Green Day’s American Idiot might not be everyone’s idea of a concept CD crying out to be transformed into a Broadway musical. But Michael Mayer, a Tony Award-winning director, imagines things that others don’t.
Mayer had loved the pop-punk band’s music ever since its 1994 major label debut with Dookie. American Idiot, which followed 10 years later, stuck with him. Two years later, while he was directing the angsty 2006 rock musical hit Spring Awakening, Mayer floated an idea.
“I gave an interview before Spring Awakening about rock musicals on Broadway,” Mayer recalls. “I said I thought American Idiot would make a great musical. Then I actually got in a room with Green Day’s manager, agent and [lead vocalist-guitarist] Billie Joe Armstrong. Billie Joe came to New York and saw Spring Awakening. … I think he was relieved that it wasn’t South Pacific.”
Armstrong and Mayer agreed to collaborate, and the result opened on Broadway in 2010, running for a year. The touring version of American Idiot begins a two-week run last Tuesday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
To bring American Idiot to Broadway, Mayer and producers including Tom Hulce (who produced Spring Awakening and played Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the movie version of Amadeus) assembled a hot creative team.
Tom Kitt, who won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in drama (with collaborator Brian Yorkey) for Next to Normal, did the orchestrations. Steven Hoggett, who created the movement for the Tony-winning show Once and the just-opened Broadway version of Rocky, did his first work on Broadway in American Idiot. Mayer — now in rehearsal for the April 22 Broadway premiere of Hedwig and the Angry Inch starring Neil Patrick Harris — worked with Armstrong on the show’s script, with Armstrong getting the credit for lyrics and Green Day the music.
Going in, Mayer says, “I had a shard of an idea about the show. I thought you could take the story, which was one kid’s journey, and make it about a group of friends. You’d have a chain of unrelated experiences. Billie Joe said, ‘Great. That sounds great.’ ”
And that’s how the stage version of American Idiot plays out. More through lyrics than dialogue, the show follows the stories of Johnny, Will and Tunny, three restless friends living in suburbia. Johnny moves to the big city, falls in love with a girl dubbed Whatsername but loses himself to drugs. Will intends to leave but stays behind when his girlfriend tells him she’s pregnant. Tunny joins the Army and goes off to war, forever altering his life.
The score includes all the songs from American Idiot, some B-tracks and a few songs from the band’s 2009 CD 21st Century Breakdown.
The dialogue, Mayer says, got even more sparse after the show’s pre-Broadway tryout in Berkeley.
“The velocity of the show was slowed by dialogue. The runaway train of it all is so intoxicating that you just don’t want to do that,” he says. “Over-explaining didn’t seem to be our friend. I’m a firm believer that these lyrics hold a lot of psychological truth in them. I didn’t want to spoon feed the audience details about the characters. The texture and poetry of lyrics, in combination with the characters and what the actors brought to it, were important.”
Kitt, whose new show with Yorkey If/Then (starring Idina Menzel, aka “Adele Dazeem”) opens on Broadway March 30, knew Green Day’s American Idiot but took a far deeper dive into the music when he signed on to do the orchestrations.
“I listened to it constantly. I wanted to know the songs so that they’d be living and breathing inside of me every moment of the day. I knew the music had to reflect and sound like Green Day,” he says. “It’s a fine line between rewriting and arranging.”
Some of Kitt’s arrangements were driving pop-punk, some sparse, lush or quiet. Cast member Jared Nepute, who plays Johnny, says the variety benefits the show.
“There’s only so much you can take before you’re ready for a ballad,” he says.
Still, most people who hear the music say that “it never feels like anything other than Green Day,” Kitt says.
The members of Green Day were pleased too, hiring Kitt to do string arrangments for their trilogy ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! and ¡Tré!.
“Tom found the balance of how to stay true to the punk style but make it larger for the stage,” says Jared Stein, the show’s music supervisor.
Hoggett, despite an Olivier Award for his choreography of Black Watch and a Tony nomination for Once, calls his own work “simple.” When he signed on to American Idiot, he says, “I made a mental list of things you should never do with a Green Day song. They have no choreography with their music. You can’t turn it into a JLo video with people in V formation moving just for the sake of it.”
Instead, Hoggett focused on character-driven movement, on helping to create three personal odysseys and, he says, “helping to fill that story, that narrative.”
The American Idiot cast is necessarily young, but music director Stein says the group coming to Broward is the youngest yet, with some actors not long out of college.
“They’re excited to be doing the show, and they bring that to the table, to the stage, every night,” he says.
Casey O’Farrell, who played Roger in Rent for three years, is Will in American Idiot. The character, he says, is “self-destructive and distant. He pushes people away. … My show is very still, calm and real. Will is one of the most relatable characters. He’s frustrated and stuck.”
Nepute gets a particularly dark journey as Johnny, the guy who leaves home and gets lost in the city. The character also has an alterego, St. Jimmy (played briefly on Broadway by Armstrong), who repeatedly pushes him into self-destructive behavior. Johnny’s story, Nepute says, is a powerful one.
“His overall arc encompasses so many emotions, from the highest highs to the lowest lows,” he says. “It’s a challenge to go to those depths...All of a sudden, you’re crying your eyes out.”
Dan Tracy, who graduated from the University of Michigan not quite a year ago, plays Tunny. To prepare to play a soldier, the actor did a lot of reading and research, watched documentaries and, like Tunnys before him, took a crack at reading War and Peace. He finds American Idiot rich and complex.
“From inside the work, it feels like a piece of Shakespeare,” he says.
American Idiot is younger, edgier and louder than the typical touring Broadway subscription show. It speaks powerfully to a young audience, but the actors say that a show they call “smart” and “clever” has a far broader appeal.
“Our houses are some of the most diverse houses in theater,” O’Farrell says. “You’ll see kids in the front row, 14-year-olds with eyeliner and Green Day T-shirts who haven’t washed their hair in two weeks. Right beside them are theater subscribers. And everyone is enjoying it.”