No brainer

Pub date August 26, 2009
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features


FALL ARTS PREVIEW Who would have pictured Green Day’s anthemic 2004 punk-rock concept album, American Idiot (Reprise), as the stuff of musicals? It took merely two unlikely kindred spirits, meeting in the fall of 2007 for the first time: the Oakland band’s lead vocalist, guitarist, and primary songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong and Tony-winning Spring Awakening director Michael Mayer.

Armstrong — that punk-rock diehard who even now plays Gilman with his side project Pinhead Gunpowder? Turns out that as a tyke growing up in Rodeo, he serenaded the elderly and infirm in local hospitals with standards and show tunes from musicals like Oliver! and Annie Get Your Gun.

"That’s how I learned how to sing," says Armstrong, laid back and low-key in stark contrast to the manic rabble-rouser who’ll soon take command over a stage at San Jose’s HP Pavilion. He’s on the phone from his Oakland home during a brief stop in Green Day’s arena tour for 21st Century Breakdown (Reprise), the follow-up to American Idiot. "There’s a real old-school craft to it," he continues, measuring that quality against Shrek, Legally Blond, and other recent disposable Broadway musicals. "That’s kind of a corny way of doing things, but when you see something like Spring Awakening, it’s … it’s real life, and it’s something that everybody relates to, and it’s inspiring and emotional. American Idiot was really tailor-made for something like this to happen to it, y’know."

At the same time that Armstrong tried to heal the ailing with music — and ’80s-era punks everywhere greeted "Morning in America" with a snarl — the generation-older Mayer was earning his MFA on the other side of the country in theater at NYU. No surprise, then, that Mayer "felt such a surprising kind of simpatico" on meeting the Green Day leader. "Even though we come from different worlds and are such different people," Mayer says, "you know, at the end of the day, Billie Joe is such a showman! Such a theatrical guy. Not since Al Jolson have I seen someone so in love with the audience and with putting on a performance for them."

Mayer radiates a similar high-wattage intensity, one that’s fully prepared to kick out the jams. Wide-eyed and unblinking behind his black frame specs, clad in a Justice League T-shirt and floppy shorts, he’s hiding out with me in what looks like an old classroom within the downtown Berkeley building enlisted for rehearsals of the musical version of American Idiot. "I feel like where we connect is old school," he says of Armstrong, slapping the table for emphasis. "Tin Pan Alley." Slap. "Vaudeville." Slap. "That’s the music he grew up with. He became a punk-rocker — I became a theater homo!"

Together, Armstrong and Mayer are making a piece of theater that combines the musical’s narrative tradition and holy union of song and dance with a breed of feisty alternative rock fed by the streetwise political punk of Gilman Street. A musical that unites the ironclad craft of the American Songbook and the heady, arena-sized artistic ambition of classic rock. Now, in the wake of the Broadway acclaim of Los Angeles punk vet Stew’s Passing Strange (which also got its start in at Berkeley Repertory in 2006 and has just been transferred to film by Spike Lee), American Idiot appears poised for critical and popular success when it opens Sept. 4.

American Idiot arrives at a time when musical theater is going through a wave of growing pains. The genre is casting about for ideas, whether they are from films like Shrek and Billy Elliott (to cite a Tony success from last year), or — as with Spring Awakening, which spotlit music by Duncan Sheik — from rock songwriters more comfortable with the life of gritty clubs, merch tables, and tour buses than the mountain-moving, time-devouring, and costly group mechanics of putting on a full-tilt musical. Unlike singularly conceived rock operas like the Who’s Tommy, the first notable union of an established rock band and theater on Broadway, so-called juke box musicals — collections of songs by one group like Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys — have met with mixed results.

"There’s a whole variety, like Ring of Fire, the Johnny Cash one, that just haven’t made it," opines Michael Kantor, writer of the Emmy-winning 2005 PBS documentary Broadway: The American Musical. "It’s very much dependent on the conception of the director and the book writer who is putting together the story that’s going to encapsulate the music. I do think Broadway right now is keenly scavenging from movies or recordings — anything they feel like they can get quality material from as a launching point."

With the closing of a host of musicals earlier this year, producers are looking for the new and innovative. "Many of the most important musicals," Kantor theorizes, "have come from the most unexpected sources or most unusual approaches." And there’s the scramble for the youth entertainment dollar, as the High School Musical TV-music franchise taps into the passion so many kids have for song, dance, and drama. "Kids are always attracted to musicals," Kantor muses, "but once they get into their midteens, a lot of them lose their interest in musicals as an art form and gravitate to other stuff. High School Musical catches them at their natural inclination for that kind of entertainment. The question is, will a show like [American Idiot] capture that much-sought-after 18- to 30-year-old demographic, which is when musicals tend to lose people. Kids go off to college, it’s not too cool to like musicals, and a lot of adaptations are mainstream or traditional — and it doesn’t appeal to rebellious youth."

Young people also might have a hard time springing for costly theater tickets — yet the kids were out in force, filling the HP Pavilion last week when Green Day played to a hometown crowd with a show punctuated by pyrotechnic pillars of flames and fireworks-style explosions, gleeful costume changes, and squirt-gun shenanigans with Armstrong’s mom. It was a big-room amplification of the string of Bay club dates Green Day played earlier this spring at intimate venues like the Independent, DNA Lounge, and the Uptown.

