American Idiot Punks Its Way On Tour, Expanding on Green Day's Original Sound
By Sheryl Flatow
American Idiot, the musical, is tramping across the country, with one boot in the theatre and the other in Green Day's fertile rock soil. Music supervisor Tom Kitt explains.
In adapting Green Day's Grammy Award-winning punk-rock album American Idiot for the Broadway stage, the mission of director Michael Mayer, choreographer Steven Hoggett and musical supervisor Tom Kitt was twofold: to create a true theatre piece and to maintain the authentic sound of the band.
"It's an iconic, brilliant recording and I wanted to take great care of it and not compromise anything," says Kitt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer (Next to Normal) who orchestrated and arranged the music. "But a stage version is different than an album, so there were going to be moments with some new ideas about the material."
The musical, a coming-of-age story of three lost souls, makes its intentions clear from the outset. "It was important that right off the bat, you know you're watching a show composed by Green Day," says Kitt. "The arrangement of the song 'American Idiot' is pretty much what's on the album. But I also wanted to establish the world of our show.... So I added some harmonies and thickened out the lead vocal. I also thought it would be great to have our cast sing at the audience, over and over, the words, 'Don't want to be an American idiot.' It occurred to me that if that line is coming at you in a multiphonic way, it becomes a canon. If it keeps building and building, as if this sentiment is causing such angst and frustration, shouting it together to an audience is cathartic."
Mayer, who wrote the book with Green Day lyricist and lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong, invited Kitt to join the artistic team prior to the show's first workshop in 2008.
"Michael asked me to help translate and adapt the music for a reading, for a potential stage version of the album," says Kitt. "I wanted to proceed slowly, because I wanted to make sure that the band had our trust and realized that we cared about the material as much as they did." The show, which has spring and summer 2012 dates in Tempe, AZ, Dallas, Costa Mesa, CA, Seattle and San Francisco, also includes songs from the album "21st Century Breakdown" that help flesh out the story.
Kitt started with vocal arrangements, sometimes modulating and changing keys to accommodate female voices, sometimes enhancing main vocals, sometimes creating new dynamics within a song.
For that first workshop, in addition to two guitars, bass and drums, he added a cello. "I thought it would be nice to have another acoustic instrument that could be melodic and add a little texture onto the music for quieter moments," he says. "I'm very influenced by the work of George Martin and the string arrangements that he did for the Beatles. Strings are incredibly dynamic and emotional. It turned out that the guys in the band were big fans of the cello parts, so going forward I added a violin and viola. But I didn't want to overwhelm the guitar, bass and drum sound. The punk element had to lead the way.
"I really didn't change anything," Kitt continues. "I just added a layer over the original composition. The writing of the band is so dynamic and melodic that it was easy to keep their intentions intact. There's a color and a texture that they find in their guitar sounds that is so visceral. You can feel it. I remember when I heard the first chords of American Idiot at the St. James, they washed over me in such an exciting way. I'd never heard anything sound that way before in a Broadway theatre."
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