It’s insane!” Billie Joe Armstrong exclaims, his eyes wide with wonder. Green Day’s singer-guitarist is sitting in the mezzanine of the St. James Theatre in New York with bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool. Opening night is barely a week away: After a month of previews and standing ovations, American Idiot, the musical-theater adaptation of the group’s 2004-protest-punk album, makes its Broadway debut here on April 20th. Onstage, director Michael Mayer is coaching two members of the 19-strong cast through last-minute tweaks in gesture and vocal delivery.
“When we first came to the St. James,” Armstrong says, “I walked backstage looking for a bathroom. Then I saw this sign.” It was a poster for The Merry Malones, a musical written by George M. Cohan, which opened on the same stage in 1927. “This is the guy who wrote ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy,'”Armstrong says, singing a few bars at Ramones-like speed. “I’m like, ‘From “Yankee Doodle Dandy” to American Idiot — how the fuck did I get here, man?'”
It took nearly two years. Mayer, who won a Tony Award in 2007 for directing the teen-angst musical Spring Awakening, presented his first workshop reading of American Idiot to Green Day in June 2008. The band members figure they have already seen the show 15 times — in rehearsals, at a sold-out run last fall in Berkeley and in New York previews. “It’s like putting your kid up for adoption,” Dirnt says, “and coming back and going, ‘Wow, you’ve really grown.'”
“It’s still evolving,” Armstrong points out. He cites “She’s a Rebel,” one of nearly 30 musical sequences in the one-act, 95-minute production. “At first, it was this cool club scene. Then all of a sudden, everyone was in their underwear. That wasn’t connecting,” he says, laughing, “so they brought it back.”
But Mayer and his creative team, including choreographer Steven Hoggett and music supervisor Tom Kitt (who won a Pulitzer for composing the Broadway hit Next to Normal), got the record’s brick-muscle assault and Armstrong’s narrative to the stage intact. Loud, fast and sugar-free, American Idiot — the odyssey of an adolescent screw-up, the Jesus of Suburbia, through sex, drugs, despair and occasional joy in the first dark years of the second Bush presidency — is the most authentic and modern rock & roll rush on Broadway. The first 20 minutes ‚ the title track, the mini-opera “Jesus of Suburbia” and the caustic escape song “Holiday” — are a whirl of unison moshing and hell-yeah vocal ardor by a young cast that looks and acts like it jumped out of the pit at a Green Day gig.
Hoggett admits he got a lot of inspiration from kids on the floor at a Green Day show he saw last summer: “I didn’t watch the band. I watched everyone else.”
“You don’t get let off the hook for a second,” says John Gallagher Jr., who plays Jesus of Suburbia, renamed Johnny for the show, and who won a Tony for Spring Awakening. Gallagher is also an ardent Green Day fan. He recalls that on the 2005 live DVD, Bullet in a Bible, “Mike [Dirnt] described their live show as a moving train. I never fully understood that until I started performing American Idiot.”
“This is unprecedented,” Mayer says one day over dinner. “Spring Awakening was the first time there was original contemporary rock connected to a narrative in a Broadway show.” Musicals such as Hair, Rent and the Broadway version of the Who’s Tommy were “rockish” or based on classic rock. American Idiot “is the first musical with songs that arc up-to-the-moment hits on radio.” That includes five numbers Mayer added from Green Day’s current record, 21st Century Breakdown.
He’s taken other liberties — adding characters (the anguished stoner Will, the maimed Iraq War veteran Tunny) and a few more expletives; expanding the role of the girlfriend Whatsername; and setting “Last Night on Earth” to a rapturous heroin-shooting ballet involving a rubber tourniquet. At one New York preview, a couple walked out during that scene. At another show, Cool sat next to a woman who, he says, “started crying. It was obvious she’d had a drug problem in the past.”
Contractually, Mayer was free to make changes, and Armstrong insists he had only one concern: “I didn’t want it not to rock.” At some rehearsals, he, Dirnt and Cool sat in with the stage band, jamming and giving pointers. Green Day, in turn, heard some new things in their music, like the key modulations Kitt added to songs to accommodate female voices. “’21 Guns’ was tricky — it goes in and out of those ranges,” Kitt says. “One of the cool things Billie said was, ‘You can’t tell. It sounds cohesive.'” Green Day were so impressed with Kitt they hired him to do string arrangements for 21st Century Breakdown.
On a mirror in his basement dressing room, Gallagher has written, in large letters with a blue marker, “Don’t Forget the Love.” It is, he says, a reminder: “‘Jesus of Suburbia’ starts with ‘I’m the son of rage and love.’ For a while, in previews, I was just the son of rage. But there is the wounded side of him. That part of the story between Johnny and Whatsername isn’t just lust. It’s this real thing he loses for himself.”
Armstrong defends unanswered questions at the end of the record and the show. “You’re a moron sometimes,” he says. “It can’t be Christmas and Easter Bunnies every day.” He also declares that for Green Day’s next album, “we’ll definitely end up doing something like a rock opera again. We’re too good at it.” And they are especially fond of one new song, written for their garage-rock alter ego, Foxboro Hot Tubs, in tribute to the American Idiot cast. Before curtain time, Armstrong says, the singers and dancers gather in a huddle, hands on hands, and shout, “It’s fuck time!”
“So we wrote a song for them, ‘It’s Fuck Time.'” He grins. “We haven’t told them yet.”