Below a cleverly conceived 3-D urban skyscape backdrop, Armstrong fully embraced his onstage ham and flexed his crowd-control abilities à la Bugs Bunny in a Looney Tunes cartoon, taking running leaps from the monitors, stage-diving, soloing in the bleachers, donning a faux police cap and mooning each side of the audience, and entreating all assembled to raise their fists or sing along, before launching into more serious numbers like "Murder City," written about the Oakland riots that followed the Oscar Grant killing. Live, the band couples the playfully goofy, childlike comedy that tickles the 14-year-olds up front with the palpable sense of morality — driven by a beaten yet still beating anarchist heart — found on its increasingly serious-minded, idealistic recordings.

Armstrong won’t be onstage for the American Idiot musical — though the production includes a live band — and it’s not the Billie Joe Armstrong or Green Day Story. Instead, the musical is embedded in a specific time and hybridized with video-screen projections that simulate a familiar media-saturated landscape: it’s 2004, in the dark years. America has sent its idiot back to the White House, and we’re on the brink of Hurricane Katrina. Across that stage comes a series of almost archetypal characters one recognizes from the album: the Jesus of Suburbia, here dubbed Johnny for the lead actor it was written for, John Gallagher Jr., who won a Tony for his portrayal of Moritz in Spring Awakening; his antagonist St. Jimmy; and the rebel girl Whatshername.

Just about a week before the concert, the hyperactive, pogo-friendly energy of a Green Day show appeared to be finding its perfect translation at a rehearsal for American Idiot. Three weeks in, the cast — including Passing Strange‘s Rebecca Naomi Jones, here portraying the riot grrrly heroine Whatshername — tackled a round of "She’s a Rebel." In leggings and a Green Day T-shirt, Jones bounced on her toes as a barefoot Mayer dispensed hugs to cast members. A scruffily bearded Gallagher circled the group, then took his place in the desk jockey center for "Nobody Likes You." Choreographer Steven Hoggett tweaked the movements of the cast members as they tossed papers and marched up and down a moveable metal staircase

"When someone is a 20-something with all that angst and energy — where do you put that?," Hoggett said later by phone, pondering the task of "putting songs on their feet onstage." The goal of the choreographer who won an Oliver for his strong, subtle work in Black Watch and came up in the ’90s U.K. clubbing scene: create movement that serves Green Day’s songs and isn’t "too showbiz." To that end, he took in a Green Day show in Albany, N.Y., and fell in love with the mosh pit. "That was absolutely brilliant," he remembers. "Nerves gave way to absolute revelation. It’s just seeing what thousands of people do when they see Green Day — this is the world we need to do onstage."

Collaborating mainly via phone, e-mail, and text with Armstrong from 2007 through 2008, Mayer wanted to focus on a trio of friends — Johnny, Will, and Tunny — as he created the libretto. In true rock operatic form, all the dialogue is sung, using just the songs’ lyrics and text from the special edition CD of American Idiot.

Mayer and arranger Tom Kitt, whose work eventually scored him a spot creating string arrangements for Breakdown, took apart the songs — "letting them breathe in a theatrical way," as Mayer puts it — and placed the lyrics in the mouths of various characters. B-sides and new numbers like "Know Your Enemy," "21 Guns," and "Before the Lobotomy," which Armstrong offered to Mayer during the making of Breakdown last year, were inserted into the flow. Nonetheless, Mayer maintains it was crucial to him to preserve the original track order. "I didn’t want to violate the form of the record," he says. "I wanted to expand it, because the record’s only 52 minutes, and that’s not a full evening, and with these extra characters, they need more material to serve the arcs of their journeys."

It’s been a very personal journey for lead actor Gallagher, who confesses that he’s been a huge Green Day fan since fourth grade, when he’d wait eagerly for the trio’s "Basketcase" video on MTV. His character is Johnny, the Jesus of Suburbia, or as he describes it, "the son of rage and love." Raised in a broken home. Johnny is on "this path, caught between self-improvement and self-destruction, which is something I think we can all relate to," says the actor, who until not long ago had a band of his own. He and Mayer came up with the notion to deepen and intensify Johnny’s descent into drug addiction. "When the chips are down, it’s always easier to just implode on yourself rather than explode outward in a positive fashion that might be helpful for others."

Countering that is the positive process, littered with emphatic yesses, according to Mayer, of putting together American Idiot. In contrast with the difficult but rewarding eight-year gestation of Spring Awakening, Mayer — who has worked on such disparate productions as Thoroughly Modern Millie and the national tour of Angels in America — sees this musical’s trajectory as absolutely charmed. The spell has been in place from the day he proposed his idea to Green Day’s management in 2007, to the moment he was allowed six months to put together a libretto (a process that flew by in six weeks because Mayer says he was so "charged" by meeting Armstrong), to the instant last year that he and coproducer Tom Hulce decided to stage the musical at Berkeley Rep, a company he’d been wanting to work with for years, with his friend, artistic director Tony Taccone.

It’s all coming strangely, beautifully, together — like a punk-rocker besotted with pop hooks and a theater-infatuated one-time Julliard instructor. "It makes me very, very nervous," Mayer confesses, chuckling. "Oh, it’s terrifying! There’s something wrong with it — it’s too joyous. It’s been too easy in terms of everything falling into place."


Sept. 4-Oct. 11

Tues., Thurs.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Wed., 7 p.m.;

Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m.

(no matinees Sept. 5–6 and 12–13); $16–$86

Berkeley Repertory

Roda Theatre

2015 Addison, Berk.

(510) 647-2949