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Green Day's "American Idiot" lives on as theater piece

for Journal Register Newspapers

Posted: Tuesday, January 17, 2012

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When Green Day released its multi-platinum, Grammy Award-winning punk rock opera “American Idiot” in 2004, the three group members certainly saw the possibility for more than just an album.

In fact, less than a year later bassist Mike Dirnt announced that “we are working on a feature film with this album,” adding that “there’s no time limit on it. We’ll take our time and do what it takes to make the movie we want to make.”

Time, however, took “American Idiot” in a different direction.

Rather than a movie, the group — in conjunction with director Michael Mayer and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre — turned “American Idiot” into a stage musical in 2009, moving it to Broadway in April of 2010 for a 13-month run and subsequently winning a pair of Tony Awards, while the cast album also received a Grammy. With the musical coming to town for a six-day run at the Detroit Opera House, Dirnt says the piece still reigns as a crowning achievement seven and a half years after its release.

“I think it was received a lot better than we thought it would be,” the bassist notes. “We didn’t know really what to expect. I guess part of us thought it was gonna be really great or it was gonna be career suicide. We just knew we were taking a chance and it felt right to us, that’s for sure.

“It definitely felt special.”

And those who brought “American Idiot” to the stage feel the same way as the band.

“It’s been a really wonderful experience,” says Tom Kitt, “American Idiot’s” music supervisor. “It’s an iconic album. You come at it as a fan and admirer, especially when an album like that has influenced you so much. But then I had to get over that and put my creative hat on and say, ‘How is this going to work as an adaptation?’ ”


Of course, “American Idiot” was something of an anomaly in Green Day’s catalog in the first place. Though rock groups such as the Who, the Kinks, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Pretty Things released famed and critically acclaimed conceptual, narrative albums during the 60s and 70s, the idea seemed anethma to the punk world. And Green Day was, in fact, well along on a new album of songs when frontman Billie Joe Armstrong brought the “American Idiot” idea to bandmates Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool.

“It was f---ing terrifying, to tell you the truth,” Dirnt recalls with a laugh. “It was like, ‘OK, now we’ve raised the bar, because this stands above anything else we’ve done.’ And we got into that.”

At the time, however, Green Day tried to distance itself from the “opera” designation.

“I just say punk rock opera for lack of a better term; we just phrase it as a story,” Dirnt explains. “There really isn’t a term that defines it, necessarily. But if you look at the people in the past that have done similar things, there’s only a handful to draw from — at least in our vein, like a rock ‘n’ roll sort of vein, when you look back it’s things like ‘Tommy’ or ‘Quadrophenia’ or ‘The Wall,’ things like that.”

The politically themed “American Idiot” proved to be the right album at the right time. Examining the post-911 zeitgeist and the resulting disaffection of suburban youth through characters such as Johnny (aka the Jesus of Suburbia), St. Jimmy, Will, Tunny, Heather and Whatshername — who dull their angst with drugs, alcohol and ill-conceived relationships — the album topped charts in 19 countries, including the U.S., and has sold more than 14 million copies worldwide. It also launched three No. 1 Alternative Rock singles in the title track, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Holiday.”

The songs were more thematic than narrative, however. But as Green Day approached the initial film idea, Dirnt says that Armstrong wrote “a huge treatment and has full pictures in his head of each of the characters and their emotional turmoils and triumphs and everything.” That was crucial when the group was approached by director Mayer, who was fresh off the triumph of “Spring Awakening.”

“There was a story already, and a tone,” says Kitt, who had worked with Mayer on 2009’s “Everyday Rapture.” Nevertheless, the job at hand was to figure out “what parts of the show needed to be opened up in a different way to tell the story” on stage, while still staying true to the original piece.

“The initial challenge was just that — how do you keep it Green Day?” Kitt relates. “You don’t want to change the nature of what’s there. You don’t want to take it in a direction it doesn’t want to go in, but you do want to figure out some new arrangements that are really going to help the adaptation work.”


Kitt describes the show’s development as “a gradual process,” which Green Day was involved in every step of the way.

“It was a real collaborative process between the band and the creators of the show,” Kitt says. “We wanted to make sure everyone was excited, and we wanted to make sure the band felt taken care of. You didn’t want to start throwing a bunch of changes at them. I wanted them to feel like we could really deliver this is a show.

“And they were incredibly open. I can’t say enough about how open and supportive they were.”

Joshua Kobak, who was a swing actor in the Broadway production of “American Idiot” and plays St. Jimmy in the touring company -- and also helped teach Green Day’s Armstrong that part for some guest appearances in New York -- says the cast became accustomed to having the band around the theater as it was preparing the show.

