTC, and the Beatles. Spanning the stylistic spectrum from the pop-punk energy of "Get Dirty" to the lazy, comfortable swing of "Still", with stops along the way at the apocalyptic ("Washed Away"), reflective ("Henry at Home"), soulful ("I Want it Done") and groovy ("Bury Your Head"), each song is a story-telling opportunity fulfilled.

With "Innocent Explanations", Alec presents his most exciting work yet - a 13-track volume that was road-tested extensively in various venues throughout New York City. Bringing together such luminaries as drummer Brian Wolfe (Sufjan Stevens, My Brightest Diamond), cellist Dave Eggar (Sheryl Crow, Coldplay, Pearl Jam), drummer Shannon Ford (Danny Gatton), and bassist Skip Ward (Steve Martin), "Innocent Explanations" blows the roof off of the songwriting territory staked out on Alec's 2007 release "Beauty, Grazing at the Trough". Mixed by Chris Dugan (American Idiot, 21st Century Breakdown) at Green Day's Jingletown Studios, "Innocent Explanations" engages the listener from the very first – you'll be singing along during your first listen, all the while anticipating listening again and again.