From 'Idiot' to opera

Michael Mayer tried to contain his growing frustration. For more than nine hours at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre over two recent afternoons, Mayer's creative group was laboring to fix the glitches that were making a mess of a key sequence in the world premiere rock opera "American Idiot."

Progress was fleeting. For the two days of technical rehearsals, director Mayer and his team were stuck revising just three minutes of the show -- an elaborate fantasy dance passage in the adaptation of the pop-punk band Green Day's Grammy-winning 2004 album of the same name.

At first, intravenous fluid bags flying down wires onto the four-story set listed so badly to starboard that the performers couldn't unclip them. "At some point, we've got to get this working," Mayer said a bit testily. A few moments later, a wheel on a hospital gurney snapped off, nearly launching a cast member onto the stage.

Such technical problems are more or less routine for any musical featuring the kind of complicated staging Mayer is bringing to the Iraq war-themed, media-saturated "American Idiot." Far more taxing to Mayer, whose reinventing-the-wheel "Spring Awakening" won eight 2007 Tony Awards, including best musical, was this fundamental challenge: how he would somehow conjure up an "American Idiot" story -- without adding a line of scripted dialogue between 20 Green Day songs.

That wasn't the show's only hurdle. Although musical theater audiences have been willing to take up unconventional stories and diverse songwriting styles -- "Rent," "Avenue Q," "In the Heights" among recent examples -- there's a much wider chasm between the straightforward lyrics and melodies of traditional musicals like "South Pacific" and "West Side Story" and punk rock, particularly when the clashing songs are only hazily expositional.

Mayer's "Spring Awakening," at least, carried Frank Wedekind's turn-of-the-century play of the same name as plot-laden source material. The Who's "Tommy," the most famous rock opera, featured delineated characters ("He's a pinball wizard") and followed a vague narrative arc about its "deaf, dumb and blind kid."

The 2004 album by the Bay Area band, on the other hand, was far heavier on emotion than exposition. Yes, "American Idiot" alluded to characters named Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy, Whatsername and Extraordinary Girl, but the songs offered scarce clues as to who these people really were and what they actually did: You knew there was plenty of anger and alienation, but who, precisely, felt it, and why? More important, what actually happened to them?

Even as a concept album, "American Idiot" didn't need to answer those questions. Mayer's musical certainly had to -- the show, now in previews and opening Wednesday for a run of at least six weeks with hopes of a possible move to Broadway, wasn't intended as a jukebox revue.

Using just movement, projections (of still and animated images, photos, text and iconography) on 38 video screens, new song arrangements and a towering scenic backdrop, Mayer, part-time collaborator and Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and "American Idiot's" designers had to craft and communicate a sort of wordless libretto, making sure the audience understood the story every step of the way.

"It's my biggest fear -- it's what keeps me up at night," Mayer said during a dinner break in a recent rehearsal. "That the story isn't clear."

'Ready to go'

The ambitious project started with an offhand comment Mayer made around the time of the off-Broadway opening of "Spring Awakening." "It shocks me that there isn't a stage version of 'American Idiot' yet," Mayer said in a 2006 interview with Variety. "It's an opera. It's ready to go."

Like his "Spring Awakening" and "American Idiot" star John Gallagher Jr., Mayer was smitten with Green Day's album. "I heard a complex story of intersecting people," he said. The album marked a comeback for the band, which attracted a huge following with its first major label release, 1994's "Dookie." That album sold more than 10 million copies, but the band slumped with its follow-ups, including 1997's "Nimrod" and 2000's "Warning."

Like other punk and alternative rock bands, Green Day's music was often brooding, but not as inherently angry as some of its peer bands. One of its most widely known songs, "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" sounds to the casual ear like a feel-good tune you'd hear at an elementary school slide show, but it's actually a bitter break-up song.

"American Idiot" borrowed the shape of the Who's "Tommy" and Pink Floyd's "The Wall" -- the songs were built around a central idea: the personal struggles of a fictional figure named Jesus of Suburbia, who calls himself "the son of rage and love."

"Green Day gives vent to people's frustrations, both lyrically and sonically," said Steven Hoggett, Mayer's "American Idiot" choreographer.

Mayer's producing partner, the actor Tom Hulce, read the Variety comment and asked if he was serious. Soon thereafter, Mayer met with the band's representatives and pitched a simple concept for his adaptation. Green Day (guitarist and lead vocalist Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool), which hails from the East Bay suburbs and established itself at Berkeley's 924 Gilman Street club, visited New York to watch "Spring Awakening."

"Thank God I didn't know they were at the show ahead of time," said Gallagher, an obsessive Green Day fan who won the best featured musical actor Tony for playing Moritz in "Spring Awakening" and stars as Johnny in "American Idiot."

The band liked what it saw and Mayer started sketching out his adaptation: Jesus of Suburbia (another name for Johnny) moves to a big city, meets St. Jimmy and Whatsername, who then battle for his soul, with Whatsername ("She's holding on my heart like a hand grenade") representing the best life can offer, and St. Jimmy ("I'm a teenage assassin") the direct opposite.