“They came out often,” recalls Kobak. “I got to talk to (Dirnt) a lot. And good ol’ Billie would be out in the house watching us get the show ready. I remember walking up to the balcony one day and there he was and he was super cool and super friendly and supportive and paying attention and really caring. He introduced me to (his wife) and her mom. It was really sweet.”

Mayer and Kitt made a number of changes for “American Idiot’s” move to the stage, most notably adding songs that would subsequently show up on Green Day’s 2009 album “21st Century Breakdown” -- including “21 Guns,” “Know Your Enemy” and “Last of the American Girls” -- plus the 1997 hit “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” and “When It’s Time,” a song Armstrong wrote when he was 18 years old for his then-girlfriend, now wife Adrienne.

“It never felt forced in terms of finding songs from outside,” explains Kitt, who also wrote string arrangements for “21st Century Breakdown.” “There are a couple of ‘American Idiot’ B-sides that felt very much in tune with the rest of the album, and ‘21st Century Breakdown’ seemed like a continuation of a lot of those ideas. So every song felt like it belonged in the score.”


“American Idiot,” which cost an estimated $8-$10 million to produce, opened to positive reviews in both Berkeley and New York, and ticket sales soared every time Armstrong joined the cast. Melissa Etheridge and AFI’s Davey Havok also took turns at playing St. Jimmy, while the cast joined Green Day for a performance at the 2010 Grammy Awards.

“American Idiot” closed in April of 2011 after 422 performances, playing to 510,723 people and grossing nearly $40 million in ticket sales. And the cast’s Kobak, for one, was not at all surprised by its success -- including Tony Awards for Best Lighting Design of a Musical and Best Scenic Design of a Musical, as well as a nomination for Best Musical.

“They sold so many records and people knew it so well, I didn’t think it could miss,” says Kobak, who suffered injuries in the controversial “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” before joining the “American Idiot” touring company. “I remember when (the album) came out; it was pretty much the only thing I trained to when I was doing my first triathalon. I knew it in and out and I loved it for so many reasons -- not just the content but also because it was something that got me through 31 miles of pain.”

The 17 cast members of the “American Idiot” touring company are planning for a long run of their own. Kobak says the script and music has stayed the same, while the physical production has changed from Broadway’s “very white” set to a “very dark” road look -- which he says suits the villainous St. Jimmy even better.

But Kobak and his mates are most interested to see how the musical plays in the provinces, to series ticket holders and audiences who aren’t necessarily Green Day or punk rock fans, or well versed in the nuances of the album.

“That’s the unknown -- Are they going to freak out? Love it? There’s no way to know,” Kobak explains. “Even if you do know the record, the show still assumes you’re a smart person, which is unusual for Broadway. I’ve heard different composers and people say, ‘Well, the audience is stupid and you have to spell everything out for them.’ But we don’t feel that way.

“One thing that’s really great about our show, though, is even if you don’t get all the lyrics, it’s such a work of art you’re still going to get something from it. Something about this story will certainly get through.”


Ten things you need to know before checking out “Green Day’s American Idiot”...

* Green Day had already written and recorded most of another album for its seventh studio release before the group decided to put it away and work on the conceptual “American Idiot.”

* “American Idiot” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and topped charts in 18 other countries. It’s sold more than 14 million copies worldwide and has been certified six-times platinum in the U.S.

* “American Idiot” won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Album, while the single “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” was named Record of the Year. Its videos won seven categories at the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards.

* Rolling Stone magazine ranked “American Idiot” No. 22 on its list of best albums of the decade.

* The character of Whatshername was inspired by “Rebel Girl,” a song by the Washington state punk band Bikini Kill.

* Green Day was planning to turn “American Idiot” into a film before director Michael Mayer pitched the group on the stage musical.

* “American Idiot” opened during September of 2009 at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in California, then moved to Broadway’s St. James Theatre in March of 2010.

* The show’s Broadway run lasted 13 months and 422 performances, playing to 510,723 people and grossing nearly $40 million in ticket sales.

* Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, Melissa Etheridge and AFI’s Davey Havok all made guest appearances in the role of St. Jimmy on Broadway.

* The Broadway production won two Tony Awards, two Broadway.com Audience Awards and a Drama Desk Award. The “American Idiot” cast album won a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album.

“Green Day’s American Idiot” runs for eight performances Tuesday-Sunday, Jan. 17-22, at the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway. Tickets are $25-$85. Call 313-237-7464 or visit www.broadwayindetroit.com.

Web Site: www.broadwayindetroit.com

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