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The Birth of Green Day's 'American Idiot'

Billie Joe Armstrong and director Michael Mayer reveal the Broadway bonding behind the punk-rock opera

June 16, 2009 12:15 PM ET

Punk rock takes a giant step closer to the Great White Way on September 4th when the Berkeley Repertory Theater in Berkeley, California — located a short drive from the 924 Gilman Street Project, the legendary all-ages hardcore club where Green Day made its bones — premieres American Idiot, a musical-theater adaptation of the band's 2004 album. The production is directed by Michael Mayer, who won a Tony Award for the Broadway rock-musical hit Spring Awakening, and runs through October 9th.

During the interviews for Rolling Stone's recent Green Day cover, singer-guitarist-songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong chatted about the impending production — and the shock of hearing someone else sing those songs. A week later, Mayer spoke to RS about the theatrical Idiot, Green Day's influence on Spring Awakening and Armstrong's instant recall of old Broadway showstoppers.

Billie Joe Armstrong

When did the notion of doing American Idiot as a musical first come up?
American Idiot is a rock opera. But I was very self-conscious about it. I didn't want it to come across as pretentious. Someone said, "What is the influence?" I said, "This record has more in common with Rocky Horror than Leonard Cohen." [Laughs]

The idea was, "Wouldn't it be great to make a film out if it?" Then the film idea fell through the cracks, which was a bummer. The enthusiasm got lost. Then the guy from Spring Awakening, Michael Mayer — he was doing an interview. Someone asked him what he wanted to do next, and he said he'd love to do the musical of American Idiot. One of the kids from the fan sites put that up. And a year and a half later, lo and behold, we get a call from him.

What did you think of Spring Awakening once you saw it?
I was floored. It was so uncharacteristic of what I thought theater was supposed to be. I had no idea what to expect and how unconventional Michael was, in the way he directed this old German play from the turn of the century.

When I saw the show, I kept thinking that a couple of the songs — "Totally Fucked" and "The Bitch of Living" — sounded a lot like Green Day hits. They had that sound and emotional resonance.

"Totally Fucked" — I remember seeing that and going, "Did I write that?" It reminds me of "St Jimmy" [on American Idiot]. You forget how talented those people are, these theater kids. They are completely, mind and body, involved in the theater, just as much as I lived punk rock. They embody the whole thing. Then I went to a workshop [for American Idiot], and I couldn't fucking believe it. It's incredible — all those voices singing your songs at you.

It is a risky proposition — making a musical out of a record that already succeeds on its own and when you perform it in concert. This takes it out of your hands.
Which is a good thing, especially after seeing what Michael did. There's no intermission. It's just blasting straight through for 75 minutes. It's not a long play. He stuck to the spirit of the record, which is pulverizing.

Like the show I saw you play last night.
Right!

Michael Mayer

It was eerie to discover that you were such a fan of Green Day. When I interviewed [Spring Awakening composers] Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, I kept mentioning Green Day whenever the subject of the song "Totally Fucked" came up.
It was the effect I wanted. I was listening to American Idiot a lot when we were putting the final chunk of Spring Awakening together. I was literally like, "Guys, listen to this groove. Listen to that fat guitar lick. Why can't we have this under here?"

But the "American Idiot" album is not a complete story, more like songs and a couple of mini-operas.
The people in it are a little older than those in Spring Awakening. It's not the same adolescent thing. But it is a response to a seriously fucked-up environment, a political and social situation that became untenable.

Why American Idiot instead of another classic punk record? Why not London Calling by the Clash?
American Idiot felt so complete to me. The version we will end up performing will have other songs in it — two B sides from the European release and four from the new album [21st Century Breakdown]. But American Idiot has a huge emotional arc. There was an amazing narrative that was, at times, perplexing and ambiguous, but also so full of possibilities with a multitude of voices. Some of the songs — I heard them as dialogue. Our biggest challenge at the moment is the central section. The "St. Jimmy"/"Jesus of Suburbia" matrix is a complicated thing. That is what we're still grappling with. Every song on the album will be played in sequence. But the sequences will be interrupted by other songs and text.

How protective is Billie of his original material?
I am basically doing the libretto. Billie was very much a part of it. I kept calling him and e-mailing him every different version of my scenario. But the libretto is basically akin to the libretto of [the Who's] Tommy — there is no dialogue per se. I am inventing the way in which these songs function as dialogue — as narrative, as emotional maps.

He actually knows a lot about classic musical theater. He grew up with those songs, performing them as a child.
That was the thing that connected us so strongly. After we did the first concert version of the libretto — with these 12 actors and singers, performing the whole thing for the band — we all went out afterwards for dinner. I don't know why, but as a certain point, Billie and I were sitting across from each other, singing a song together from Gypsy. It was hilarious.

What do you hear in Billie as a songwriter, beyond the punk speed and guitars?
His songs have a richness and emotional pull that you don't get from other songs in that genre. They are usually one-note rants — terrific, engaging. But there is a purity of humanity deep inside Billie's songs. And it's also his voice.

How would you describe it?
It's unusual — tinged with a real edge, a kind of violence. But inside that shell is a sweet aching yearning that comes through in everything he sings. It seems contradictory. And that contradiction is fascinating.

Do you think he could compose for the theater?
When we were together the other night, he did say, "The next thing, after this, I want to write something completely new for you to direct."

If you've got the gift, who knows where it comes from and why. The great thing is to keep feeding it and take care of it. What is so remarkable to me is to watch him allow that gift to grow and to be unfettered by constraints that people want to put around it. At a certain point, songwriting is more important than image and labels.

He's not afraid of being uncool.
And you know what? That's the coolest thing of all.

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