"It was just a dream," Michael Mayer says. "It began with the fact that Green Day made this extraordinary record, 'American Idiot.' I fell in love with it the first time I heard it, and became obsessed. I started to fantasize about what I could do if I could stage it."
His dream has come true. A musical based on "American Idiot," with Mayer as director and co-author, is having its premiere (to Nov. 1) at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California. Green Day has collaborated with Mayer in adapting their punk rock concept album for the stage.
The 2004 record about three young working-class people — Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy and Whatsername — in post-Sept. 11 America was a worldwide No. 1 hit, achieved multiplatinum status, won Grammys for Best Rock Album and Record of the Year, and sold more than 12 million copies. The show includes all the album's songs and several from the group's new recording, "21st Century Breakdown."
So how did Mayer — a Tony winner as director of Spring Awakening — pursue his dream? "I talked about the album and my feelings in an article in Variety. Tom Hulce, my producing partner, read the article and said it sounded amazing. He asked if I was serious. I said, 'Sure — but they'll never go for it.'" The two flew to Los Angeles and met with Pat Magnarella, Green Day's manager, and Jenna Adler, the group's agent. "Spring Awakening had just won a bunch of Tonys, so it was perfect timing. Pat and Jenna both thought that the Green Day guys" — vocalist/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool — "would be very interested. Billie Joe flew to New York to see Spring Awakening, and we went out afterward. He loved the show and was really excited about the idea. He basically gave me his blessing then and there."
Mayer — whose other Broadway credits include Side Man and Thoroughly Modern Millie — started putting it together, with a recording-studio performance. He hired choreographer Steven Hoggett (Black Watch) and did a workshop. Characters were added (there are now 19). The words are by Armstrong, music by Green Day, book by Armstrong and Mayer. Spring Awakening's John Gallagher, Jr. has reunited with his old director to star.
Green Day's liner notes say the album tells the story of "the choice between self-destruction and redemption." Mayer puts it this way: "It's the story of three friends who live in an unnamed suburban community during the terrible George W. Bush years, after Sept. 11. They wake up one day and realize they have to get things together. They don't want to be the kind of American idiot who just sits in front of the television and does nothing with his life."
One "stays in the suburbs. One goes to the city. Another ends up in the Middle East and has revelations in war-torn Iraq. It's a coming of age story of three friends, set to a punk rock score."
But it's more. "There are love stories. Each guy ends up in a relationship with a woman. There are haunting and beautiful love songs. Hearing those Green Day songs sung by a woman brings a completely new flavor. This could end up being a really great date night."
The show, he says, is not a jukebox musical. "It's 'American Idiot' onstage. People who want to hear the record will hear it, with different vocals. People who want a fantastic musical theatre experience that defines its own rules will see that. It's visceral. It's less than 80 minutes, and it's an amazing nonstop thrill ride."