Green Day's concept album is shaking up the Great White Way.
Mon Aug 23 2010
The lament is half a century old: When’s the Broadway musical gonna rock? There’s no arguing that rocklike sounds have bubbled into book musicals, from Hair to Rent. But not since the Who’s Tommy roared into the St. James Theatre back in 1993 has there been a Broadway show with the pedigree of American Idiot, the punk-popera staging of Green Day’s epic concept album.
But where Tommy had Pete Townshend revisiting a decades-old boomer classic, Green Day is still a going concern and its American Idiot album is arguably a contemporary classic. Given that some of the new show’s score is culled from the band’s 2009 release, 21st Century Breakdown, the musical is as close to mainlining today’s iPod playlists as Broadway has ever come.
“The tipping point has turned,” says Michael Mayer, American Idiot’s director and cowriter (with Billie Joe Armstrong and the rest of Green Day), who won a 2008 Tony for Spring Awakening (also a rocker, with Duncan Sheik’s score). “More Broadway audiences have grown up with rock than any other kind of music.” Mayer is among them: Though his previous tuners have included Thoroughly Modern Millie and Triumph of Love, the director is sufficiently au courant that Green Day’s album bowled him over. Part of it was timing; American Idiot came out just months before Bush’s 2004 reelection, turning its defiant howl against the “redneck agenda” (as one lyric goes) into a prophetic yawp.
“For whatever reason, it just spoke to me,” Mayer recalls. “I thought, My God, these punks from Oakland are talking about what it’s like to live in Bush’s America right now. And the rage and the love in equal measure throughout the album I just found incredibly complicated and dazzling—and tuneful.” But theatrical? Armstrong’s earnest, anguished lyrics loosely sketched the emotional journey of an aimless antihero (“Jesus of Suburbia”) through a dystopian cityscape (“Boulevard of Broken Dreams”), where he falls under the thrall of a charismatic drug dealer (“St. Jimmy”) and a fiery, idealistic girlfriend (“She’s a Rebel,” “Extraordinary Girl”), then loses them both and returns to the comfortable oblivion of the suburbs (“Homecoming,” “Whatshername”).
The album’s anthemic spirit seemed to Mayer big enough to fill a stage, so he persisted until Berkeley Repertory Theatre offered him a pre-Broadway tryout and Armstrong gave him the green light to theatricalize the album.“The project’s conceit was that I would take the record and basically write story onto it and from inside it,” Mayer says. “The amount of freedom I had to dream and imagine was unprecedented for me.”
In addition to the album’s Jesus-Jimmy-Whatshername triangle, Mayer layered on another trio. Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.) now has two suburban pals: Will (Michael Esper), who stays home against his wishes; and Tunney (Stark Sands), who enlists to fight in Iraq. Though Mayer added little dialogue to Armstrong’s often impressionistic lyrics, he hopes that by sharing words among a dozen performers, he’s created a kind of found-text libretto for a multipronged narrative that entwines city, suburb and battlefield. “I had great anxiety about the liberties we were taking, dramatically as well as emotionally,” Mayer recalls. “I kept thinking we would cross a line that would be intolerable, but instead Billie Joe kept urging me to go further, which was encouraging—and terrifying.” He adds that he found it gratifying, yet surreal, to talk with the songwriter about characters he had originated for a wholly different medium.
If the album served as an indispensable soundtrack to Bush-era despair, what does this fable—set “in the recent past”—have to say to Obama’s America? “I can’t wait until this is a true period piece; I wish the state of our union didn’t still feel as resonant as it does with the show,” says Mayer with a shudder. “I think it’s really good at this moment not to forget how our country got this way and to maintain a healthy amount of anger about it.”
It’s not Green Day’s style, though, to sulk; its bleakest tunes often chime brightly in major keys. That puts American Idiot in lofty company, Mayer says. “Even the most tragic opera you go to see at the Met is stirring and rousing, and the music is gorgeous to sing,” he asserts. “It inspires the performers to great heights of expression and to the joy of performing. And I think all that’s in here.”
Rock at the Met—now there’s a dream for the 21st century.