Mayer & Armstrong: One on One

By Michael Mayer
April 1, 2010

Tony Award–winning director Michael Mayer interviews Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong about their new musical American Idiot. And we've got exclusive audio extras.



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At Playbill's invitation, Mayer, who won his Best Direction Tony for Spring Awakening, sat down with collaborator Armstrong (they share book credit on the musical American Idiot) to talk about the 2004 source album and its rebirth as a Broadway rock musical.

Will Armstrong write another musical? Read on — and listen, too. We've got exclusive audio outtakes and extras.

MICHAEL MAYER: Why did you make the record "American Idiot"?
BILLIE JOE ARMSTRONG: I think it was maybe a combination of some kind of artistic statement and also [a reflection of] what was happening at that time.

MM: This was during the beginning of the Iraq War?
BJA: Yeah — 2002–2003. Watching the tanks going in and the journalists embedded, it was like reality television was meeting war.

MM: What was it about rock opera that felt right as a vehicle for channeling that moment?
BJA: I've always liked songs that told stories (like "Tommy" or "Sergeant Pepper"). I think to use a rock opera sounded more appealing, and it was something I felt like I had the chops to do.

Mayer talks to Armstrong about his Broadway roots. (Yes, he has them!)
MM: When you first made the album, did you visualize it happening on a stage?
BJA: Yeah! I visualized the characters in my head, and starting thinking, "Wow, this could totally be staged...it could be something."

MM: What was your first reaction when I first approached you about making this show?
I never hesitated for a second. I always have this thing: "Go where the music takes you," and that's where I felt like the music was taking us.

MM: "American Idiot" [the album] is the story of one man's journey to find himself and…return home a little older and a lot wiser. When I suggested opening the story up and adding the characters Will and Tunny, did you have an image as to who these guys might be?
BJA: When you trust someone, the way I trust you, sometimes the best thing to do is to stay out of the way. In a lot of ways every character up there reminds me of myself. Whether it's Tunny, who is somehow naive but also a very physical character, or Johnny, who is sort of disillusioned, but is trying to find his place in the world. Or if it's the guy sitting on the couch, Will. He brings me back to the first video [Green Day] ever did, for "Longview," with stabbing the couch….

MM: Right!
BJA: It's that kind of "slacker mentality." You go from this guy sitting on his couch, playing video games, smoking a bong, to a bitter person, sitting on a couch, becoming your parents…something you don't want to become.

MM: You've been involved in this show to a degree that's surprising. Why was that important to you?
BJA: It was a growing love for the project. When people are cool, I like to get close to them, and I like to share whatever I have as well.

Armstrong on the performance of the song "21 Guns" at the Grammy Awards with the cast of American Idiot. (In true rock star fashion, some colorful language used here.) Mayer talks about the cast’s chance to party like rock stars.
MM: It was unique to do the development work for the show in Berkeley [California], which is basically your backyard. It meant you guys were really allowed to be involved. Can you talk about what it was like to see the show for the first time in a fully realized production with your family and your community watching alongside you?
BJA: There was a lot going on personally in my own life at the same time; I had a friend who committed suicide, so there were a lot of emotions going on. That thing where you're scared and you're worried about failing, and at the same time when you lose someone to such a senseless death, it makes you realize you have to live. Who cares what anyone else thinks? This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

MM: The theatre fans who came to see the show, to my great delight, really dug it. And a lot of them didn't know Green Day's music. I was also nervous about what your fans would think. What has been your experience so far with your fans and the show?
BJA: It's been really positive. Especially when you go to the shows where it becomes really Green Day fan–heavy. There were a couple of moments when I literally thought a pit was going to start happening.

MM: I love the idea of a mosh pit in a Broadway theatre someday.
BJA: Yeah. Someday.

MM: Now that you've had this experience, do you think you'd want to write another musical? And by the way, you already told me that you did, and that I could direct it, so I'm going to hold you to it, and this is in Playbill, so it's the truth! But seriously, does that still interest you?
BJA: Totally. I think the first thing for me is to try and come up with a good story that means something to me and then the music will start to unfold. Yeah, I wanna do another one.