"It's a complicated story, and it's ambiguous," said Mayer, 49, who likes to wear casual, short-sleeved shirts, cargo shorts and sandals during rehearsals, and picked at fingernails he painted black in solidarity with the cast ("Even I am starting to turn punk," he said).

Although the band rarely visited rehearsals, Mayer -- who cites "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," "West Side Story," "Carousel" and "A Chorus Line" as formative musicals -- ran any number of "American Idiot's" central ideas by its lead singer. There would be three primary, largely invented couples alongside St. Jimmy, who more or less hovers over the action. "Three friends in a suburban wasteland wake up and realize their lives are going nowhere fast," Mayer said of the scenario. "These guys are searching for meaning and purpose in their own ways. They don't really find it, but they find what it isn't."

After several months of workshops and revisions, he showed the band last November a rough presentation. "I wanted to make sure that they were on board with the story I was shaping -- that was so embellished from what they had," Mayer said. At one point, Mayer presented his and musical supervisor Tom Kitt's reworking of "Last Night on Earth," a song from the band's new album, "21st Century Breakdown," that is a part of the musical.

"I looked over at my wife, Adrienne, and she was completely in tears," Armstrong said. "For me, the whole thing made me emotional. Look at what my career has come to. From playing dance halls in Boulder, Colo., 15 years ago and now there's this new interpretation into this rock opera musical. It's great."

Modifications

With the IV bags and the hospital gurney dispatched to the Rep's repair shop, Mayer turned his attention to rehearsing "Know Your Enemy." Fans of the band know that the Green Day song is also from "21st Century Breakdown," but it plays a central role in the musical.

Mayer and his largely twentysomething cast -- led by Gallagher, Rebecca Naomi Jones as Whatsername, Christina Sajous as Extraordinary Girl and Tony Vincent as St. Jimmy -- are not aiming to ape Green Day's musical style, an amalgam of hammering drums, crashing guitar chords and Armstrong's distinctive voice, which somehow manages to be both nasal and harmonious.

Instead, working with musical supervisor Kitt ("Next to Normal," "High Fidelity"), Mayer is rearranging Green Day's songs, seeking to give them narrative muscle by assigning singing parts to specific characters, changing keys, instrumentation (cello, violin, viola -- and even an accordion) and adding any number of choral harmonies for the 19-member cast.

"Know Your Enemy," for example, is mostly sung by St. Jimmy, essentially the alter ego of Gallagher's Johnny, one of the show's suburban, working-class kids searching for meaning -- and facing a possible visit to Middle East combat -- in the very recent past. "It's post 9/11, but pre-Mission Accomplished," Mayer said.

When St. Jimmy summons a gang of hoodie-wearing singers (with muscular movement choreographed by Hoggett) to surround Johnny, the lines "Bringing on the fury/The choir infantry/Revolt against the honor to obey" take on an entirely new meaning: Rather than a question-authority protest from an unnamed speaker, "Know Your Enemy" becomes St. Jimmy's call to arms.

Similarly, when the Extraordinary Girl sings the "Extraordinary Girl" lyric, "Some days he feels like dying," and you see wounded soldiers in a Saudi Arabian hospital, the meaning shifts graphically.

"When I originally wrote the record, it was more about different symbolisms; it was not really a linear story," Armstrong said of an album that was intended to be a denunciation of the George W. Bush administration. "It was just what these people represent. Now there's definitely a struggle between the characters. There's moments where I thought he made the songs better. He interpreted it in a way where he turned it into a story."

In a way, "American Idiot" presented Mayer, whose theater credits include the Tony winners "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Side Man," a twist on the challenge he faced with his coming-of-age mash-up "Spring Awakening." Mayer used songs by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater to inject emotion and energy into Wedekind's potentially remote narrative about adolescence.

With "American Idiot," there's no traditional book to propel the tale forward, and the music can't do all the heavy lifting (a handful of letters that appear in some of Green Day's "American Idiot" liner notes are read between songs). This music was not a "Spring Awakening" interlude, but the direct language of the "American Idiot" story. "The closest example is opera, because the songs have to do everything," Mayer said.

Opera, of course, appeals to older patrons, as does a lot of theater. Though 23% of Berkeley Rep's single-ticket buyers last season were under 30, half of the season ticket buyers were 55 and older. "But we have an adventurous audience that is storyteller-driven," said Susie Medak, the managing director for the theater, which has sent four shows to Broadway in the last four years: "Bridge & Tunnel," "In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)," "Passing Strange" and "Wishful Drinking."

The ultimate test will be whether Mayer and his collaborators can create in "American Idiot" something that simultaneously advances and is faithful to a beloved album. "If people come to this show and they don't think they're hearing Green Day," Kitt said, "then we've done a disservice."

--

john.horn@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
55°